Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Loss of Balance

The unbalanced media
Republicans have cowed the media with accusations of liberal bias, but the idea of objectivity is flawed to begin with

Ian Williams
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday September 16 2008 19:30 BST

So Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews get the bullet as MSNBC news anchors because they did not pass the McCain-Palin test of balance, which is currently the ability to stare a pig in the face and declare it to be a moose with lipstick when told that's what the GOP say it is.

To a large extent, the much-derided mainstream media deserves to get in the neck for pandering to the whole shibboleth of "balance" that has disarmed its ability to show outrage at the outrageous.

Last week saw the launch of Spinspotter, a site intended to detect and objectively assess "spin" in news reports. Apart from the site's clunkiness that is the inevitable consequence of nerds using algorithms to assess political and literary attributes, the idea is fatally flawed.

Its central premise, that there is an objective standard of truth in the news, is seriously shaky. In the real world, news is the product of conscious and unconscious choices made by editors and producers, reflecting all sorts of biases and pressures.

Spin is a subtle quantum measurement, touched with subjectivity, and the major problem of modern American political discourse is outright lies, thudding down leadenly with crushing Newtonian gravity. Factcheck.org does a good job of catching those and does so impartially, flagging not only the whoppers but the economies that the campaigns make with the truth.

Some American journalists refuse to join political parties or even vote in case it affects their "objectivity". This is laughable detachment from reality. If someone who has the professional opportunity to scan the news in such detail has not formed opinions about desirable political outcomes, they were born with a poker up their rectum or a large cavity in their skull.

Spinspotter reveals some of this attitude, along with their bad grammar, in their criteria. For example, it explains that "Reporter's Voice" means: "The reporter employs language (in the form of adjectives, adverbs, verbs or superlatives) that conveys meaning beyond the supporting evidence provided in the article, and begs the question: In who's [sic] opinion and by what objective standard?"

It goes on to give as an example:

In the most hotly debated (superlative) campaign in years, Senator Obama delivered a soaring, inspirational (adjective) speech, while Senator John McCain, slowly (adverb) responded with a far less-eloquent (adjective) address, as he mightily (adverb) struggled (verb) to find a clear voice for his so-called "straight talk express".

Nevertheless, it is true. Obama's speech was all those things while McCain's did limp. It is also true that Palin's speech was a masterpiece of oratory, which actually illustrates my point. It was laden with coded phrases that worked in that universe - think of the effect of the neutral, objective, spin-free phrase "community organiser" that had the audience's tasselled loafers stamping in two minutes hate.

In the current state of American politics, there are considerable numbers of Americans who inhabit parallel universes, where the same words and phrases mean completely different things depending which dimension you live in.

Would Spinspotter see "tasselled loafers" as a liberal smear? Just think of "low taxes" or "right to life", nice neutral phrases for a computer program. For a liberal, the right to life includes prisoners on death row, Iraqi and Afghan civilians, while low taxation is complex calculation that includes the rider "for whom?" For conservatives, one means anti-abortion while the other means, well, whatever the conservative candidate wants it to mean.

For a liberal American, defending the US constitution means freedom from arbitrary arrest and cruel and unusual punishment, not to mention separation of church and state. For significant numbers of others, it has been digested down to a literalist interpretation of the second amendment and a vast expansion of the relatively new phrase "one nation under God" in the pledge of allegiance.

Indeed one of the problems with America's allegedly liberal mainstream media is that it hampers itself with these bean-counting criteria of objectivity, which allows Fox News to parody it with "no spin zones", and "We report, you decide."

The spurious objectivity forces balance between genocidal regimes and their victims. It assumes that creationism should balance evolution, but does not have the courage to give equal time to the Flat Earth Society or those who think that pi is three.

Journalists should have opinions, although they should back them up with facts. They should be able to look at the various candidates and decide that one is better than the other. If they find hypocrisy in any candidate - preaching one thing and then doing another - then they should unleash upon them all the superlatives, adjectives and adverbs it takes. Spinning balls hit their targets.

You can't crusade "objectively" or in a "balanced" way. Mark Twain, HL Mencken and other greats of American journalism were not afraid to take sides against the forces of darkness - as they saw them. We remember them not only because they wrote well - and intemperately with lots of modifiers - but because history has often vindicated their choice of targets for their unbalanced vituperation.

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