Balance used to be a good word in the news business. It meant that a reporter didn’t have an ax to grind. He interviewed people, read documents, confirmed sources and made hard decisions that told us what we needed to know. To be sure, it never worked perfectly, because people are people. And to be sure, there have always been pressures to promote some agendas and tamp down others. But it worked a hell of a lot better than what we’re getting now, especially on the news networks.
It’s a timeless reality that politicians and other interests evolve their techniques to “work the system,” exploiting the weaknesses of current structures, policies and market dynamics. And the weakness they’re exploiting most these days is the confusion between balance and objectivity.
Balance is what we’re getting these days, but only on the surface. Let’s say the New England Journal of Medicine has just published a paper showing that a certain type of chemotherapy is very effective in treating bone cancer.
“But wait,” says the producer, “we’ve got to balance it. Call Chris Chapin for another side of the story.”
“Right. Snake Oil, Inc.”
The networks love Chapin, because he’s always good for a quote. He’s always been prepped and media trained to the nth degree by his PR handlers, so he looks and sounds good on TV. He looks straight into the camera and convincingly tell us that “Everybody knows the guys at The New England Journal are liberals. They’re just wanting to inflate health care costs. Two teaspoons of snake oil a day will prevent bone cancer forever, and we think four tablespoons a day will cure it in almost all cases.”
So we end up with a nicely balanced story that is useless at best and more likely bad for our health.
What’s the alternative? Objective reporting. Yes, it’s possible. Indeed, it exists. You don’t see it much on television, It happens when the reporter takes responsibility for the reality rather than settling for appearance.
Put another way, balanced reporting is happy enough to put a feather one one side of the balance scale and a block of granite on the other side and say “there, done.” Objective reporting happens when the journalist says “feathers ain’t granite.”
All men may be created equal. But not all arguments are. That’s why we need reporters to help us know the difference between snake oil and reality.