A Rowdy Reader recently commented “’Balance’ is the wrong goal (for journalism). People want truth. I would submit to you that there is an absolute truth to describe every story.”
He’s not alone. Consider this recent 60 Minutes exchange between CBS’s Lesley Stahl and CNN’s Lou Dobbs:
Dobbs: “I’ve never, Lesley, found the truth to be fair and balanced. I’ve found it to be…,”
Stahl: “But, that’s, but wait, what’s the definition of ‘journalism?’ That that’s in there. That has to be part of what a journalist is, is fair and balanced.”
Dobbs: “I truly believe there’s a non-partisan, independent reality.”
Stahl: “But, it’s your reality.”
Dobbs: “It is my reality.”
Stahl: “But, it’s not ‘the’ reality.”
Dobbs: “Well, how so?”
If only it were that simple.
I’m sure jihadists have an easier time deciding where they stand on issues than I do, because The Absolute Truth is quite clear to them. I’m sure reporting for the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun is less complicated than writing for USA Today because they simply report Kim Jong-Il’s Absolute Truth, rather than attempting to fairly present both sides of the issue.
But for a lot of us, “the absolute truth” is not patently obvious. We search for it and are rarely sure when we have and haven’t found it. As Mark Twain said, “Truth is more of a stranger than fiction.”
When is welfare an act of compassion and when is it inadvertently cruel to be kind? When is investing in education truly needed and when is it merely fueling a misguided bureaucracy that won’t improve outcomes? When should we make public decisions through our democratically elected representatives and when should we make them through direct elections? When is affirmative action institutionalized prejudice and when is it a just means for righting historical wrongs? How do we know when government spending is at a level that harms our economy versus when we are failing to invest in things that will improve the economy? How can we tell if the Iraq war is keeping terrorists from harming our citizens rather than inadvertently fueling such terrorism?
Most Americans struggle with those issues. We don’t know “the absolute truth.” When done right, balanced news reporting helps us sort it all out. It gives us food for thought. It challenges and bolsters our preconceptions. It allows us to make up our own minds during our search for the truth, rather than delegating the job to Lou Dobbs or Alan Colmes.
Allow me to be a control freak. Today’s question is not whether journalistic notions of balance is a historical norm or an abberation, or whether traditional news delivery devices can or should survive in the face of emerging news delivery devices. And please, today’s question is not whether today’s journalists achieve balance. Those are valid and interesting topics, and I promise we will wallow in them in the future.
But I’d love to hear thoughts on this more narrow topic: Is democracy likely to be more healthy if the goal of our most read and viewed news sources is providing a) balanced coverage or b) the truth?