Monday, May 10, 2004

Bizarro World
Last month I linked to a piece in The Gadflyer which contained the following worthwhile quote: "[J]ournalism's adherence to the ideal of objectivity and its reliance on 'two-sided' reporting make it structurally weak in the face of official mendacity. Reporters are taught that they are supposed to achieve balance at all costs and have difficulty when the scales are tipped in one direction, much less when one side is lying outright."

Wisconsin's entry in the Structural Weakness Olympics is the Appleton Post-Crescent, which published an editorial last week in which the paper solicited more pro-Bush letters: "We’ve been getting more letters critical of President Bush than those that support him. We’re not sure why, nor do we want to guess. But in today’s increasingly polarized political environment, we would prefer our offering to put forward a better sense of balance."

You probably caught the Quote of the Day lurking in that paragraph: "We're not sure why, nor do we want to guess." You're not sure why people are more critical than supportive of Bush? Do you read your own damn front page? You don't want to guess? Why? Because as a Gannett paper, and thus part of one of the major media corporations controlling public opinion in this country, you might not like the reason when you figure out what it is?

I wrote a letter to the Post-Crescent's editor this morning, which I doubt will see publication, as it's been a week since the solicitation for letters first appeared. So here it is:

Your recent solicitation of pro-Bush letters in the name of "balance" throws into sharp relief one of the biggest problems in modern journalism--the belief that "balance" is what it's all about.

To use an extreme example: If this were Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the preponderance of your letters was critical of the anti-semitic tone of the German government, would you solicit letters in favor of anti-semitism? I think not. And I think we'd all agree that in that particular case, "balance" is the last thing you would try to achieve.

While I do not in any way mean to suggest parallels between our country today and Germany in the 1930s, [not in this letter, at least] I do mean to suggest that "balance" should not be the primary goal of any journalistic enterprise. Truth should be. And if the collective "truth" of your readership comes down as critical of George W. Bush, maybe there really is something to be critical of, and maybe that "something" is more than just partisan bickering.

Going out of your way to solicit pro-Bush letters when the majority of the letters you receive are anti-Bush, all in the name of balance, will actually give you only the *appearance* of balance--and this appearance will actually serve to benefit Bush, by giving readers in the Fox Valley the idea that he and his policies are more popular than they really are. And the only place that's considered "balance" is in the right-wing Bizarro World.

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