Balance, & Bullshit
news is making you stupid
by Allan Uthman
issue of The BEAST contained our annual “50 Most Loathsome People
in America” list, by far our most popular feature. As always, once
it hit the internet, it was unstoppable, and still pervades the
“blogosphere” as I write this. E-mails are streaming in by the hundreds,
and surprisingly enough, most are positive. But, of course, there
are a lot of angry messages from conservatives, too, each giving
us a piece of their mind, most of whom hardly seem able to spare
far the biggest complaint is that old chestnut, liberal bias. Any
list that doesn’t include Michael Moore, or Ted Kennedy, or Howard
Dean, or Cindy Sheehan, etc., is obviously the product of partisan
bias, they say. Of course, it seems kind of stupid to expect some
kind of dispassionate ideological “balance” from this tiny biweekly,
which is called, after all, The BEAST. But beyond that, the very
idea that the list cannot be considered legitimate unless it contains
the same number of Democrats as Republicans is just silly, a symptom
of what I think is a national neurosis, a logical virus that infests
modern political discourse in America. That virus is “balance,”
or rather, the exaltation of balance, the glorification of balance,
to the point that truth itself is subjugated or simply dismissed
as unknowable, or nonexistent, or just plain irrelevant.
columnist John Leo’s most recent piece, which actually cites the
Loathsome List (though he calls us a “left blogger”), is a good
example. Titled “The Left Now Joins the Right in Attacking Mainstream
Media,” the column indicates, among other things, that Leo is incredibly
out of touch with liberal thinking:
wage many battles, but have you heard which one is the major struggle
now? Brace yourselves: It's the campaign "against the established
media and its bizarre relationship with the right wing and the
truth." That's from the Daily Kos, a popular liberal blog.
No, it's not a satire. Just when conservatives thought they were
getting somewhere against the entrenched liberalism of the newsroom
culture, it turns out that the newsroom has been reactionary all
along. The real lonely insurgents fighting for media balance and
truth are liberals. The mind reels.
stuff. Leo imagines that liberal complaints of conservative media
bias are a brand new development. He also seems to think the charges
are ludicrous. But what is truly ludicrous is the assertion that
the mainstream media—of which The BEAST is clearly not a member—leans
left. It’s obvious, from the speed with which White House scandals
drop from the radar, and the lack of outrage over clearly illegal
executive policies, that the “MSM” has been much, much softer on
this president than the last, considering their respective performances.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, congressional corruption is much
worse than ever before, but you would hardly know it from the kid-gloved
coverage it receives.
may not be that news sources suffer from a right-wing bias as much
as a corporate bias. Relaxed FCC regulations have paved the way
for the consolidation of huge media conglomerates—publicly traded
juggernauts with a vested interest in the deregulation agenda of
the GOP. But the real distinction in my eyes between the bias complaints
from the right and from the left is in their very nature. Liberal
complaints mainly focus on lies, distortions, and sins of omission,
while conservatives complain about “balance.” The left wants a press
that insists on facts, while the right wants an even presentation
of partisan versions of reality. But there aren’t just two sides
to each issue; sometimes there are many, and sometimes there is
only one that rings true.
balance fallacy is hurting the country. Presenting every issue as
a he said/she said dispute, an unending, irresolvable argument,
sounds fair, but what happens when one side really is wrong? Some
questions are not eternal. Pretending that they are is a disservice
to the public. When editors and producers live in fear of the bias
accusation, beating them into submission is as simple as organizing
a letter-writing campaign.
leads news sources that wish to be perceived as politically neutral
to adopt patently absurd positions in pursuit of such “balance.”
For instance: despite the fact that Jack Abramoff simply hasn’t
donated a single dollar to a Democrat, every major news outlet says
Blitzer was visibly frustrated when Howard Dean insisted that Abramoff,
a man who said about the Left, “it is our job to remove them from
power permanently,” naturally hadn’t given any money to Democrats.
Katie Couric just wouldn’t accept the assertion, insisting—incorrectly—that
“Abramoff and his associates” had given $1.5 million to Democrats.
Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell twice asserted that Abramoff
“had made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties.”
None of this was true. When pressed on this, the fallback position—for
Howell, the Today Show and Bill O’Reilly, among others, was that
while Abramoff may not have personally donated to Democrats, his
clients—Indian tribes, some of which he is charged with defrauding—had
done so for him.
is true that tribes affiliated with Abramoff have given money to
Democrats, just as tribes not connected to Abramoff did. But a new
study gives the lie to allegations that Abramoff directed such donations.
The study, done by nonpartisan research firm Dwight L. Morris and
Associates and commissioned by the American Prospect, shows
that tribes’ donations to Democrats decreased significantly
after Abramoff took them on as clients, while, as the Prospect’s
Greg Sargent writes, “the majority of them dramatically ratcheted
up donations to Republicans.” Sargent continues: “This pattern
suggests that whatever money went to Democrats, rather than having
been steered by Abramoff, may have largely been money the tribes
would have given anyway.”
himself puts it this way in Sargent’s report:
you’re going to make the case that this is a bipartisan scandal,
you have to really stretch the imagination,” says Morris. “Most
individual tribes were predominantly Democratic givers through
the last decade. Only Abramoff’s clients switched dramatically
from largely Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican donors, and
that happened only after he got his hands on them.”
other words, the idea, stated as fact in nearly every newspaper
and TV report on the scandal, that Abramoff funneled money to Democrats
through these tribes, is simply not true. So why would the press
lie about it? Because the truth is not “balanced” enough. In the
current media climate, it’s just not acceptable to tell the truth
about this issue. Desperate to avoid accusations of partisan bias,
mainstream news agencies find it preferable to tell a reassuringly
course, the Democratic Party isn’t a morally pure bastion of integrity.
It’s pretty much impossible to get elected to congress without engaging
in some influence-peddling and favor-trading. But to say that they
share equal guilt, or really any guilt, in the Abramoff scandal
is to tell a lie—a lie we are being told daily, and not just by
the media figures we expect such lies from—the Limbaughs and O’Reillys—but
by figures generally considered to be neutral, or even liberal by
some—Katie Couric, Wolf Blitzer, the Washington Post, Time
no means is this an isolated incident. The incessant “liberal media”
accusations have had a gradual, building impact on the way news
is covered, continually pushing the idea of “balance” further to
the right, to the point that it doesn’t even make logical sense.
After Bush’s lackluster State of the Union Address Tuesday night,
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews hosted a panel that consisted of himself,
Pat Buchanan, Tucker Carlson, and a sole Democrat, Hilary Rosen—a
former record industry lobbyist whose only apparent qualification
for representing the Left is that she’s a lesbian. The panel on
CNN was similarly skewed three to one, with the more capable Dem
hack Paul Begala weathering the ideological beatdown. Fox News is
going on here? Imagine the reaction if even one of the cable networks
aired a post-speech discussion between Ralph Nader, Bill Moyers,
Paul Krugman and any random Republican. The sheer volume of outrage
would be enough to trigger weeks of on-air soul-searching about
media bias. But all three can host blatantly Right-weighted discussions,
and nobody seems to notice. And still charges of liberal bias continue?
It doesn’t make sense. Not even a little. But it is still an effective
tactic, and it keeps on working.
does it end? Will news agencies ever have enough of this bullshit,
or will they allow themselves to be pushed further and further right,
until they’re trying to achieve “balance” between Neocons and Christian
Dominionists? Will Joe Lieberman be marginalized as a “far left
liberal?” Or will journalists finally be forced to address the fact
that some people are just wrong, and that their opinions shouldn’t
be heeded, and remember the fact that they’re supposed to be informing,
not indoctrinating, their audience? Already, ideas that are just
plain stupid are being presented alongside established truths as
if on equal footing—the Intelligent Design/Evolution “debate,” for
kinds of polluted thinking are tolerated today as never before.
“Balance” is the wedge, but the goal is a total perversion of reality,
a world where 2+2 may equal whatever you—or they—want it to. It’s
affirmative action of ideas, where weaker, less viable arguments
are propped up, artificially strengthened by repetition and volume,
and lots of money. But the bottom line is that it is stupid, and
it’s making America stupid.
we really want to be this stupid?
truth is not partisan. But sometimes it reflects poorly on one party
more than the other. That’s not bias; that’s reality.