Fair vs Balanced


Paul Krugman is unhappy about the state of journalism in the US. (link)

So I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye.

Clearly, some journalists think differently. Chris Wallace of Fox News says that it is not “his job” to call out the candidates in the Presidential Debate if he knows they are lying. (YouTube link 2:40).

Kurtz: What do you do if they make assertions that you know are untrue?

Wallace: That’s not my job. I do not believe it’s my job to be a Truth Squad.

elsewhere in the video (2:17)

Wallace: …I view it as kind of like being a referee at a heavyweight fight…

Also, interesting is how he calls the selection process that selected him as one of the four debate moderators, “fair and balanced”. Quite ironic, actually.

Chris Wallace is being forthright about the Presidential Debate probably because he thinks that moderating the Presidential Debates is not journalism (maybe we should ask comedians to moderate it then. It’ll get larger audiences.). But truth-seeking does not seem to be high on the agenda of any TV News network out there. Or newspaper.

So what’s going on. I think that fundamentally, for-profit news organizations are incentivized to be “balanced” not “fair”.

People want to read or watch news that reinforces their own beliefs. News organizations that want eyeballs and readers are therefore, just mirrors to  society. They dish out what their readers and viewers want to hear. They don’t form opinion – there’s no money in that. They just reflect the opinion of their audiences. They give them what they want. In this respect, they are exactly like consumer marketing companies.

Opinion, nowadays seems to range along a single dimension that goes left and right. You have the people on the far right who are served by news organizations like Fox News. They are all spoken for. On the left you have your liberal newspapers (though liberals aren’t entirely happy with New York Times these days).

And then there are the people in the middle – an amorphous audience of millions. They aren’t spoken for. News organizations aren’t sure which way they lean, on which issue. Or do they just vote for the best candidate?  The safe approach to target this audience is to  not lean one way or another. In other words be “Balanced”.

How does a news organization be “balanced”? Criticize Clinton as often as you dump on Trump. What they may have done to deserve it may be vastly different, but that shouldn’t get in the way of headlines that make it seem like the publication is equally critical of both candidates. Like treating Clinton granting access to raise donations for a non-profit the same way as Trump’s illegal campaign contributions to State Attorneys General. That may not be “fair” reporting, but it is “balanced”. And it is profitable.

Soledad O’Brien says it very well. CNN is the high priest of “balanced” reporting. They may be laughing all the way to the bank. But they are also putting white supremacists on air and legitimizing them.


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