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.

Eyes on the Street

I used to work near the big Family Court building in Brooklyn. One afternoon, as I was walking by, I saw a woman punch a little boy in the stomach. Presumably, it was her son and he’d made her angry. Maybe she had to go to court and was stressed out. I can’t remember if I said something, but I probably did, because I remember walking away and wondering if I’d made the little boy’s situation even worse by embarrassing his mother. Would she be even harder on him when they got home? Should I have done more or less?

Something that happened online this week made me remember that moment in Brooklyn. Somebody made a comment on a discussion board, claiming that supporting same-sex marriage means you probably aren’t a Christian. The comment wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I should respond and set the record straight. So I found a recent poll that says same-sex marriage is supported by most Catholics and white mainline Protestants. It’s evangelical Christians and black Protestants who are mostly opposed.

So I left my comment and hoped (but doubted) that would be the end of it. When I visited the site again later that night, it wasn’t a big surprise to see that the person I’d responded to had apparently responded to me. I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t read what he or she had to say. I didn’t want to get involved in one of those unpleasant “discussions”.

The next day, the whole thread was gone. Apparently, things had gotten ugly and the moderator had deleted my post and everyone else’s. Which was fine with me. I figured I’d done my bit and it was just as well the moderator had stepped in.

Online forums are like city streets. The moderators (the police) sometimes intervene when things get bad. But the rest of us (the people in the neighborhood or passersby) have a responsibility to keep an eye on things and sometimes get actively involved. It’s an idea called “eyes on the street”. Jane Jacobs wrote about it in her great book The Life and Death of American Cities:

… there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers, to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind…. the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

Eyes on the street discourage bad behavior and sometimes lead people to speak up (or call the authorities). It’s the same on a discussion board, except for two differences. Nobody on a discussion board is in immediate danger of being robbed or physically assaulted. And the sole purpose of discussion boards, unlike city streets, is to allow people, even strangers, to speak up.

My tendency is to say something when I see a significant factual error. For example, claiming that support for same-sex marriage means a person isn’t a Christian. Of course, not every error (like being mistaken about when a TV show went on the air) needs to be corrected, but some deserve to be, even at the risk of getting into an argument. Preferring to avoid online warfare, I avoid getting personal in my response. I’ll say “X is Y”, but avoid “You are Z” (the third person is less personal than the second person).

And then I’ll usually go away. That means I may miss out on some fruitful discussion, or be corrected myself (unthinkable as that might be!), but reading further responses often leads to more of the same. It seems sufficient to make my point and then disappear, even though this allows someone else to get in the all-important Last Word! Will my silence suggest that I’ve given up? It probably will to some people, but you can’t have everything. And maybe the cops will show up.