On the other hand…..
A disgruntled cameraman posting on Medialine has found a quote from someone who claims to be one of my past students at a station conversion. Says the student:
I was a victim MR and was forced to become one of his VJ’s at a station that I have since left.
He once explained to me that I didn’t need to get both sides of an issue in the same story.
It was that moment that I started to look for another job.
MR doesn’t know what he is doing and he has no business training random people to become “journalists”.
End of story. __________________
Well, of course, this is hardly the ‘end of the story’, but it does raise some interesting questions about ‘balance’ in reporting and journalism, as well as the right of ‘random people’ to become journalists.
Let’s start with the harder one: balance.
This desire for balance in every piece, or ‘getting the other side of the story’ creates, in my opinion, a kind of banality in reporting. I call it ‘The Oatmeal Effect’. On the one hand this… but on the other hand, that. It waters every statement down with its counterpoint.
This notion of ‘balance’ is a relatively new phenomenon.
As the great journalist HL Menken said, our mission is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. Mencken, you will note, did not say “to afflict the comfortable but also point out that perhaps the capitalist mill owners do indeed have a point in paying people 8 cents an hour to work in their factories”.
Most people who are great writers, and particularly those throughout our history who have been great journalists have been driven more by their passions than by a desire for ‘balance’, and this is no bad thing. Edward R. Murrow, for example, in going after Senator Joseph McCarthy did not exactly present a ‘balanced’ report. The attack was entirely one-sided. Murrow then offered McCarthy his own half-hour in which to respond – something McCarthy did, but to little avail.
Friendly and Murrow are also well-known for Harvest of Shame, another piece of television journalism that hardly strove for ‘balance’. (“Let’s face it, most of these sharecroppers are either poor people or illegal immigrants and are lucky just to have a job!”……not exactly); yet it is regarded, properly so, as an icon of outstanding journalism. Balance overall in a network over the course of a year, great. Balance in every piece… insipid.
Our ‘quest for balance’, is little more than a dogma we now repeat, without really examining where it came from or why we subscribe to it
In point of fact, we generally offer little in the way of true balance. Reports on Al Qaeda, for example, never offer Al Qaeda’s side of the story, the fundamentalist Islamist side, and trust me, there is one.
‘Madman dictator’ Saddam Hussein rarely if ever got his side of the story told, (and nowhere near equal time) on any reporting about Iraq. When we do stories about the Holocaust, we never ever go near ‘the other side of the story’ (ie, maybe Hitler had a point). And it is not as though these perspectives don’t exist. If you would like to read Hitler’s side of the story, just pop over to Stormfront.org and you can read all about it, distasteful though it is.
We elect to be ‘balanced’ when we want to; when it is easy. In truth, it is nothing but lip service.
When we reported on Soweto in South Africa, we never felt it necessary to present the South African government’s apartheid point of view – “of course, all this segregation may be justified if blacks and coloureds are racially inferior. Here’s Mike Wallace with that point of view”. No way!
When we report on Israel and Hamas, we never present the Hamas perspective – ‘here to explain how the Jews stole all this land from the Palestinians – Bob Simon’. I don’t think so
So where did this notion of ‘balance’ (when it does not offend anyone) come from?
Like much else in our business, it is derived from the limits of the early technology of television.
In a world where the electromagnetic spectrum limited the number of channels, and hence the number of voices, the world of public discourse was left in the hands of a few ‘anchors’ and networks. They became, because of their small numbers and deep penetration, the voice of God. A kind of authority all their own.
And how could we trust these ‘voices of God’? How could we know they would be fair?
Only if they showed all sides all the time. Equal treatment to everyone (except the truly repugnant, of course).
And so was born the idea that Walter and his ilk were above reproach. Much like the King. They carried with them a sense of nobless oblige. All wise. All knowing. All seeing.
This, of course, is pure nonsense. But like much of early TV, it quickly became part of the accepted dogma of the new medium. Newspapers had never hesitated to take a political side and make that side loud and clear (see William Randolph Hearst or the McCormicks).
But in TV it was going to be different. Every story balanced. If this… then this…
Now along comes the web and its millions of websites covering every point of view in the world.
A real free press (unlike TV).
The balance is there, its just overall. Don’t like Huffington Press? Go see Stormfront.org.
There is something for everyone.
Same thing happens to video now, when 100 million people get their hands of video cameras. A 100 million different perspectives. It’s healthy. We like a free press.
The only people who don’t like this whole thing of course, (to bring this argument to its logical conclusion) are those whose careers are suddenly evaporating as fast as ice in July. The so-called ‘professionals’ of our industry, who are increasingly finding themselves in an incredibly open and competitive market.
Now, the ‘random people’ (as in We The People) are starting to express their opinions in the public domain,
Good for them!
“These bloggers” the ‘professionals’ complain, “don’t know journalism. They refuse to present the other side of the story”.
On the contrary, the bloggers, the people are the other side of the story.