Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Slogan that Destroyed an Institution

Fair and Balanced.

That's what Roger Ailes told us about his new cable news outlet in 1997.  He said they would do "Real Journalism", and that they would present it in a fair and balanced way.  We didn't recognize this for what it was, and we had no way to understand at the time that this slogan represented nothing less than a full-scale assault on the basic journalistic values.  They never said they would be accurate.  Then never promised any commitment to the truth.  Instead, they offered 'fairness', and even worse, 'balance'.

Here's the thing.  Journalism isn't about being fair.  And there's literally no room for balance.  There are facts, bits of information which can be established as being unequivocally true, and there is a historically acceptable methodology for determining what are and, perhaps more importantly, what are NOT facts.  When reporting facts, there is no requirement for fairness - the ideal is truth and accuracy.  But more toxic than trying to shoehorn fairness into objective reporting is the concept of 'balance'.  If every side of every story can be presented as equally valid, there is no way to establish what is true.  The industry line describing this kind of lowest-common-denominator debate has become "Earth: Flat or Round?  Experts Disagree".  Then everyone has a good laugh.  But at some point, someone needs to ask: If there are no facts, then isn't everything opinion?  And if everything is opinion, is that any different from nothing is?  And so now we can no longer know what is news, and what is something else altogether.

But this is what Murdoch and Ailes have wrought.  A weird, twilight post-modern world where everyone equivocates, and nothing is irreducibly factual.  When everything is subject to debate, when nothing can be established with certainty, when any position can be supported because no one has the courage to say it is false, then you have what we see in the US today.  Every issue is seen through the lens of debate.  No question can be answered, because no answer is definitive.  Write a big enough check and you can buy all manner of experts willing to go before the public and say demonstrably false and stupid things in the name of fairness and balance.

From evolution to vaccines, from HIV to climate change, everything we used to know is in dispute.  Everything has a political constituency and an economic impact, so at a time when operating from a shared set of established facts is critical to charting a course forward, nothing can be decided because nothing can be known.  And all because a dozen years ago two men with an agenda eschewed honesty, truth and accuracy in news for the more convenient fairness and balance.


  1. As bad as FAUX is (and it's getting worse by the day), I believe the declines of the NYT and the WaPo into corporate suckitude to be more significant.

  2. You're absolutely right. I'm suggesting that even that descent into vapidity is Murdoch and Ailes' fault.

    Ordinarily, the Powell Doctrine states if you break it you have to buy it. In this case, they bought it IN ORDER to break it...