I think it was during a seminar at the Poynter Institute that I first heard a line drawn between "balance" in a news story and the concept of "false balance." Balance is when a news story manages to tell both sides of a heated controversy in a way that accurately reflects the views of people on both sides. However, it is often hard to do this. So I have also seen news organizations that are committed to old-fashioned values such as "balance" and "fairness" dedicate multiple stories to competing viewpoints, offering a way for readers to hear different voice speak for themselves. This is a good thing.
"False balance," on the other hand, is when a reporter or news team has a very one-sided, slanted story written and then, to add balance, will call one person on the other side for one paragraph of protest to the revealed truths contained in the news report.
This is often done in European-style analysis publications -- think The New Republic or The Weekly Standard. Discriminating news consumers also flinch when this happens on network and cable television. You know how often the Rev. Pat Robertson shows up on talk shows attempting to respond to some articulate progressive linked to a complex issue? False balance.
You also hear some people use the term "false balance" when newspapers use a kind of he said-he said approach that makes it seem as if two perspectives are equal in a public debate, when the public reality may be more like 90-10.
"False balance" has been known to show up in the MSM, but never as clearly as it did in The New York Times shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II. I need to begin with a big tip of the hat to the Powerline blog for nailing the screen shot from the Times that serves as the hook for this little case study.
Let's look at the replay, shall we? The basic Vatican City report from correspondent Ian Fisher contains all kinds of intelligent Catholic progressives saying all kinds of critical things about the papacy of John Paul II and almost all of the comments are valid, to one degree or another, and worthy of response.
However, this is what showed up online for a few fleeting moments, before being taken down by the copy desk.
Even as his own voice faded away, his views on the sanctity of all human life echoed unambiguously among Catholics and Christian evangelicals in the United States on issues from abortion to the end of life.
need some quote from supporter
John Paul II's admirers were as passionate as his detractors, for whom his long illness served as a symbol for what they said was a decrepit, tradition-bound papacy in need of rejuvenation and a bolder connection with modern life.
"The situation in the Catholic church is serious," Hans Kung, the eminent Swiss theologian, who was barred by from teaching in Catholic schools because of his liberal views, wrote last week. "The pope is gravely ill and deserves every compassion. But the Church has to live. . . . In my opinion, he is not the greatest pope but the most contradictory of the 20th century. A pope of many, great gifts, and of many bad decisions!"
Among liberal Catholics, he was criticized for his strong opposition to abortion, homosexuality and contraception, as well as the ordination of women and married men. Though he was never known as a strong administrator of the dense Vatican bureaucracy, he kept a centralizing hand on the selection of bishops around the world and enforced a rigid adherence to many basic church teachings among the clergy and Catholic theologians.
And so forth and so on. The key words, obviously, were "need some quote from supporter."
I especially like the slap of the word "some," as in "go to the closet and get me some old flannel shirt so I can change the oil in the car." It doesn't matter what quote from what pope lover. The story is written. The point of view is established. The desk just needs some quote from some reporter talking to some pope supporter to add some balance to the editorial viewpoint of the newsroom.
This would be funny, except that we are talking about the most important elite institution in the American press. Again, click here to see the screen shot.
Here is another question. Where is the once-sacred line drawn at the Times, these days, between the news desk and the editorial pages? Here is the opening of the newspaper's official editorial on the life of one of the dominant figures of the 20th century. What was his life about? Why, John Paul II lived and died to show that the Times was right in its editorial viewpoints about the Terri Schiavo case.
The death of Pope John Paul II came at a time when Americans have been engaged in an unusual moment of national reflection about mortality. The long, bitter fight over the unknowing Terri Schiavo was a stark contrast to the passing of this pontiff, whose own mind was keenly aware of the gradual failure of his body. The pope would certainly never have wanted his own end to be a lesson in the transcendent importance of allowing humans to choose their own manner of death. But to some of us, that was the exact message of his dignified departure.
One more question, while we are being picky. Underline the word "us" in the phrase "to some of us." Who, precisely, makes up this "us"? Does that include the news desk?