You can be fair or balanced, but not both

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 15:46 EDT
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I hate to say it, because it comes out of place of defensiveness (especially since they’re supposed to be a conservative magazine that mainstreams right wing ideas to a large extent), but this article in Politico defending the media’s “unbalanced” approach to the election is right. It’s true that the media has had more “negative” stories about McCain and more “positive” ones about Obama, but, to quote Politico, there’s a reason for this.

As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.

But that statement alone shows how much the misleading phrase “fair and balanced” has led the press astray. Because you can be fair (to the public and to the candidates) or you can be balanced, but unless you have equally matched candidates, you can’t be both. Already the desire to be balanced has led to statements like the one above, a basic admission that the press coverage is wholly dominated by campaigning, and that they fear treading into the oh so dangerous territory of reporting on the different candidate’s histories and policy proposals to give voters straight information about how each candidate will affect them. There are exceptions, of course, like this piece the whole country should read before they vote. But in general, it’s scary to talk about policy overly much, because then the glaring differences between the candidates will emerge and can’t be dismissed as partisan claptrap, as much as the McCain campaign would like to say otherwise. Policy is definitely not balanced between the two, as far as the public goes. Take this economic crisis. Most people are going on thin reality-based information about the two candidates indeed, and are subject to wild and misleading claims being made by the McCain campaign and amplified through the media about how Obama is going to turn us all into communists. And yet even on weak information, they still realize that Obama’s just better on the question of how to handle the economic crisis without screwing them over. That’s the sort of qualitative policy difference that automatically makes coverage unbalanced, and so the solution for the mainstream media, especially on TV, is to obscure that with horse race talk, or worse, try to game it by giving a handicap to the weakling.

This video is a classic example of the latter strategy, and a good indicator of how fucked up McCain’s policy proposals and campaign is that a reporter has to ask Biden if Obama is a Marxist. That’s a huge handicap they’re handing McCain there to get the campaign coverage “balanced”, but obviously it’s unfair to Obama, because it’s a lie, and it’s unfair to the public, because they deserve to get information that helps them decide on who to vote for with a minimum of bullshit.

That the mainstream media is giving more negative coverage to the nastier campaign with the more damaging policies is a sign that they’re remembering that their first priority should be to educate the public about politics, not to game the campaign so that it’s a close race between two wildly unequal candidates. They pulled that stunt in 2000, when they were faced with Al Gore, a compassionate, experienced, intelligent candidate, and a dry drunk who “charmed” people by giving them stupid nicknames. True, Bush ran a better campaign than Gore, but that was a mere pretext for the mainstream media to unfairly dogpile Al Gore, making his frustrated sighs more important than his superior policies, because they knew if it came to policy, Gore was the clear winner. And the results of the gamed campaign were what we have in front of us now.

Maybe what this Pew report that Politico is reporting on is showing us is that we’re seeing a genuine shift in the mainstream media as a result of pressure from alternative, online media. I would hope so. Let’s face it—if it’s just a matter of covering campaigns in the “he said/she said” manner where it devolves into a big game of gotcha where each news cycle is dominated by one campaign (usually the Republican’s) feigning offense at something the other campaign has done and using the news cycle to demand an apology, the blogs can handle that job on a much lower budget. But the mainstream media is capable of doing what the blogs really can’t, which is research the candidates and report on their policies. I mean, blogs can do this and sometimes do, especially with so much information online, but most bloggers have another job and don’t have the time or other resources professional journalists have. I feel, though I have no measure of it, that the mainstream media has done a lot more of this kind of reporting this go-round. The Washington Post especially has run stories explaining the tax differences between the candidates (most people who are screaming about socialism at McCain/Palin rallies will get a bigger cut under Obama) and health policy proposals (and that McCain wants to tax you on your health benefits offered by your employer).

I actually think the proliferation of partisans on the cable news network has been good, because liberal and conservative pundits aren’t afraid to talk up the issues for fear of seeming biased. That said, that will only work if there’s balance in that department, so partisans can’t just ramble on about nonsense without being checked. That’s one place where balance can help increase fairness, and where the balance energy should go. Interestingly, until recently, it was the one area where the mainstream media didn’t feel any need to be balanced. Even now, for all that journalists are supposed to be liberal, there are more Republican partisans warming pundit chairs and opinion columns than liberals.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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