When Balance Is Just Wrong

Jeff Zucker is in charge of CNN. Before that, he helped the Orange Monster become a reality TV star. More recently, he helped the Orange Monster become President-elect. Zucker gave the O.M. millions and millions of dollars of free advertising. CNN broadcast unfiltered everything the O.M. had to say. They broke away from other news, including other candidates talking, to show the empty podium where the O.M. might later share his thoughts.

This explains why Zucker was yelled at by both Republicans and Democrats at a recent conference. The angry Republicans had worked for the O.M.’s opponents in the primaries. The angry Democrats had worked for someone who actually loves America. But they all agreed that Zucker and CNN had given the O.M. special, advantageous treatment.

Here’s what Zucker said in response:

Half the people want to blame us for Trump, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Trump. That’s how I always think we’re doing the right thing.

Zucker has made a lot of money in his career, so he must have a brain in his head. But that is one lazy, dumb justification for misbehavior. The correct, honest answer would have been:

We gave him special treatment because he’s so damn entertaining. We make money by getting people to watch our so-called “news” network and people watch that bastard whether they like him or not.

But isn’t it fair for Zucker to parrot the journalistic cliché, according to which half the audience says we’re too mean and half says we’re too nice, so we must be doing something right?

Imagine a country that takes ice cream very, very seriously, much more seriously than the Germans take beer. The whole country loves ice cream. It’s the official national food. Then along comes an ambitious politician with a brilliant idea. Let’s have a referendum! Let’s choose our nation’s official ice cream flavor! The nation erupts in controversy. Should it be chocolate or should it be vanilla?

Conscientious journalists air both sides, delving into the pros and cons of each flavor. Nevertheless, the vanilla-lovers are angry because they don’t think the journalists are being fair to the flavor that’s clearly the best. The chocolate-lovers are angry for the very same reason.

When the votes are counted, one flavor comes out slightly ahead (I hope it was vanilla). A bunch of journalists, hanging out in their favorite ice cream bar, look back and decide they must have done a pretty good job. After all, half the people thought they were terrible to vanilla and half thought they were terrible to chocolate. Fair enough.

But suppose there’s a country that’s less concerned with ice cream and more concerned with the shape of the Earth. The flat-Earthers look around and see the Earth is flat. The round-Earthers, well, you know. So they decide to take a vote! Journalists report and analyze. Both sides are heard from and criticized in equal measure, because the journalists want to be balanced. One side wins (if it were modern-day America, it would be a close election), but neither side is happy with the news coverage. The flat-Earthers hated hearing they were wrong, especially by smarty pants scientists. The round-Earthers hated that anyone took the flat-Earthers seriously at all. But the self-satisfied journalists look back and say, well, we must have done something right!

To make a long story short, the assumption that you must be doing something right if both sides are displeased only applies when the subject is a matter of taste. Vanilla is better than chocolate! No, everyone loves chocolate! Or a matter of vague philosophy. Small government is better than big government! But a big country needs a big government! Or with the unknown. We aren’t alone in the universe! So where is everybody?

When you’re dealing with known facts, however, balance isn’t necessary. In fact, it’s seriously bad.

Imagine, for example, that a pathological liar runs for President. Or a strange old man who knows next to nothing about America’s history and government. Let’s call him Donald. When Donald spends 30 minutes in front of an enthusiastic crowd telling lies and making crap up, journalists broadcast every word, even though they know he’s plain wrong about so much. News networks even pay people to come on the air to repeat his fabrications, because it’s hard to find anyone who will lie in public for free. In the spirit of journalistic balance, however, they also let Donald’s opponents appear. Journalists even point out that Donald is often careless with the truth.

And what’s the result? Both sides are unhappy. Donald’s supporters are unhappy because they didn’t like hearing bad things about their hero. Donald’s opponents are unhappy because so much of what Donald said wasn’t challenged and he was treated with respect he didn’t deserve. Nobody is satisfied with the news coverage except the journalists. They congratulate themselves, citing “evidence” like this:  

Half the people want to blame us for Donald, and half the people want to say that we’re terrible to Donald. That’s how we know we’re doing the right thing.

If your goal as a news organization is to make both sides unhappy, all you need to do is what CNN and others did this year. Give a loudspeaker to a demagogue and his propaganda machine, but sometimes admit he’s a demagogue. Both sides will be unhappy, because your coverage is “balanced”.

On the other hand, telling the unvarnished truth would anger one side and please the other. Congratulations would be in order for the conscientious journalists, because they didn’t strike a balance between what was plainly true and what plainly wasn’t.