Not In Presidential Debates or the Nightly News
The quest for the fairness in media coverage of politics has a long and difficult history. Consider the example of the telecast of the 1980 presidential debate between Carter and Reagan. Not since Kennedy debated Nixon in 1960 had presidential candidates met on television. But because many journalists and scholars had noted bias in the 1960 telecasts, the Carter-Reagan debate was carefully designed to avoid any hint of favoritism. Directors chose camera shots and angles for visual equality rather than to simply follow the ebb and flow of the debate.
But the plan failed because Reagan was more active on camera than Carter. Close up shots showing Reagan smiling were followed by identically framed shots of Carter looking down at his notes. Carter seemed weak and disinterested. Things got worse when the director juxtaposed longer shots of the candidates. One high angle shot of Carter diminished his physical stature, making him look small and insignificant compared to his opponent. The whole telecast was an exercise in distortion.
But despite this demonstration that mechanical evenhandedness doesn't work, television networks continue to mold news and public affairs broadcasts to give equal weight to “both sides" of an argument, no matter the actual substance of the different viewpoints.
Two recent examples come from the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, the top-rated broadcast news show. Reporting on the passage of tough new restrictions on abortion in Texas, an NBC correspondent interviewed abortion rights advocates who said the new law would close down a significant number of abortion and women’s health clinics thus leaving many women without important medical services. For an opposing viewpoint, the reporter interviewed a conservative senator who voted for the legislation. She claimed that the law was not as drastic as abortion rights advocates made out. Its primary goal, she said, was to protect women's health not just to curtail abortion. On the surface, matching these two opposing positions seemed reasonable and fair. However, there was one big problem. The senator's statement was not true.The wording of the law and numerous speeches by proponents, including the governor, made clear that the motive for the legislation was ending abortion not improving women's health. Nevertheless, the correspondent's "fair and balanced" report gave the senator's misleading comments the same weight as the well documented arguments of abortion supporters.
Another NBC report discussed the battle between Democrats and Republicans over the Senate filibuster rules. Noting that action in the Senate was frequently impeded by animosity between the parties, the anchor announced that the two party leaders, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, would appear on the network’s Sunday interview program. He urged viewers to tune in to see the two men who share equal responsibility for Senate grid lock.
This observation says much about the fairness pitfall. Reid is not personally appealing and you could easily conclude that he's a typical self-serving politician. However, he is not in the same league as McConnell when it comes to legislative obstruction. The number of Republican filibusters since President Obama took office (241) has exceeded by scores the totals compiled during past administrations. In addition, filibusters are now being used by Republicans to block cabinet and judicial appointments not traditionally subject to filibuster. In short, the current Republican minority is the most obstructive on record and it is an egregious distortion to say that Reid and McConnell are equally responsible.
Though presidential debates and everyday reporting are different in purpose and scale, the bogus quest for fairness comes from the same undiscerning—or maybe timid—mindset. In both cases, using elementary arithmetic to give the appearance of fairness is a formula for distortion.