As used in the context of politics and social life, “balance” is a very strange word. It’s an even stranger virtue. The assumption that finding a balance is the same thing as being correct is part of the automatic standard operating settings of our country. It is one that is accepted without question.
The “balance” fetish sees society and politics as if they are a revolving machine that will fly apart if some kind of mystical governor doesn’t keep things in a state of equilibrium. While this is, I contend, just more of the absurd habit of seeing all of life in terms of mechanics there isn’t any reason to think about public life in those terms. It is an unthinking response that has some dangerous political consequences. What “balances” democracy, equality, freedom? You can balance many things but you can’t balance reality.
The most important political use of this “balance” comes in the context of news reporting and the parasitic limpets attached to it, opinion “journalism”. In that context something called balance has replaced the reporting of facts*. It used to be that a reporter was required to get two independent sources to verify the truth of what their primary source had said. Now, instead, they just have to get a second opinion and that opinion doesn’t even have to present facts in refutation, it just needs to refute. The excuse is that the “reader will get to decide who is right”. Well, I’m very sorry to have to say that I’ve decided that is a lie, a cheat and a fraud entered into for reasons of laziness, cowardice, economy and ideology.
The function of good journalism is to present verified facts that a reader or listener can reasonably rely on at least contingently. A reporter has to do their job well enough to go past the point of presenting a false dichotomy which the reader then chooses a side to be on. This wasn’t always done honestly but it used to be done a heck of a lot more often than it is now. It’s not an unimportant matter, the news is a lot more earthshaking than presenting a choice between clear or cream soups.
The excuse that the “reader gets to decide” is fundamentally dishonest. Presumably a reporter will know a lot more than the readers will even after reading the results of their work. Not even an unusually long report will have enough information for someone to form an opinion. But that question shouldn’t even enter into the business of reporting the news. The reporter is the one who gets to decide but news decisions can’t be a matter of pro or con, it’s a decision about what is supported by the facts as they have it in their power to discover them. If the reporter fails in that task it is up to the editor to decide that they haven’t got the goods yet.
I first started noticing this kind of phony balancing act back in the 70s in response to the already years long effort by conservatives to destroy journalism. It was a cowardly capitulation to an organized effort to paint an objective media as liberal.** The media began by “balancing” their straight news reporting with stuff from the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, The Heritage Foundation, and the Cato whatever. Have you noticed much in the way of ‘balance’ in the direction of the left, that is other than the typically soggy Milquetoast from the likes of the Brookings Institution? And we see today that the usual panel of talking heads on TV has one or more obvious right-wing representatives to “balance” one reporter.
With this decay of real reporting there has been the rise in several levels of “opinion” journalism, complete with excuses within the profession for why they are exempt from accurately presenting facts or even telling the truth. Analysis, op-ed, focus, feature columnist, right down to the lowest of the low, the pundit; the presentation of opinion by these entirely biased and interested parties is almost certainly cheaper than supporting a reporter through the difficult and expensive task of trying to uncover hard news. It is certainly more certain what the point of view expressed will be.
A democracy can withstand wars, depressions, insurrections, plagues and many other calamities, it cannot withstand the ignorance of the People. It cannot exist if a majority of its people believes that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and so the invasion was justified. It cannot stand if the majority of people know more about what goes on in Hollywood than inside the government. It is a measure of the failure of our news that Americans, with the most elaborate media structure in the history of the species are inadequately informed on issues they need to know in order to govern themselves.
I don’t believe in a right to be ignorant but like all opinion what I think doesn’t matter. But unless someone can find an alternative explanation I’ll have to believe that if people choose ignorance they will always lose their rights. People who are ignorant are unable to resist those who would manipulate them and exploit them, even without an effort to impose a dictatorship, they will likely stumble into one. Similarly, if the media chooses to pander to the least common denominator, if they seduce the population with infotanement for their corporate interests they don’t exist as a free press. A free press is always in danger of having the exercise of its freedom taken away from it. If they only report corporate propaganda they will find, in the fullness of time, that they are not allowed to do anything else. A free press is fully dependent on an informed and free electorate. Our media hasn’t given up free speech with a gag but with a simper.
* There is another aspect of this avoidance of news reporting posted at my blog.
** A couple of years ago there was a letter in the Boston Globe, I believe in response to a story about David Horowitz’ McCarthy style efforts against college teachers. It was the most succinct and sensible answer I have ever seen to these charges. The letter said that College teachers tend to be liberals because they read a lot.