Dissecting "Fair and Balanced"

(Note: This is the first of two posts addressing the meaning of "fair," "balanced," and "fair and balanced." This post addresses what these terms mean and how they are flawed. The second post addresses their potential effects on cable news in the future.)

CNN is "the most trusted name in news."

MSNBC is "the place for politics."

Fox is the source for "fair and balanced" news.

All three of these cable news stations use these slogans to strengthen their brand image among viewers. CNN is the credible station. MSNBC is the station for people who want politics first and news second. And Fox is the station for people who are fed up with biased reporting. Of these three slogans, it is Fox's that will be scrutinized in this post because its veracity will truly be challenged by the results of this fall's election. Seeing that all news stations should strive to be "fair and balanced," this post should not be construed as a scathing critique of Fox in particular. (Fox just happened to choose a very good slogan.)

To start, "fair" and "balanced" are not interchangeable. "Fair" means that a situation is analyzed impartially or objectively. In other words, bad news is not spun as good news and good news is not spun as great news. Likewise, good news is not diminished and bad news does not go unreported. There is no Republican side or Democratic side when it comes to news. There are only facts. And these facts should be met by viewers of all political leanings with acceptance, be it enthusiastically or grudgingly.

"Balanced" means that all viewpoints are given equal consideration when analyzing or discussing an event. This often means having a liberal and a conservative be given equal time to present their arguments. Unfortunately, however, this "balance" usually means having a bomb-thrower on the left debate a fire-breather on the right. The ensuing shoutfest makes for good television, but it doesn't make for good journalism. And because most voters are somewhere in the mushy middle, moderates, independents, and people who fall into some other political category may not find partisan bickering particularly well "balanced."

One common complaint, usually among conservatives but also among liberals, is the aspect of "media bias." Media bias is often cited in response to negative stories about the chaos in Iraq, reporting on transgressions and missteps by politicians, analyzing the campaign contributions of journalists, and nuanced or selective reporting.

I wrote about media bias here last winter, but I also highly recommend this recent piece by respected political analyst Stuart Rothenberg on why criticizing Republicans these days is objective, rather than partisan:

"But let's not pull any punches about the state of the GOP: You can't nominate mediocre candidates or candidates from divided state or local parties, have Members of Congress admitting to affairs that produced children, have Members' homes and offices raided by the FBI, have Members go to jail, have Members picked up in airport bathrooms and have an unpopular president pursuing an unpopular war during a time of increased economic anxiety and still expect to be popular--or to turn things around.

"Yes, I know, the Democrats have had their share of embarrassments. For every Republican embarrassment, there is a Democratic one.


"Still, it seems to me, and to most people I talk with, that far more Republicans are involved in these problems and investigations of late, especially involving Washington figures. Democrats haven't had anything close to resembling the Jack Abramoff fiasco, for example, during the past few years."
Rothenberg makes a good point, but unfortunately, this is where "fair and balanced" often ceases to be either "fair" or "balanced."

First of all, what may be "fair" is not always "balanced." And what may be "balanced" may not always be what audiences want. How many Republicans wanted Ron Paul to be excluded from the debates, for example? If a television show wished to address September 11, for example, a "balanced" panel might include speakers who viewed it as a terrorist attack against the United States by vile radicals who seek to destroy our way of life as well as speakers who viewed it as a response to perceived American terrorism or aggression abroad. How many people would automatically tune out the latter group of speakers or instantly cite their inclusion in the panel as an example of "liberal media bias" even though the panel is actually "balanced?" And does the fact that this panel is "balanced" make it inherently "unfair?"

In the case of "fair," consider President Bush's approval ratings. By all polls, Bush is a decidedly unpopular president. He has recorded the highest disapproval ratings of any president in modern history. (This is according to reputable polls by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup.) In other words, he is in the same league as Carter and Nixon, at least as far as these polls are concerned. He has been under 40% for about two years now. Partisan defenders of Bush may say that this kind of "negative coverage" and "Bush-bashing" is not "fair," but numbers and statistics have no bias in this case. There is no "balance" when it comes to this. (Consider this graph that has tracked Bush's approval ratings since his inauguration.) The same poll questions are being asked every month and the news is being reported in the same way. So even though stories about "Bush's popularity reaching a new low" may not be positive, they are indeed "fair." "Balance" is irrelevant in this case.

Surely these defenders were happy to trumpet the polls that showed the President with approval ratings above 60%. And shortly after September 11, his approval rating spiked above 90%. Why did polls matter then, but not matter now? When polls actually do matter now, partisans gleefully cite the even more dismal approval ratings of the Democrat-controlled Congress to show that Bush is not the least popular person in Washington. But if reporting on polls is only "fair" when it makes one's preferred politician look good, then it's not really "fair" at all and the quest for "balance" when it's not necessary only further erodes the idea of "fairness."

(This post is continued here.)

7 comment(s):

Thomas said...

Sometimes I think "Fair and Balanced" was created just so liberals would complain about it and then Fox News could say, "See the liberals are complaining about us. We must be doing something right."

But this whole scheme might have worked too well. A friend of mine told me that when she visited her husband's family in a small town in Ireland and the subject of Fox News inexplicably came up, her mother-in-law chimed in to say, "Isn't Fox ultra-conservative?"

The question for Fox News now is, "What do you do when conservatives and their movement is in the toilet?"

Freadom said...

Thomas: I don't think conservatism is in the toilet at all. In fact it's stronger than ever. But that's beside the point.

Man, Anthony, I wish I didn't live such a busy life and had time to read your stuff every day, because it's exactly the stuff I love to read. The way you analyze things is impeccable. Great post.

I'm going on vacation the next few days, and when I get back I'm gonna read all the rest of your recent posts, then I'll have to make time to get here daily.

P.S. The bottom line is MONEY.

Anthony Palmer said...


I agree that conservatism is not dead. However, its reputation is severely tarnished because the purveyors of conservatism essentially ran the movement, its reputation, and the nation into the ground. When Republicans talk about all the awful things that "liberal Democrats" will do, voters tune them out because they've seen the alternative and they don't want to go down that path again. It might not be fair to conservatism, but the Republican Party had near uninterrupted control of Washington for about six years. How do most Americans think that turned out?

As for Fox, last week they showed Obama's speech in which he left his church. After the speech concluded, they immediately went to Sean Hannity "for analysis." So obviously, Hannity blasted Obama and brought back all his other associations, like William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. He had nothing positive to say about the development at all. But I guess that's the "analysis" Fox viewers wanted. I couldn't stomach it anymore and had to change the channel. The conservative slant is fine, but having such a blatant lean (they didn't have a moderate, independent, or liberal counteranalysis!) and passing it off as objective totally contradicts the "fair and balanced" meme. Of course, MSNBC does it too with liberals, but it's not as egregious, IMO.

Anthony Palmer said...


Thanks a lot for the kind words. Glad you like what you read here. Unfortunately, I'm juggling a lot of balls too just like you and don't have the time to research news and write here as often as I'd like. So I try to update this blog at least once every three or four days or so. Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful comments and hope you'll come back and let us know your thoughts. I think having a right-of-center view displayed here will help enhance the conversations on this blog. Thanks again.

Freadom said...

I think most people want to hear news from a perspective that they agree with, and that's why Fox News is so popular. It's really the only source on cable news that tilts right. And you and I both know that is the intent of the Fair and Balanced Network.

CNN tailors to the middle of the road crowd (Lou Dobbs was a mod repub. now proclaimed independant), MSNBC to the left wing crowd. And mamy of our so called newspapers and mags tilt to the left. Thus, there are many options for democrats and independents, but only a few options for those on the right.

Hence, Fox leads the cable news wars. IMO of course.

Freadom said...

Just for the record, I do not watch Fox News because I agree with it. I like to hear what other people have to say. But that's just me. Most people don't do that, I'd imagine.

Freadom said...

That didn't make sense what I just wrote. I meant that I do not watch Fox very often, I watch CNN most of the time.