What You Should Think About Balance

October 18, 2008

“The new integrity of the world, in our view, can only be built upon the principles of freedom of choice and balance of interests.”

–Mikhail Gorbachev

It is fair to characterize the Fox News Channel as a partisan house organ and a degenerate propaganda mill.  However, as a full-fledged cable network, it is too complex a phenomenon to be understood from a perspective that lacks all nuance and subtlety.  For example, the “fair and balanced” slogan plays into a method frequently utilized to create the perception of legitimacy.  From segments passed off as hard news to the most unapologetic of opinion programming, simply presenting some sort of clash between pundits of differing views causes many viewers to believe they have seen a balanced presentation.

In some cases, this perception is completely unjustified.  Across the continuum from subtle to blatant, there are many ways to manipulate a debate through framing the issue, limiting responses, manipulating tone, etc.  Yet there are also instances when debate both lively and legitimate occurs on that channel.  Perhaps the most impressive effort to legitimize the entire venture is a program titled Fox News Watch.  More often than not, this program approaches media analysis from a perspective that is thoughtful or even scholarly.

It was in viewing an episode of that show that I first encountered the phrase “distortion of balance.”  It is a term Neil Gabler of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting coined in order to describe the trickery involved in legitimizing a bogus position by presenting it as the equivalent of a legitimate position.  The perception of evenhandedness obscures crucial underlying reality.

Imagine if a televised debate were conducted between one advocate for the position that the Moon is is chiefly composed of minerals while another advocate contended the Moon is an enormous mass of cheese.  The second position is unsupported by anything resembling conclusive evidence, but a sufficiently earnest pundit could well cloud the issues and leave ignorant viewers uncertain about the truth (or convinced of a falsehood.)  From Iraqi weapons programs to global climate change — areas where technical ignorance is entirely understandable among those who are not trained experts — many media outlets legitimize an entirely bogus viewpoint in the name of presenting “balanced” content.

This is not always the result of the desire to push a particular agenda.  For example, fact checking after major political debates has become a widespread practice in the media.  Yet few outlets ever dare to critique a larger number of questionable statements from one candidate than the other.  In pursuit of “balance” that comes from presented equal quantity, readers are given the false impression that an equal number of misleading statements were made by each speaker.  Unless the underlying reality actually involves equality on that plane, the end result is coverage that leaves the audience misinformed.

All this involves issues where opinions fit neatly into two mutually exclusive categories.  Especially when it comes to political issues, covering “both sides of the story” tends to be an especially clumsy oversimplification.  Popular rhetoric often falls back on extremism if for no other reason than that moderation tends to be less inspiring.  Nowhere is this more evident than resistance to economic reforms.  While filled with self-delusions of being reasonable, passionate extremists decry every little push toward moderation as a surefire way to transform the U.S.A. into a new incarnation of the U.S.S.R.

Even if one grants the dubious premise that economic planning is an anethema to civil liberties, those extremists deliberately steer discussion away from positions between capitalist and communist extremes.  Few of them could begin to articulate the technical distinctions between communism and socialism.  With that deficit of knowledge, they are able to remain earnest while spouting falsehoods that characterize socialism as an extreme position.  Being loudly mistaken is not as sinister as being loudly dishonest, but civic duty demands any loudness be preceded by a greater degree of thoughtfulness than can be seen among such extremists.

All of this feeds into the disastrous reality that America’s economic titans enjoy ample reward with no real risk.  The same system forces working families to face real risk without appropriate reward.  The structure of the ongoing bailout makes this abundantly clear, though similar public largess has been a fixture of American political history from our nation’s inception.  One of the few sound observations to emerge from popular punditry related to the economic crisis is that we live in a society that practices a very generous variety of socialism for the rich while leaving everyone else to struggle in a particularly harsh capitalist environment.

Because the wealth of this nation is made to flow uphill through systematic corruption on a scale that would make the most nefarious Politburo power broker blush, honest American citizens playing by the rules must compete for pieces of an economic pie that is already largely devoured before the competition begins.  As horrible as that sounds, its modern manifestation could be anticipated from the theories that prop up the status quo.  Trickle down economics is very much a call for the overwhelming majority of this nation’s workforce to content themselves with the scraps that fall from the tables of tycoons.  Never mind that same workforce gathered the ingredients, composed the menus, set the tables, and prepared the feasts.

Perhaps Versailles toward the end of the French monarchy is a soundcomparison.  Under Louis XVI, at times it seemed that no luxury was too excessive.  Nobles competed with one another in increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth.  Today’s gold-infused cheeseburgers and Hummer limousines showcase impractical concentrations of resources with all the enthusiasm of decadent aristocracies past.  It is true that our government does not bestow hereditary titles conveying special privileges, but the absence of those does little to distinguish our economic realities from the sort of aristocratic exploitation that sparked the American revolution.

Modern militant rabble-rousers are do not condemn the growing concentration of wealth.  Though the original American patriots stirred up trouble to undermine a power structure that took from the many too enrich the few, the undercurrent of anger in today’s political dialogue actually perpetuates blatant plutocracy.  Government conceived “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” has become government of the people, by the rich, for the rich.  Apart from predictable vehement slander against reformers, proposed reforms are denounced by deliberately muddling humanitarian social spending with authoritarian tyranny.

There is no reason the United States of America cannot find a true balance.  Of invisible pink unicorns, an economic middle ground, and Saddam Hussein’s 21st century nuclear weapons program, there is one entity that is no myth.  Giving working families a fair deal, pursuing poverty harm reduction, promoting education, and stimulating scientific innovation are all pursuits that have been proven sustainable by many governments, including our own.  U.S. policy has always been a compromise between civic minimalism and policies promoted by those with other aspirations for our nation.

Perhaps a better tomorrow could also come from a new order that ceased funneling astronomical sums of public money into private hands.  Yet no politician has come forth with a credible proposal for a reform that would actually eliminate corruption in big business subsidy.  For that matter, thirty years of Republican promises to reduce government spending have only produced a record of huge spending increases, none greater than those undertaken with the full support of the sitting President.  Yet it is not too late for our nation to address decades of social neglect with bold action to move toward a healthy economic balance.

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