Many people scoff at the notion that political comedians such as John Stewart and Stephen Colbert represent the only truly accurate news sources. Is it possible, however, that there is truth to that notion?
Some of us can remember a time when there were editorials on broadcast news. Media was far more comfortable then with taking a stand on important societal and political issues. This could have been seen as the dominance of journalism over commercial or profit considerations in the broadcast news industry, or at least as a nod to journalistic tradition. But editorials slowly became less pointed, moving toward the bland and insipid, eventually disappearing altogether from the broadcast media landscape. Here was perhaps a sign of the triumph of commercialism over journalism, the first phase of the profit incentive and its focus on attracting and keeping viewership becoming media’s primary goal.
We have since moved on to what might be considered the second phase of mass media’s self-emasculation as a democracy-ensuring institution in the name of commercial expediency: a condition and an allegiance to what I call “forced, arbitrary balance.”
Equating it without justification to “accuracy” and “good journalism”, but in effect bowing to the commercial necessity of pandering to and not offending the greatest number of news consumers, the media now aims for what it considers “balance”. But that begs several questions.
Is balance the same as accuracy, or has media simply presumed as much? If they are not the same, is media balance closer to inaccuracy? And if balance results in inaccurate reportage, is this balanced reportage not only misleading, but distorting our democratic process?
To begin to answer these questions, first consider if there is a discernible truth in a political situation. Of two political positions being reported on, does one represent more honest democracy and honorable representation? If so, can that position be determined, and should it be reported as such? And what of the opposing side?
Imagine a tree falls in the forest. If this is a non-political event, it will be reported that a tree fell in the forest. If, however, falling trees have political implications, it will be covered from two opposing perspectives, with representative quotes from each side. After many column inches, megabytes, and air time devoted to the two positions, the news consumer will feel saturated with information, surely informed, yet somehow still unsure as to what actually happened. The news consumer throws up his or her hands and says, “Why can’t they all just get along,” not just in frustration, but also in ignorance. (This too will be reported as something akin to the suffering citizen just wanting compromise and civility in government, and not as a lack of being adequately informed.)
The truth is never in the exact middle, so by requiring that political reporting aim for that middle forced, arbitrary balance must always be a distortion of the news and a misinforming of the public. The public is lead to believe that the two sides are roughly equally valid, creating false equivalencies when there likely are none. The side closer to the truth, or integrity of position vis a vis representing the best interests of the American people, is frustrated by the lack of validation. The other side, seeing its actions and positions elevated to an equal level of acceptability, or at least plausibility, is enabled and emboldened to push for and assume increasingly dishonest and corrupt positions.
The feeling of not being informed has led many people to seek accuracy elsewhere. But the more weak-minded are easily led into mistaking clarity for accuracy. A world of clarity and apparent certainty can be very appealing, and far easier than taking personal responsibility for a deliberate consideration of reality. Fox News reports with clarity, but little accuracy. It’s ascendence could be considered a consequence of forced balance in legitimate media.
So what’s left? Does humor and political satire disqualify or alter the fundamental accuracy of the message? I think not. Some would pre-judge comedy as lightweight, casual, or insignificant as political commentary. Fortunately, we’ve had the legacies of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl as powerful models of the legitimacy of political humor. Now we have the next stage, defined less by message humor and more by direct political commentary with an eye for illuminating the absurd and the hypocritical. The humor becomes part of the commentary, adding an additional layer to what is essentially news coverage. Balance becomes irrelevant when the goal is illumination. Through a combination of satire, farce, and often simply assembling politicians’ own words, accuracy, if not a type of truth, emerges far more valid than the deliberate equivocating of mainstream media.