2006/11/01

Fair vs balanced

Back when I was stationed in the South, a shipmate (co-worker) of mine invited me to see a Christmas play at his church. I knew this guy was a serious, hard-core Southern Baptist, but said "Sure." After the play, we stopped off for some ice cream. My shipmate told the servers that he and I had just seen this play. They asked him what his religion was. His answer infuriated me. "Oh no, I'm just a Christian."
Just.
No particular denomination.
I kept quiet, but it rankled me. Here was a fellow with very strong, specific viewpoints on religion and he was presenting himself as "just" a vague, general, nondenominational Christian. I have zero difficulties presenting myself as what I am, a Congregationalist Protestant who goes to a Methodist church because there are no Congregational churches in the area and this church is a member of the UCC. So this passage immediately raised my hackles:

HH: Before we press on to the specifics, we’ve got to get our plumb lines down, Mark Halperin. We’ve got to locate you on the political map somewhere, so the people will know how to adjust for the lie of the green. Did you vote for Kerry or Bush last time around?

MH: I believe that if you are a reporter covering politics, in America today, certainly, and probably I’d have the same view in the past, I think it’s important to try to restore credibility to the media, what we call the old media. And that requires doing what…the metaphor I used to use was we’ve got to be like Catholic priests and give up sex. But that metaphor’s lost some of its currency. We have to step away from politics. We can’t have political views. So I don’t discuss my political views. I don’t discuss…I will say, somewhat controversial in the minds of some, I don’t vote, because I think that just opens up the question of how can I say I’m being objective, and fighting for truth, if I’m making a decision about who to vote for in a presidential race.

Uh-huh. No viewpoints at all. Totally neutral. Ri-i-i-ight! Not only that, he thinks several thousand reporters around the country can be the same way. Su-u-u-re! I read this passage and the needle on my BS detector immediately swung into the red. Sure enough, it seems this guy edits The Note, an online "tip sheet" that alerts reporters to important stories. Eric Boehlert's book Lapdogs has a whole chapter on The Note where he demonstrates that it's a hard-line right-wing journal that fawns over Karl Rove and considers President Bush as little less than a denizen of Olympus come down to Earth. They provide links to stories that make Republicans look good and do their best to ignore stories that either compliment the Democrats or otherwise make Republicans look bad.
My view on reporters and objectivity can be summarized via those famous terms "fair & balanced." "Fairness" is quite possible to obtain and very desirable. If a conservative (I.e., on the other side of the political aisle from me) presents a decent argument, it should be presented to one's readers in a fair manner. It's improper to twist or distort the argument by leaving out crucial facts or leaving the context unfilled-in.
"Balance?" Not so much. I can't see that as being seriously important either in TV time or in newspaper column-inches. All too often, reporters nowadays take it to mean that both sides must be presented as equally guilty or innocent. Back during a period in the Abramoff scandal, reporters appeared almost desperate to find something, anything they could use to drag the Democrats into the story. Problem is, both sides are NOT always equally guilty or innocent and it's a serious distortion of reality to suggest that they are. Frequently, Democrats end up getting splattered with Republican mud for no better reason than for the particular media outlet to have a balanced story.

While writing this, my group had a meeting with the Editor & Executive Vice-President of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Amanda Bennett. In the middle of our lengthy discussion, she claimed that what is on the blogs "isn't news" i.e., one doesn't go to the blogs to find out what's going on in one's local area or in the world generally. One desires a broader, more general view than what blogs can provide. I replied that yes, blogs are usually written by a single individual or by a small group and most of the writing on them tends towards the editorializing and tends not to involve breaking news or other original material. But there is indeed some real "news." There are a few blogs written by people who can do serious, on-the-spot reporting or who are at least close enough to the event and generally knowledgeable enough that when these writers tell you something, it's worth taking seriously.
The primary reason that I would like to see a closer relationship between the blogs and "the news" would be to plug a major hole that's developed in this country's major media. The major news organizations were vulnerable to the tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy back in the 1950s and President Bush has proven absolutely and beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that they still are. As I suggest above, the major media are afraid to be seen as too judgmental. They're wary of being seen as having taken a hard and fast position on anything, of being seen as biased. If the President uses a "straw man" argument ("President George Bush gave a speech today which included a line that it is foolish to try to negotiate with al qaeda. Well…duh."), the major media (I can't immediately think of any times when the Inquirer has been guilty of this.) doesn't seem to have any idea how to handle it. The following is a depressingly familiar refrain from Media Matters (And FAIR and other liberal media analysis websites): "ABC, CNN, and CNBC -- uncritically reported President Bush's false claim that..." (Emphasis added).
The major news organizations do a perfectly acceptable job when the subject is nonpolitical or noncontroversial. If there's any real or serious controversy, they adopt the "balanced" position of the ol' "he said, she said" formula. This formula has proven itself to be grossly inadequate to handling the continual lies and distortions that the Bush Administration engages in.
My suggestion: Let the blogs run interference for you! Let us take the slings and arrows that the critics toss at you. If you feel that a Democrat or a lefty has made a point that your research people have certified is inaccurate, quote a right-wing blog that says so. We bloggers will be happy to be the "she" in the "he said, she said" story. Naturally, you wouldn't use any statements that you aren't completely certain about, but we'll be happy to supply the quote that says "Senator Rick Santorum lied today when he claimed that..." and statements like that. Is there a better way o handle dishonesty from politicians? Back in the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy found that if he made an accusation, it was featured on page one of the next day's paper. Eventually, there would be a correction, but it would be relegated off to a small piece on page seven. In time, the truth caught up with him, but not before countless lives were cruelly destroyed and the public had turned against him. Since then, the major media has not successfully come up with a way to handle the problem.
As I said, I can't think of any examples offhand where the Inquirer has done this, but the "balance" problem is, I think, a very major reason that the major media is losing market share. It's losing credibility because it hasn't come up with a way to handle lies from politicians.

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