Bias, Balance, & Bullshit
"Balanced" news is making you stupid
by Allan Uthman

Last 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 it.

By 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.

Syndicated 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:

Liberals 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.

Droll 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.

It 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.

The 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.

This 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 he has.

Wolf 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.

It 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.”

Morris himself puts it this way in Sargent’s report:

“If 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.”

In 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 bipartisan lie.

Of 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 Magazine.

By 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 becoming redundant.

What’s 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.

Where 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 instance.

All 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.

Do we really want to be this stupid?

The truth is not partisan. But sometimes it reflects poorly on one party more than the other. That’s not bias; that’s reality.


Balance, Bias, & Bullshit
"Balanced" news is making you more stupider.
Allan Uthman
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Reader Opinion
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Last Issue: #91

The BEAST 50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2005
Our disturbingly popular annual list of the foulest among us, for a particularly objectionable year.
The Year in Ephemera
Our 2005 Timeline.
Andrew Gullerstein Predicts!
Iron-clad predictions for the new year.
What's Going On
You just don't know, do you?
by A. Monkey
Buh-buh-buh-bye, Sharon-a
What you won't be hearing this week about Ariel Sharon
by Paul Jones
Mine Shaft
Undermining mine safety
by Kit Smith

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