Bias Through "Balance"
"Uncle Bill" Warner, Sept. 5, 2009
The ultimate hypocrisy in America is the ideal of "balance." We all want to know "both sides" of something. Sounds good, right? Well, on closer scrutiny, this hallowed maxim is based on the assumption that each issue or event has two sides, each worthy of equal time and scrutiny. This binary thinking may work pretty well when you are talking about the "on/off" switch for your living room lights, but what if there is a dimmer switch involved. Instead of the lights being all the way on, there might be just a faint glow, hardly a balance for the blackness. In reporting on the light in the room, should we give equal time to the glow of my watch dial? What is the sense of the room...light or dark? If it’s mainly dark, why should we give equal time to the light. Or the other way around.
Having taught history at the high school level for most of my adult life, I know how people want "balance" in the classroom. Still, there are many cases where people are willing to admit that there is more to it than that. Imagine a health class where each hour of anti-drug message had to balanced with an hour of pro-drugs teaching. You know, have a happy addict come in and tell his side of the experience? I hesitate to call it "propaganda," (which originated in the Church, with the Devil never really getting equal time) but we sure can be hypocrites on this principle of "two-sides-to-everything" balance.
When I used to teach about slavery, did people really want to hear about its joys? If I could find one happy slave and give his testimony of happiness equal time with the misery of thousands, would this be balance or bias? Two sides to every issue, right? What would have happened to any teacher during the Vietnam War that taught that we were there, not to bring them democracy, but to stop them from having it. If they had had democracy, they would have elected Ho Chi Minh, whom we did not like.
The news media pays lip service to the "balance" ideal , but their idea of balance is to give what they call "fairness" by missing the sense of the event they are covering. If someone showed up in a duck suit, they would probably swing their cameras away from the meeting and give the "Duck" equal time. Balance...?
I’m sorry, but shameful hypocrisies hiding behind the guise of "fairness" and "balanced" reporting smell to high heaven. (q.v. Fox News) I recently attended a gathering of well over 100 people assembled to hear speakers talking about the need of health care for all. They included doctors a former hospital CEO, and people with personal horror stories arising from not being covered by health insurance. Across the street, a small group of "contras" with signs containing patently false statements. Lies evidently gleaned from the unabashed hate-purveyors on the extreme Right got MORE time on a TV station’s coverage of the event than those who organized and attended the meeting! And they were not even locals, having been imported from Fresno, an hour’s drive away. I’m sorry, but this does not seem to fit my view of balance. Maybe TRUTH and the sense of the event should enter into the equation.
One newspaper in my area is an interesting study. Its editorial page consistently prints right wing editorials (possibly at the behest of their right-wing owners). Pity the reporter who actually tried to report the truth of en event without toeing the line. One reporter who covered George Bush’s appearance at the Ruiz food Co. in Dinuba and was not allowed to speak to any of the audience members (who were given time off their jobs to attend) mysteriously lost her job after pointing out the truth, that the whole thing was a staged, totally unbalanced propaganda event. Another local paper gave a peace march in San Francisco 4 column inches on the second page of the "B" section. (The college football team usually gets a whole page.)
In any case, be aware of how you think of "balance". There are usually more than two sides to an issue, and you should expect the media to give each side coverage proportionate to the numbers involved and the truth of what is happening. I was in a 7,000-strong peace march during the Vietnam War which I thought was totally peaceful. The evening news showed a group of Hells Angels attacking a few people at the very end of the procession and totally ignored the truth of the event. I was appalled to see a handful of bully boys getting more coverage than the march! This was not even close to being the event I participated in!
If you don’t believe that this is how the media often operate, just watch the TV coverage of the next time the Pope visits Sacramento. I’ll be there in my duck suit vying for the media’s attention. If I really want attention, I’ll quack and bite a few bishops.
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