Good Tuesday Morning Fellow Seekers,
Part Two in an infinite series, in which we contemplate journalism’s lame, but touching claims to be a quest for truth.
For the previous Journalism and Truth posts, try this or this on journalism and accuracy. Today, fairness and balance.
Balance is fairly easy to do, but is often a stupid goal. Balance means that if you quote a Republican, you should also quote a Democrat. (Or someone who is pro-Israel, balanced by someone pro-Palestinian. Or a defender of the Iraq war policy, and a war critic.
There are stories in which the balance formula is appropriate. If, for example, the point of the story is to tell the reader what the Republican and Democratic spin of the moment is on a particular issue. But it is generally not helpful to truth seekers.
Two half-truths do not equal one whole truth.
And I fear we rely on the balance gag too much to defend ourselves against the bias critics.
Fairness is much more important, harder to achieve, and hopelessly tangled up with the eye of the beholder problem. Had lunch with an esteemed colleague yesterday and asked: what are the elements of the definition of fairness as it applies to a piece of journalism.
We were stumped. Can you help?
Here, at an operational level, is what it means to me:
If you get attacked in a news article, you should have an opportunity to offer a defense. When the story gets cut to make it fit the space allotted, your best defense should stay in.
If I quote you from an interview, you should be able to look at those paragraphs in my story and say, not only: “Yes, I said that,” but also: “The meaning a reader would get from that sentence is the meaning I intended when I said it.
Those are good rules. But they won’t get you very far down the road to something so grand as “fairness.”
I’m inclined to fall back on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous test of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Trouble is, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing universal about the line that Justice Stewart would locate between art, free speech and pornography. The same is true between a tough but fair piece of journalism and a hatchet job.
I have developed a strong feeling about critics of the left and right (but let’s face it, the big action has been on the right) who have made challenging the fairness of the MSM such a popular parlor game.
They have become a parody of themselves.
The effort to guess how a particular reporter or publication has imported his bias into an article seldom resembles anything that is occurring in the newsroom at all.
Furthermore, fairness is not the real game of these critics, just part of the propaganda. They invoke fairness, with a self-fulfilling method of locating unfairness in everything they read or hear.
It is a very one-sided faux fairness they seek, in which their side is portrayed as they wish it to be portrayed, in which the other side’s half-truths are labeled as lies and their are accepted as truth.
If Rush Limbaugh cares about fairness, why does he never complain about a liberal Democrat being treated unfairly. If your answer is: because the liberal media never treats a liberal Democrat unfairly, please cut me a small break.
But fairness is a game journalists are really trying to play, however badly we play it, however often we blow it and we probably always will.
Humans being fallible, and frighteningly likely to express their biases without meaning to or realizing they are doing it.
If the question is: what happened to those 10-year surpluses that were the official projections when Clinton left office.
The Democratic Party and liberal talk radio will say: Bush gave it away with tax cuts for the wealthy, a stupid, unnecessary war, and booty for Halliburton.
The Republican Party and conservative talk radio will say: First there was a recession, which started before Bush took office. Then we were attacked on 9/11. Then Katrina. And then the Dems wouldn’t let us fix Social Security. And they will suggest that even asking the question is evidence of liberal bias.
Every one of these claims deserves to be in the discussion and to be tested for its real value in explaining the disappearing surpluses. The likeliest place that a citizen is going to read about them all in one place is a piece of MSM journalism.
Unless someone can explain it to me another way, it looks like the choice is between having a news media seeking to put a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and issues in front of the public, and often falling short, or having no one who is evening attempting to do that.