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Sunday, June 25, 2006

'Balance' Means the Truth is no more Important than the Lies

(Keywords & tags: , , , , , for once in his life, has a point)

I opened the editorial section of my sunday paper today and got a little bit of a shock - I read an article by rightwing pundit, Jonah Goldberg, and (for the most part) I agree. He writes (after some padding):

Boosters of the brave new World Wide Web and mourners of "traditional" media alike share a common view that the way the news media has operated over the last half-century is the "normal" way. Both sides think the Internet is more unprecedented and revolutionary than it is. In reality, the crumbling status quo was always an aberration.

For various reasons, the post-World War II generation was unusually trusting of big institutions and elites. It grew up with the first real national media outlets. Following on the heels of radio, TV further united the nation. Network news anchors had what CBS News executive Jim Murphy calls "the voice of G-d." A handful of media outlets, almost all of them based in a sliver of Olympian Manhattan, dictated the terms of the national conversation. This was the era of the "vital center," when the establishment was marked by an astounding level of consensus. Polarization is actually the American norm.

He's right. The idea of 'media bias' and the desirability of 'objective journalists' is entirely a twentieth century development. Before then, newspapers were extremely biased. If you were a liberal, you bought the liberal newspaper; if conservative, you bought the conservative one. "I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it," Thomas Jefferson once said. The fifth estate was not bipartisan.

That's where we find ourselves coming back to today. The bias of one source counterbalancing the bias of another. The advantage here is one of honesty. Where FOX News claims to be unbiased, blogs wear their affiliation on their sleeves. Goldberg continues:

Take another look at the most flagrantly partisan Web sites today: the liberal Daily Kos and its conservative doppelganger, Red State. What you see are media outlets trying to serve the same function as newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They're vehicles for political education and community-organization. Talking Points Memo, has become an avowed home for "muckrakers" with the same partisan zeal of muckrakers of yore. Works in progress, these sites make mistakes. The recent clunker by, which reported that Karl Rove was to be indicted when in fact he was cleared, is nothing compared with the 19th century press' routine manufacture of events great and small, typified by William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" to cook up the Spanish-American War.

It's not a Jonah Goldberg column without a swipe at someone, is it? But the broader point holds - that blogs have become what newspapers used to be. That communities are built on consensus and that consensus is put into print.

There used to be an old, unofficial journalistic credo, "To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Lately, in the mainstream media, this has changed to, "For God's sake, don't offend anyone!"

The twentieth century model is extremely flawed, in that it gives equal weight to all voices. In reporting on subjects from evolution to global warming to the health affects of smoking, the MSM has always turned to the guys in tinfoil hats and asked not, "Given all the evidence, why do you think you're not crazy," but, "Tell us why this is wrong." In giving all opinions equal weight, the MSM ignores the logical fact that opinion has absolutely no affect on the nature of reality. Smoking is bad for you - there is no question of it - and only corporate prostitutes and addicted crazies will dispute that. Yet, you half-expect Wolf Blitzer to report on a satellite going into orbit, then turn to some religious nut and ask, "Now, tell us why the earth doesn't orbit the sun?"

Ironically, this myth of 'balance' actually tips the scales in favor of untruth, by giving it the same weight as truth. Sunday morning talk programs have pundits arguing over what Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld said or didn't say, when you could just play the freakin' clip and report the truth. This is why Cheney can get away with saying, "There is no doubt Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction," then deny he ever said it. Rumsfeld told a critic in an audience that he never said he knew where the weapons where, that they were "in Tikrit and north, south, east, and west of there, somewhat." They did say these things, you can prove they said these things, but in an insane desire for 'balance', the truth carries no more importance than the lies.

Which is why we need partisan news outlets. When the facts are no more important than the lies, the MSM has become effectively useless.