Saturday, October 28, 2006

Negativity - fair and balanced?

Glenn Greenwald brings up a point that I think a lot of people have noticed, and few have talked about. The Republicans have gone solidly negative, in a way that's very different from the way the Democrats have acted this election.

As everyone has said, no one is suggesting that the Republicans are evil scumsuckers, or that the Democrats are angels because of this. Nevertheless, it's objectively true: the Republicans have gone more strongly negative. However, there are reporters who don't feel comfortable saying this, so they're trying to find a way to be 'balanced'.

There's been a lot of whining about the liberal media, and a lot of resulting attempts by the media to be "balanced". Unfortunately, there's two ways of being balanced.

The first way is you study the matter, get a good, solid idea about what's going on, and you report the facts, and balance out the opinions. If you're covering a court trial, you report the verdict - that's a fact - and then you question the plaintiff/prosecutor and the defendent. That's the right kind of balance.

The second way is to assume that every story has two sides, and report both sides. The canonical example is, if you're doing a story about the history of the Holocaust, you interview a historian, and a Holocaust denier. Well, the facts are that the Holocaust happened. There's no controversy there. If there's a story, it's that a pack of nuts and liars insist that it didn't... but it's not a controversy, unless you want to suggest that there's controversy about the shape of the earth.

Another excellent example of a failure of balance was seen in some of the reporting on the Burnham study published in Lancet, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq due to the invasion. Some folks quoted George W. Bush who claimed that the methodology had been 'discredited'. However, whether the methodology was credible is a factual question; quoting that the methodology was discredited isn't being balanced. A better way to include that tidbit of information was to state simply that "Bush indicated that he did not believe the results of the study".

Of course, I'm sure some rightwing folks would have screamed that the reporters should have included the exact quote... so, let them scream. You can't let a person's opinion affect you unless it's an honestly held opinion with a sound basis. The fact of the matter is, George W. Bush had no reason to question the methodology; quoting him on the methodology does not add information to the story. As such, those who would have been screaming about bias would have been screaming for no good reason.

I sometimes think that a lot of reporters have made the same mistake that Joe Lieberman did. They see a lot of people making a lot of fuss about certain things, and try to be accomodating, hoping to reduce the fuss. There's two troubles: first, the fuss never ends (short of capitulation). Second, many of the Republicans have been raising the fuss for the sole reason of manipulating people. While it can be wise to listen to a fuss, and open your eyes, and see the truth, it's foolish to change your views just because there's a fuss being raised.

Reporters should have stayed true to their instincts, and told the truth, and let the chips fall where they fell.

Edited to add: How can I forget the greatest failure of balance in recent memory? Apparently, several reporters suggested that it was "controversial" for Michael J. Fox to appear in an ad supporting a supporter of stem cell research. Mr. Fox has Parkinson's, you see, and Rush Limbaugh decided that maybe he was faking, or hadn't taken his meds, for dramatic effect.

Once again, there's no controversy; the ad showed a man with Parkinsons, showing the symptoms. They weren't faked, or enhanced, and I'm sure they made some people uncomfortable, but reality is like that sometimes.

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