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What is balance?

The media need to check their coverage of our political candidates

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The scene: Studios of the NNN (Nazi News Network), Berlin, 1933.

“Good evening. I am your host, Wolfgang Tod. Tonight on ‘Important Issues’ we look at the question of whether Jews caused Germany to lose World War I and should therefore be exterminated.

“Speaking for the government we have the minister of propaganda. For the other side, a local rabbi. As always, we at the network have no opinion on this matter, in keeping with our principle of not taking sides.”

Offended yet? How about this?

“Greetings from Alexandria, Va. I am your host for this 1862 public forum, as we discuss whether slaves are only three-fifths of a human being and are therefore property. We will be hearing from a general representing the Confederate States of America and then an abolitionist leader, who will get three-fifths of the time allotted to the General.

“As moderator of this forum, I and the sponsors are taking no position on the question. After all, as our motto says, one opinion is pretty much as valid as any other opinion.”

Outlandish? Not so much if the people who were are in charge of the news today had been running the show in Berlin and Alexandria.

Our news people today are stuck in the swamp of false equivalency and don’t realize it, let alone acknowledge it. They are so strangled by a corrupted notion of “balance” that they are serving neither themselves nor their public mission of presenting the truth.

I’m not suggesting that the media shouldn’t seek to treat all sides fairly. Of course they should, and their quest to do so is what once made the U.S. media great. It helped provide the informed electorate that a true democracy needs and we no longer have.

But treating all sides fairly and treating them equally are two different things.

Consider some of the misinformation the media have helped put out there in the name of “balance,” misinformation that has led large swaths of the American public to believe things that are demonstrably false:

• Exhibit A is probably global warming. By hearing from the media, repeatedly, and over a period of years, that “this group of scientists says it’s real and that group of scientists says it isn’t,” the public, which lacks scientific knowhow, has been led to believe that the two points of view have equal merit.

• Or how about the idea that vaccines cause autism. That is based on one discredited study that the media treat with the same gravitas as many real studies by real scientists that say the opposite.

• Here’s another one: The notion that because Democrats and Republicans in the Obama years can’t find middle ground that the two sides are equally intransigent. In fact, the mulishness has come from the Republican side.

That’s not a partisan conclusion. Republicans have stated from the start that they wouldn’t play ball. Barack Obama, a former community organizer, came into the presidency from a background of negotiation and compromise. Indeed, some of his former supporters gravitated to Bernie Sanders this year because they thought Obama compromised too much and fear that Hillary Clinton would do the same.

Yet despite the evidence, the smug, self-congratulatory, “hey, look at me, I’m balanced” media narrative is that Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable.

And the no-longer-informed electorate buys into it, just as they bought into earlier media narratives that George W. Bush was nothing more than a friendly dolt, or Al Gore and John Kerry were arrogance and not much else, end of discussion.

Which brings us to the current major false equivalency media narrative—that the misrepresentations and deceit of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are on a par.

Trump is by far a bigger liar than Clinton, in a profession that attracts them, according to websites that monitor statements by candidates.

But the media feels as though they can’t put that conclusion out there. It’s not “balanced.” They need to find a “they all do it” example from Clinton’s past. So they give the thoroughly discredited narrative about Benghazi way more coverage than it deserves. Ditto the email “scandal.”

If anything, studies have shown, the media have treated Clinton’s excursions away from rectitude as far more egregious than Trump’s.

I’m not saying Clinton is squeaky clean on the email; I’m saying look at it in context. Is it really up there with Teapot Dome and Watergate and telling a lie that caused young Americans and Middle Easterners to die in the desert? That was an act of murder by a president.

What Clinton did with her emails was not wonderful, but, c’mon, it was not that big a deal. As Sanders said (I’m paraphrasing), I’ve heard enough about your damned emails.

But for the press to put all that in context would blow up their narrative of all points of view being equal; it might harm their sanctimonious self-image of always hewing to the middle ground.

It would destroy their beloved narrative that “both sides hate their candidates equally, and for good reason.”

This is not a small thing. Treating the issues this way affects the way the public views candidates. As of this writing it has already strongly influenced the public perception of Clinton in a way that is unfair to her and could change all our futures.

The irony is that, while the media are doing this in the name of balance, they are in fact actively carrying water for one side: Trump, who thinks Clinton’s full name is Hillary Crooked Clinton, and the Republican party, whose only chance of winning this presidential election is to make Clinton look worse than Trump.

In other words, while the media congratulate themselves for being balanced, they are in fact being unbalanced and inaccurate because they are not providing context.

Well, what can be done about this? It’s a tricky business, deciding what’s news; nothing to be glib about. If you get cocky and take it upon yourselves to decide what is true and what is not, without any standards or guidelines, you end up a one-sided propaganda machine like Fox News.

That’s as bad as, if not worse than, false equivalency.

Is there some other way? I honestly don’t know, and I’ve wrestled with this (as have many others in the media who haven’t surrendered to the “we have our narrative and it’s in the middle of the road so we’re sticking with it” trope).

The only suggestion I can come up with is to provide context, in every article and toward the top. Thus whenever the press writes about vaccines and autism they should allude to the studies, discredited and otherwise. Put Clinton’s emails in their larger context, the context of what programs she proposes, what she has done and will do, other “scandals,” and her opponent’s mendacity ratings.

If balance is the media’s “b” word, context is my “c” word. Without it there is no proper understanding of an issue, an event, or a person. But in this age of Twitter, I’m not sanguine about the prospects for news delivery based on context and background. The prognosis is grim.

The current model of delivering news is broken, and it harms us and our system of government. If it doesn’t change, we will, and not for the better.

Bob Cuddy lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor a letters@newtimesslo.com

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