News Should Be Neither Fair Nor Balanced
For most of U.S. history, the press has reflected a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. What's wrong with that?
April 21, 2008 - 12:00 am
When Fox News Channel was launched promising news that was “fair and balanced,” mainstream outlets were insulted by the insinuation that their news wasn’t.
They shouldn’t have been. In fact, “fair and balanced” news is a bad idea that was never in our past and will not be in our future.
Before the printing press was invented, news was spread by word-of-mouth, so everyone had the opportunity to influence the top stories. Even governments had to compete, sometimes by hiring singing, colorfully-garbed minstrels to break through the clutter. A pretty good system, really — a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas, with individuals deciding for themselves whom to listen to and what to believe. But, fair and balanced? No.
Things did not improve with the invention of the printing press. The large size of printing presses made them difficult to conceal. This made it easy for governments to track down and pressure those who might be printing content that was critical of their actions. Thus began centuries of governments chilling free expression through a variety of legal mechanisms — e.g. issuance and revocation of licenses to publish, requiring approval prior to publication, censorship, and punishments as severe as the death penalty. A formula for fair and balanced news? Ha!
Fast-forward to the years immediately preceding the American Revolution, when Colonial newspapers started attacking their British governors. A breakthrough occurred when the John Peter Zenger verdict allowed newspapers to criticize public officials if their charges were true, in effect declaring open hunting season on British authorities. And, let’s be honest, my fellow Americans — that series of newspaper-driven kerfuffles that includes the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, Boston Massacre, and Boston Tea Party was largely much ado about nothing. Sure, the result of these efforts was glorious and historic. But, was the coverage of these events “fair and balanced?” Hardly.
Now let’s go to the aftermath of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson sought to establish a nation that featured maximum free expression, with a public allowed to think for themselves and their collective wisdom valued as “the consent of the governed.” He wanted newspapers to support this system by dispersing information and engaging in a process of opinion-driven “attack and defense” — in his view, this was the best and only way to get to the truth, deal with unknowns and unknowables, and absorb the personal preferences of a free people. Jefferson put his money where his mouth was. When his rival, Alexander Hamilton, helped found a newspaper to promote federalist ideas, Jefferson co-founded with James Madison a tremendously unfair and imbalanced newspaper to attack it. In case you missed it, this means that Thomas Jefferson did not believe in fair and balanced news either.
On to the Wilson administration during WWI, when the President used an executive order to establish the now-infamous Creel Committee. Its purpose was to influence public opinion toward supporting U.S. intervention in World War I, and its tactics included fabrications and wire-tapping. Defying Jefferson’s legacy of public debate leading to “consent of the governed,” committee member and the “father of public relations” Edward Bernays remarked that “the essence of democratic society” was the “engineering of consent.” So apparently, we had a President who preferred propaganda to fair and balanced news.
It gets worse. Another propaganda-supporting Creel Committee member was Walter Lippmann, the “father of modern journalism.” As Terry Heaton notes, the insufferable Lippmann didn’t think much of government by the people, siding with those who “have concluded that, because public opinion was unstable, the remedy lay in making government as independent of it as possible.” And, he thought even less of debate, declaring, “we shall advance when we have learned humility; when we have learned to seek the truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” His proposed remedy has become our journalism of today — a rough-and-tumble craft that now falsely presents itself as a scientific profession, claiming to deliver singular truths using objective methods backed by a process of verification. Fairness? Balance? What do they have to do with it? Why settle for that when journalism elites can deliver something even better — true, correct answers in all matters of public policy?
In response, Fox News Channel (FNC) was launched to attract an audience who begged to differ on whether journalism’s center-left voice represents “the truth.” While FNC claims to be “fair and balanced,” in reality it has been designed for those who like news presented in ways palatable to conservatives, and who occasionally get enjoyment from watching their ideas used as a bludgeon against liberal ones. Fair and balanced? No, not really.
So, we’ve gone more than a millennium without fair and balanced news. Perhaps more surprisingly, no one has ever seemed to want it — not even Thomas Jefferson. But then again, why would anyone want middlemen elites deciding for them what is important, while conjuring-up mythical fulcrum points representing middles of arguments? What we really want is not fair and balanced news, but news that reflects our own voices — news that is presented by those who share our worldviews.
But since we all live within a democracy where not everyone shares our worldviews, we’re willing to settle for “fair fights” — a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas. The Internet is the first technology that can deliver that — and, that is the future of news.
Steve Boriss blogs at The Future of News. He works for Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Associate Director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology (CAIT) and teaches a class called “The Future of News.”