Saturday, May 21, 2005

Journalism: Impartial vs. balanced

I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR last week, and her guest was Kenneth Tomlinson, the controversial chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If you've been keeping up on the story, Tomlinson (a Republican appointee) has been taking flack for his attempts to inject right-wing viewpoints into PBS programming -- in spite of the lack of viewer-perceived bias in the existing programming. (Read Bill Moyers' recent speech to the National Conference for Media Reform to get his view of the situation; Moyers was a tad peeved that Tomlinson hired an outside consultant to vet Moyers' old show NOW for perceived left-wing bias.)

Anyway, Tomlinson (who was trying his best to divert the discussion -- he kept pleading "can we just turn down the heat?") was trying to make his point that journalism (on PBS and elsewhere) needed to be "balanced." That is, if Moyers presented a lefty view, his show also needed to present the righty stance. This approach is, as Moyers has pointed out, now standard operating procedure at most of the major media outlets, especially at the cable news networks.

You see this "balanced" approach in action on the shouting heads shows. The discussion starts with either a brief reporting of a news item (typically by an good-looking but air-headed correspondent doing a stand-up in front the White House or Capitol building) or the statement of provocative opinion ("John Kerry is un-American!"). What follows is a pundit from the right and a pundit from the left then proffering their opinions on the topic. There's no reporting involved and no real analysis, just a lot of left and right bloviating. The viewer is left with no clear notion of what the facts really are.

This notion that the public is served best by hearing opinions instead of fact is lazy (and low-cost) journalism, if it's journalism at all. (It's closer to entertainment, if you think pundits are remotely entertaining.) Truth is not served; facts are not dispensed. As Moyers said in his speech: "Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference."

Still, Tomlinson kept arguing for this sort of "balanced reporting." The problem is, reporting shouldn't be balanced. Reporting should be factual; it should seek out the truth. There's nothing balanced about the truth. The truth simply is; there's no competing viewpoint. If there was a fire at a downtown warehouse last night, those are the facts. There's no need for (nor way to fashion) a competing viewpoint to these facts. Would we have Chris Matthews report the fire on Hardball, then have a fire chief and an arsonist debate the matter? I think not.

You see, Tomlinson and many, many others in government and media today are confusing balanced coverage with impartial coverage. Websters defines "balanced" as: A state of equilibrium or parity characterized by cancellation of all forces by equal opposing forces. The definition for "impartial" is much different: Not partial or biased; unprejudiced.

We want our news coverage to be truthful and unprejudiced. This is not achieved by balancing one viewpoint against another. Again, the truth does not have opposing viewpoints. Facts simply are; they are not debatable. (That's despite the fundamentalists' tendency to dismiss science fact as unproven theory -- but that's another day's topic.)

Unfortunately, by applying a "balanced" approach to news coverage, we end up diluting the real truths. Think back to the 2004 presidential campaign, when George Bush's National Guard record came up. Instead of discussing the facts (he skipped out on his obligation), the media tried to present "balanced" coverage, thus confusing the truth of the matter. Same thing with the issue of the build-up to the Iraq war; there were lots of facts to report (such as the total lack of WMDs), but the media lost the story by presenting opposing opinions that "balanced" the actual facts to create a virtual reality somewhat short of the whole truth.

The thinking, I suppose, is that if a media outlet goes hard after a story, it will be seen as attacking the subject, and be accused of engaging in advocacy journalism. (And what, I ask, is wrong with advocacy journalism? Aren't journalists supposed to be advocates for the truth?) To temper these criticisms, then, factual reporting is diluted with "balanced" opinions. Thus the facts are lost in the ensuing rounds of opinions and pseudo-analysis. As I said, it's lazy journalism, and it serves to turn virtually every event into a left vs. right discussion.

Of course, not every event has to or can be defined in terms of left-and-right politics. Think of how past events might have been significantly altered if this sort of "balanced" reporting had been in effect at the time. Consider the rise of Nazi Germany; can you imagine having a British pundit debate a Nazi pundit on Hitler's merits? The facts of Hitler's horrible reign are indisputable; to have presented the issue in a "balanced" fashion would have served to legitimize the Nazi evil.

And that, ultimately, is the main problem with this so-called balanced reporting. It legitimizes illegitimate positions; it positions baseless opinions and outright lies as equally important to facts and the truth. When striving for the truth is supplanted by this type of artifical balance, partisan opinion cancels out the facts, leaving the issue at hand stranded in a sort of toothless middle ground. By insisting on "balance," the truth is weakened. And that isn't the way life really is, people.

Facts are facts, and debating them doesn't make them less so. It's time for our news media to regain some testicular fortitude and once again report the facts, to strive towards the truth -- impartially, and without prejudice or the need to present artificially opposing viewpoints. Report what is, and if the powers that be don't like the truth, they'll just have to live with it.

But that's just my opinion (not a fact!); in this instance, it's okay that reasonable minds may disagree.

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