'Balance'or Pandering?

The Clarion-Ledger's editorial director has asserted that when Molly Ivins was alive, he ran Ivins and Ann Coulter columns in rotation because they "balance" one another.

I'm slightly more cynical—I think the Ledger runs Coulter to pander to a small contingent of readers who would complain about "balance" if her column were gone. (Plus, her sensational column generates letters.)

What's interesting, though, is that The Clarion-Ledger seems unconcerned that what it publishes by Coulter may not be true. Indeed, it's not clear whether the veracity of her assertions is a consideration at all.

There's an expectation—a meme, an urban legend—in today's media landscape, that the news needs to be "balanced." For years, most daily newspapers have followed a theory of journalism called "objective" journalism, in which "both" (or, when the reporter is really working at it, multiple) sides of an issue are supposed to be represented.

Oddly, most people also feel that this approach to journalism is what keeps opinion out of the news stories. That's what makes them objective. Ironically, though, this approach actually tends to inject more opinion into news coverage, because most of what we hear or read is one source's opinion followed closely by another source's opinion, rather than facts.

What we have to keep out at all costs—the thinking goes—is the reporter's opinion. Never mind that the reporter is the person being paid to study the issue for us.

When done badly, objective stories start to sound like this: According to members of the NAACP, the shooting in the Meridian plant did not appear to be racially motivated; the Ku Klux Klan responded that it was.

Too frequently, the newspaper relies on a "he-said, she-said" between an official source and media-friendly detractors. Got a problem with an over-reaching law enforcement officer? Call the ACLU. Got a problem with the ACLU? Call Rush Limbaugh. Got a problem with Rush Limbaugh? Call Al Franken.

See the pattern? It doesn't matter how much more credible one source is, you've got to balance that source with the other side. Even if the other side is a nut case.

"He said, she said" journalism should not be the Holy Grail of the newspaper profession. It's more like a newspaper talk show. It's lazy. It's empty calories.

As that Clarion-Ledger editor rolls over and switches off the light for a good night's sleep, he tells himself, People on both sides of the political spectrum hate us. So we must be doing something right. But let's go one better than that. Let's seek the approval of the people who want to read the truth.

What got me thinking about balance this week was not an article in The Clarion-Ledger but a cartoon. The cartoon, by former Pulitzer nominee Marshall Ramsey, showed Mayor Frank Melton on a float mocking District Attorney Faye Peterson, Judge Tomie Green and Attorney General Jim Hood. It's actually a cute cartoon—Ramsey is good. Everyone loves his little wheels.

My problem with the cartoon is that Ramsey places Peterson, Green and Hood in a small holding pen labeled "Frank Haters." You have to look at it a few times before it sinks in. Frank Haters?

Since the label isn't really funny, I assume it's explanatory in that way labels on political cartoons are supposed to be. So how does that come to be their label?

These three public officials represent, in the "objective" world of The Clarion-Ledger, the "other side" of the Frank Melton issue. Seen through that prism, it's supposed to make sense that the people who are trying to rein in a wild mayor—who has, so far, pled guilty to misdemeanor gun charges and has an upcoming felony court date—must hate him.

But how does the editorial cartoonist know it's true?

Maybe the cartoon doesn't have to be true. Maybe the news stories, columns and editorials don't have to be true, either. Every so often Donna has a guest columnist or letter writer who gets blazingly angry because she tells the writer that their high-handed screed needs to be backed up by verifiable facts before it will be printed. But it's my opinion! they say, as if they're quoting Lincoln. Opinions don't have to be backed up by facts, they assert. You just print 'em anyway.

Maybe that makes sense in a world where the daily newspaper runs Ann Coulter.

Is it really true that Jim Hood hates Frank Melton? Does that seem to be the motivation for his actions? Is that why, after repeatedly and deferentially warning Melton not to carry guns in very specific places, Hood decided that it was his responsibility to charge Melton when eye witnesses saw him with guns in churches, parks and at a college?

Was it really hate that motivated Judge Green to rescind Mr. Melton's house arrest when he went out on a nightclub raid after his curfew, wearing a badge, in direct violation of his probation and house arrest, and without proper notification to his parole officer? This given the fact that she, very deferentially and considerately, had decided to help him obscure the fact that he was under house arrest?

Is that hate?

Quite frankly, Faye Peterson may hate Frank Melton. I don't know how I'd feel if Mayor Frank E. Melton stood at a press conference next to a convicted felon while that felon said to the press and cameras that I had "f**ked" a bail bondsman. I might be putting some hate on.

(Of course, one might also reasonably infer that Mr. Melton hated Faye Peterson because he facilitated that exchange.)

But is it really hate that motivated Faye Peterson to bring Melton up on felony charges in a case where he allegedly destroyed a duplex on Ridgeway Street with a billy club and sledgehammers and instructed others, one of them a 16-year-old, to do the same? This on the same night that members of his lawn crew allegedly descended from the Mobile Command Center and beat a nightclub owner?

Running Ann Coulter and calling people who have called Melton to legal account for his actions "haters" is, at best, telling some people in town what they want to hear.

That's pandering, really. It's sure not journalism.

Previous Comments


Dig it. Never mind that the reporter is the person being paid to study the issue for us. never contextualized reporters as such indeed, reporters are our public servants in the market who are being supported precisely because they are ostensibly combing the events of the day for meaning and presenting that meaning to the public. i think alot of people would be taken aback by the presumption that reporters are to prescribe meaning to current events. However, the very process of creating a publication entails limited space and choices on content...reporting entails decisions regarding who to talk to and who to attribute public opinion to...reporters often choose singular personalities to represent an entire demographic. Trying to feign "objectivity" in reporting is at best disingenuos, at worst it creates a twisted sound-byte world void of middle-ground and solutions.

daniel johnson


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