28 November 2012

Is 'False Balance' a price of pluralism?

In the aftermath of the presidential election, Nation columnist Eric Alterman has pressed his attack on those "Mainstream Media" outlets he has accused of neglecting to expose Republican lies and errors out of some misguided commitment to balanced coverage of politics. In his latest piece, Alterman quotes a New York Times editorial department exchange in which one editor disclaims any responsibility to "litigate" between the two major parties, the paper's responsibility being, in his opinion, solely to "state what each side says." That quote first appeared in an article in which the Times addressed charges of "false balance," defined by Margaret Sullivan as "the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side." She protests, however, that determining the objective truth isn't always as easy as critics like Alterman assume. She warns, also, that "sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts" In some fields, science particularly, there's little excuse for "false balance," but on the question of voter fraud, for instance, Times editors are reluctant to state as bluntly as Alterman would like that Republicans are wrong, and Democrats right.

But while we can assume that Alterman expects all objective questions to resolve that way, his bias doesn't devalue his core question: does a commitment to balance between (or among) all the parties in political disputes compromise the pursuit of truth that ought to be everyone's objective? Should the news media be in the business of telling the public that a political party is wrong on some subject, or does its responsibility end at informing the public of each party's opinion on the subject? This shouldn't be such a hard question, especially if we assume that every party will be objectively wrong some of the time. Media objectivity should not result in the media always siding with one party against another, Alterman's hopes notwithstanding. But what if that was the trend? What if we had a major party that was as consistently wrong on objective facts as Democrats and Republicans claim each other to be? What if a political party, or at least its program, could be determined objectively to be detrimental to the country? Why shouldn't such a party be discredited unto extinction, presuming that it can't be extinguished by law?

The U.S. remains a liberal democracy to the extent that it privileges dissent. In every other realm but the political, the absence of dissension would be regarded as proof of harmony, but in the political realm, liberals -- classical or otherwise -- identify the absence of dissent with the existence of tyranny. For liberals, to borrow a system of measurement from Randolph Bourne, dissent is the health of the state. For that reason, self-conscious liberals in particular, no doubt highly represented within the "MSM," are reluctant to appear as if they are contributing in any way to the suppression of dissent. For the same reason, we give foreign dissidents the benefit of the doubt most of the time, especially when we presume that their rulers aspire to tyranny. Whether it's Pussy Riot or Falun Gong or Venezuelan millionaires or Syrian rebels, dissent is good because it is dissent. Exceptions are made for mobs protesting insults to Islam or European austerity measures, but wherever alarming concentrations of power are perceived, dissent is praised by Americans, and tolerance of it is urged upon foreign leaders. In the U.S. itself, Bipolarchy probably makes the imperative to "false balance" more urgent, on the assumption that the fatal discrediting of one of the major parties would result in the nation becoming a one-party state. Since a one-party state is tyranny almost by definition, at least as far as American liberals are concerned, the impulse to give the one party standing between the other and political monopoly the benefit of the doubt is powerful. By comparison, harmony has little appeal in the political realm, since harmony is presumed to depend on the deference of the many to the few, be they the medieval nobility of Europe or the administrative elite of 21st century China.  Liberals don't aspire to the absence of dissent, since they either think it impossible or assume it possible only through force. Nor should the permanent absence of dissent be anyone's goal. If it's always possible that a leader can be wrong, it should always be possible for someone to say so. The problem arises in a Bipolarchy state in which one institution attains, or two regularly exchange, the privileged status, de facto if not de jure, of an official and therefore protected opposition. Rather than empower dissent, that condition enables the official opposition to get away with dissent as an end unto itself, with taking opposition to justify its existence, even if the opposition itself is unjustified, while real dissent may languish unnoticed or disrespected, should the dissident not belong to the official opposition. So long as the Republican party is perceived as the only opposition to the Democratic party, it will enjoy this peculiar indulgence from liberal culture, and so will the Democrats in turn. The more viable political alternatives exist, the more willing society and culture might be to punish one major party definitively for its factual errors or rhetorical sins. If Americans won't accept a one-party state as the solution to the current gridlock, they should demand a true multi-party system -- or make it happen themselves by taking chances on existing alternatives --  in which they could afford to toss a defective party on the ash-heap of history. Until then, the defective party, or parties, will continue to get the benefit of the doubt on the assumption that nothing could be worse than the absence of dissent. The world history of republics, however, warns us that that assumption can't always be relied upon.


Anonymous said...

As I've said numerous times, "M"edia is a business. Every single media outlet is a corporation, with one prime directive: MAKE PROFIT.

The American media is, in fact, one of the BEST examples of capitalism in existence.

The media is under no legal obligation to be the public watchdog they once championed themselves. If we, the people, think otherwise, then we ought to be acting accordingly, by boycotting every single corporate media outlet until they all unilaterally agree to operate within whatever dictates the public decrees.

Or maybe we ought to just find something better and more worthwhile to do with our time than continually watch whatever bland product is served by corporate media and whining about it.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your last paragraph sounds like perfect advice for Eric Alterman -- his side won despite the media, after all -- but he wouldn't have much else to do if he stopped whining.