Monday, August 6, 2012

The Cult of False Balance

If ever there was an outfit that’s not fair and balanced, it’s Faux News.  But Roger Ailes is smart enough to know that “balanced” is a very important word to news consumers, who want to believe they’re getting both sides of the story; and Ailes is clever enough to know that when you have no intention of being balanced, you need to tell people, and tell them frequently, that your product is “balanced”.  And, of course, fair.

Full disclosure: I am not a journalist and have never claimed to be one, even though I was a radio and TV news anchor for much of my adult life.  I have no formal training in the profession.  Not that long ago, a journalist was a journalist.  Either you were or you weren’t.  If you worked for a newspaper as a reporter and claimed the mantle “journalist”, if you shifted jobs from reporting to writing a column, you became a “columnist” rather than a journalist.  There used to be very high walls between such compartments and very bright lines defining what a journalist is or does.  You don’t have to be a journalist to commit journalism, but if you claim the title, you’d better follow the standards to which journalists are held.

Now, we have people using terms like “advocacy journalist”; “investigative journalist” (as if regular journalists didn’t investigate); even “crusading journalist”, the term local muckraker Dave Blaska uses to describe Vicky McKenna.  (Sidebar: I used to be Vicky McKenna’s boss.  I hired her in 1995 to be a radio news reporter.  She was a journalist and a damn good one.  She uncovered more stuff about the behind-the-scenes dealings involved in the early stages of the plan to build Miller Park than any other radio news reporter in Madison.  But when she started doing a talk show, she stopped being a journalist, no matter what Dave Blaska says.)

The concept of balance in journalism has been, I believe, corrupted to absurdity.  Too many people practicing and managing the art and science of journalism have apparently adopted an attitude that EVERYTHING must be balanced.  Again, my favorite example: some dweeb currently in the public eye, say, oh, a politician or movie star, says the Earth is flat, and the headline of the story is “opinions vary on the shape of the earth”.

Don Lemon, the young man who anchors many hours of CNN’s weekend news coverage, was clearly out of his depth Sunday afternoon when trying to report on the attack in Oak Creek (which one local reporter, who was on the scene Sunday night, repeatedly referred to as “Oak Park”).  Lemon repeatedly called the temple a church, repeatedly said the shootings happened “south of Wisconsin” when he meant south of Milwaukee, and repeatedly contradicted in his summaries what reporters on the scene were saying moments earlier.  In the most egregious case of this, shortly after Greenfield Police Chief Bradley Wentlandt (and wasn’t he GREAT in the role as law enforcement spokesman!!!) held a news conference and announced for the first time that the officer who first responded to the shooting was NOT the officer who took down the shooter – a real piece of news – Lemon summarized the news conference as not containing much new information.  Ooops.  Only the biggest scoop to be revealed in the past four hours.

As usual, I digress.

Lemon at one point in the coverage read a statement from President Obama regarding the shootings, and as soon as he finished reading it, he said, in an urgent tone of voice, that CNN was expecting to get a statement from Mitt Romney regarding the shootings, and AS SOON as CNN got it, he would “report” it.

God forbid CNN should read a statement from President Obama, without a “balancing” statement from Mitt Romney (which came about 10 minutes later).

This may come as a shock to you, but I don’t care what Mitt Romney has to say about the shooting; and truth to be told, I don’t care what President Obama has to say about the shooting, unless it’s something other than the usual platitudes politicians mouth after events like this.  I think if I were anchoring CNN coverage, I would have appended the President’s statement by saying something like “the President, who made some bullshit statements he never followed up on about demanding stricter gun controls in this country following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, has apparently learned to avoid making such statements, since he omitted such a statement following the theatre shootings in Colorado and now has chosen not to make any reference to gun control following the shootings in Oak Creek”. 

And, I think if I were anchoring CNN coverage of the Oak Creek shootings, I would have further said “and don’t expect us to read a statement from Mitt Romney; his PR people can get back to us with a statement if Romney is elected”.  I have this vision of all sorts of behind-the-scenes functionaries at CNN falling all over each other “efforting” (God, I hate that non-word…..) a comment from Romney to “balance” the comment from the President.

I guess I’m emboldened by Aaron Sorkin’s fictional news anchor Will McAvoy (brilliantly played by Jeff Daniels) in the new HBO series “The Newsroom”:  McAvoy tends to call a spade a shovel and calls out politicians on their bullshit statements.

You can call it balance or perspective or whatever you want; but I do believe the concept is widely misunderstood by far too many people putting out news today.

Feel free to disagree with me.  I may need someone to “balance” my comments.


  1. No balancing act needed here, my friend. Bang on...and I wish Will McAvoy was real.

  2. I think that in this case this incident has at least some minor significance internationally and the President's statement was made in large part to reassure India and Sikhs in general that the U.S. condemns this crackpot's act. There's no need for a statement from Romney or anyone else for "balance"' of course he and any other politician or candidate would condemn it.

    So it was you who brought Vickie McKenna among us!?!

    1. Guilty as charged, re: Miss Pyzinski. (She used her real name, Vicky Pyzinski, when she worked as a reporter.) I hired her because she hounded me until I did, even though I really didn't have an opening at the time. She was working in Beloit and wanted to move up to the relative "big-time" of Madison. She was resourceful, smart, and hard-working. Unfortunately, she had some personal demons which caused me to dismiss her, but the body of work she created at MidWest was exemplary.

      Her personal politics were always conservative (regardless of the "fake" claims made by some) but her politics were undetectable in her work.

      It was a bitter parting of ways, but we made peace about a year after it happened, and she was already on a path to stardom across town at Clear Channel.

      When I knew her and supervised her work 15 years ago, she was neither as strident nor as wing-nutty right as is the image she portrays on her show these days. She was as at home with Democrats like Joe Wineke as she was with Republicans like George Petak.

      I would like to think that much of what she espouses on the air these days is done for the sake of ratings and show-biz, but I haven't had personal contact with her for years, and don't really know if she's shifted that far right or if it's what she has to do to gain attention (ratings).