Monday, September 27, 2010

The "Balance" Fallacy

Of the many baneful effects of the rise of Fox News, the perversion of the word "balance" must be at or near the top.  Rather than forthrightly declaring their conservative perspective, they disingenuously insist that their news coverage is "fair and balanced."  They sometimes allow a milquetoast and ineffective figure like Alan Colmes on air to weakly present a liberal perspective, and then pretend that makes for "balance."

This has been true for years now, but two recent news stories pointedly drove home for me the pervasive distortion of the idea of "balance."

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a front-page story about the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan.  The editor subsequently apologized for running the story because many readers found it "offensive."  He went on to say: "We have acknowledged that we erred by at least not offering balance to the story."

The logic of this is curious to say the least.  What exactly required "balance" here?  The implication is that it was wrong to cover the peaceful religious celebrations of American Muslims on 9/11 without acknowledging the awful thing 19 other (mostly Saudi) Muslims did nine years ago.  I defy anyone to find anything in the article itself that is offensive.  The focus of the story is a religious community gathering to raise funds for the needy.  But somehow it lacks "balance" because there was no mention of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

This is the same collective guilt mentality that pervades the opposition to the Islamic center in lower Manhattan.  The idea that "positive" coverage of any Muslim event requires "balance" in the form of acknowledgement of 9/11 carries the clear implication that the crime of 9/11 is something that all Muslims carry, like original sin.

There is nothing "balanced" about that.  Quite the contrary, it is inherently imbalanced.  That mindset insists that the murderous acts of a small group of religiously motivated fanatics must forever weigh down one side of the scales.

The Texas Board of Education this week passed a resolution to curtail references to Islam in world history texts.  According to a New York Times article

“The purpose of this resolution is to ensure there is balanced treatment of divergent groups,” Gail Lowe, the chairwoman of the board, said. “In the past, the textbooks have had some bias against Christianity.”
According to an AP article, this charge is ostensibly based on the fact that a text (no longer in use) "devoted more lines of text to Islamic beliefs and practices than Christian ones."

In this case, "balance" is defined quantitatively, and "more lines" equals imbalance.  It seems blindingly obvious to me that schoolchildren in Texas, an overwhelmingly Christian state, might need to read more "lines" about Islam than Christianity to gain an equal knowledge of both, given that they are highly likely to already know quite a bit about the latter.

The resolution makes clear, however, that it is not just about space.  It denounces both "significant inequalities of coverage space-wise" and "demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over the others." Though this language seems to call for equality, the chairwoman's statement above makes it clear that they believe that only Christianity is being demonized and Islam lionized.  Not surprisingly, they seem to offer no specific examples of this beyond the "space-wise" reference.

So what does "balance" mean here?  Conforming to the ideological preferences of the board.  The author of the resolution, Randy Rives, inadvertently exposed the real agenda: "If you can control or influence our education system, you can start taking over the minds of the young people."  He thought he was talking about his phantom enemies, but he was truly talking about himself.

"Balance" does not mean ensuring one's preferred outcome in a discussion.  It does not mean mechanically giving equal "space."  It does not mean finding one "pro" and one "con" perspective and presenting both (no good historian would "balance" a discussion of the Holocaust with a Holocaust denier's point of view).  It means honestly airing material with a focus on facts and a dedication to divining the ever-elusive truth.  But the word has become so debased today that people rarely seek true balance.  Is it any wonder that our political discourse is so out of balance?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting postscript. I first saw the AP article on the Texas school board in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. It described the resolution as calling for texts "to balance what they print about Islam." When I looked up the article online, I noticed that the word in the original article (posted on numerous sites) was not "balance" but the more accurate "limit." The editors evidently altered the article. This change alone makes my point.