Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Mencken on "balanced" journalism

I'm the process of rereading Alistair Cooke's Six Men, and one of the men he profiles is famous curmudgeon H.L. Mencken. I just came across the following passage, which dovetails nicely into my previous rant about the misplaced focus on so-called "balanced" journalism.

Cooke says that Mencken "reserved his serious praise for unvarnished pieces of reporting that tried to strike a balance between the known and probable facts, no matter whose side they came down on. He taught me, what I confirmed many times on the road, that there is no such thing as ideological truth, and that to the extent that a reporter is a liberal reporter or a Communist reporter or a Republican reporter, he is no reporter at all. This is not the same as saying that a good reporter is nothing if not 'objective,' and that outside the blank reportage of the news agencies every touch of anger, humor, or irony amounts to special pleading. There are times when the most seemingly fair-minded compilation of 'facts' is dedicated, unwittingly or not, to giving equal weight to two sides of an argument and leaving the reporter at the end firmly on the fence. There are other, and rarer, times when what looks like a frankly partisan commentary is actually a carefully archaeological dig which produces a set of surprising facts that will bear only one interpretation."

When "balanced" news coverage leaves the reporter (and the reader) "firmly on the fence," nothing has been accomplished. A good reporter exposes "facts that will bear only one intepretation." And just because there's only one intepretation doesn't mean that the reporting is unbalanced or unfair. After all, 2+2 can only equal 4, there's no point in bringing in an opposing viewpoint to debate it.

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