Note: this post is a work in progress. I may update from time to time as I try to formulate my thoughts. Any budding political theorist want to work on an academic version of this post, drop me an email …
There are two ways to gain legitimacy as news organization covering US politics (1) be objective or (2) be balanced. Objective means that if one side is right and the other side is wrong, the reporter make that clear in the article. But, that means making hard calls, and backing it up with detailed evidence. The other side will attack every piece of the reporting and call news organization biased, even if they are perfect. Balanced means that the news organization gives equal validity to the arguments from both sides. It may seem reasonable to let the readers decide what is right and wrong, but what about when one argument is a debunked lie? By giving equal validity, the news organization is validating a lie. Still, it is much easier to be balanced, than it is to be objective, so most mainstream news organization are balanced and thus not objective.
Balance creates perverse incentives in a two-party duopoly for one or both parties to become increasingly extreme in their policies and behavior. Generally this theory is rolled-up into false equivalency, but let me parse it into three related concepts: false equivalency, false legitimacy, and asymmetric accountability. For the sake of simplicity I will merge a policy or behavior into an "action".
False Equivalency: when Party A stakes out a policy or behavior (i.e., an action), the media will find comparisons in the actions of Party B. If the action is extreme, that will involve dragging down Party B and lifting up Party A, in order to make them look more comparable. If the action of Party A is not extreme, then there will be no need to either lift up Party A or drag down Party B.
Due to false equivalency, both sides are somewhat equally to blame for the government shutdown that President Trump caused and bragged about causing. The actions of President Trump are raised a little to seem more normal and careful, while the Democrats are dragged down to get some extra blame. Thus, President Trump is shielded from taking the full, objective measure of blame, making it easier for him to do things like this. Here is CNN's Chris Cuomo blaming both sides for the shutdown, thinking it makes him seem really neutral, when it is actually a very pro-Republican position to blame Democrats for something Republicans did.
Similarly on policy, the Republican economic policy has gotten extreme: 83% of the recent tax cut went to households with income greater than $1,000,000 and when fully implemented majority of American household will see tax increase! But, despite vast majority of Republican voters being way to the left of the Republicans, with many, if not most, to the left of the Democrats, the media frames the debate as if the people were somewhere between the Democrats and the Republicans. This allows the Republicans to get more and more extreme, as media paints it as less extreme than it is.
False Legitimacy: when Party A stakes out a policy or behavior (i.e., an action), the media will treat the action as legitimate, no matter how extreme. This would be non-binding on a legitimate action, but a very extreme action has the benefit of being lifted up, above the threshold of illegitimacy.
Sometimes it gets hard to keep things relative, but at least you can always provide a floor. Media provides a meaningful legitimacy to actions of both parties, regardless of how ridiculous things get. In this world the Republicans can run an absurdly unqualified presidential candidate who simply does not understand basic policy, but mainstream media will not challenge him on that. They will ask him easy question (every remember Matt Lauer on the Intrepid) so that he seems reasonably legitimate. This explains the Republican healthcare "plan" that was never was. It was obvious to everyone there was no plan other than "Repeal and go fuck yourself" (Jon Favreau), but media kept on pretending there was because there is deference to a minimum standard for a party.
Asymmetric Accountability: when Party A does something so crazy that the media cannot even give it false legitimacy, it ignores it. But, continues to hold Party B accountable for its actions.
Republicans, media, and Democrats hold Democrats to such high standard of civility, bipartisanship, process, ethical standards, journalistic integrity. While, at the same time: Democrats, media, and Republicans just assume Republicans do not give a shit about any of these things. This goes beyond false equivalency and false legitimacy, as now the two parties are playing under different rules. This is really useful to the Republicans!
1) Civility – Democrats should Fuck it: media spends a week talking about a Freshman Democrat who cursed. At the same time the president is making all sorts of disparaging remarks about both individual Americans and groups of Americans.
2) Bipartisanship – Democrats should care about policy not appearances: Obama negotiates against himself on every policy issue, to show how bipartisan he is: Republicans, media, and Democratic leaders claim it is never enough until last Republican voter is happy! Bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship is stupid, because it incentivizes terrible behavior. Imagine if policy X can run from 0 to 100, where 0 is extreme right wing and 100 is extreme left wing. Now imagine that Republicans basically sit around 35 and Democrats around 65. If Democrats have a need for bipartisanship, Republicans are going to claim to be 5, rather than 35, so Democrats would move to the new mid-point between the two parties 35 (i.e., the Republican idealized point). Republicans have figured this out on issue after issue. On the flip side, when Republicans have power they do not even invite the Democrats to any discussion. During the recent immigration debate, the right-wing and far-right-wing Republicans negotiated against each other and the media dubbed it a compromise bill. What stooges.
3) Process – Democrats should proceed with caution, but eyes wide open: Democrats beat themselves up over taking a hammer to the filibuster, but Republicans would have just destroyed it anyway. Good they were able to get a few judges during their brief combined senate and president control. But, while bipartisanship is not a thing anyone should care about for itself, and civility is great (under normal conditions), there are many reasons to accept losses to preserve process. Process is democracy: the official rules are nothing with adherence to the norms. But, Democrats needs to accept that Republicans will do anything: they do not care about the democracy at all. If they could ban non-white men from voting: they would do it today. If they could give President Trump unchecked power … wait they are already doing that.
4) Ethics – Democrats should do the right thing: Democrats immediately push out popular and effective leaders who have ethical lapses. Republicans are not expected to do anything.
5) Journalistic Integrity – Democrats should keep doing the right thing, but call out the bullshit: Fox News makes stuff up all the time, but everyone takes it seriously. Buzzfeed may or may not have misspoke on a somewhat minor legal point, in a massive criminal event, and there is massive recrimination and reexamining of everything the mainstream media has ever done in regard to Trump and Russia. What the fuck?
Journalistic integrity is also what holds the Democrats back from calling out the mainstream media on False Equivalency, False Legitimacy, Asymmetric Accountability. Democrats don't like the work the refs, but the Republicans do. That is how/why all of this occurs: media know the Republicans will call them bias if they do not get everything they want and the Democrats will just take it. Democrats should demand objective treatment, not balance.