Monday, March 28, 2005

Musings 21--Fair and balanced journalism?

I went through journalism school from 1966 to 1970. W. Page Pitt was one of my reporting instructors. For those of you not in the know,the school of journalism at Marshall University was named after him. Page Pitt was a stickler for facts. He seldom used the word fair. It was facts, fairness be damned! I have absolutely no recollection of him ever using the word balanced with journalism.

Fair and balanced were not things old school journalists cared about. Facts! Just the facts! Let the devil take the hind part. If someone got burned because of it, then so be it.

I remember writing a story for the student newspaer, The Parthenon, in which a group of football players had been promised all sorts of things if they would come and enroll at Marshall University. When they came, some were taken care of and others were not. The ones that were not taken care of were upset, and they were more than happy to tell their story to me. I interviewed several of them and ran a front page story outlining thier gripes. I called up the head football coach and asked him about their allegations. He gave me his version and told me that "there is no story there." Well, to make a long story short. There was a story, and before it was all said and done, there were coaches fired. The head football coach never spoke to me again after that. He thought that I betrayed him...and, I guess I did. I betrayed him for the facts. I just wrote the story using information about all the things the recruits had been promised, and I made sure I had multiple sources for my facts.

As a journalist, I felt that the facts needed to see the light of day. I could have looked the other way and not written the story, but someone else probably would have. And, if no one else would have written it; then, irregularities would have gone unreported which could not pass the smell test. (If it smells bad it probably is bad. This test is used in milk, cheese and news reporting.)

Now about the phrase, "Fair and Balanced." What does that mean! Who are we being fair to? I guess I was unfair to the coach, but if I had not run the story, I would have been unfair to the athletics who had been promised scholarships and jobs if they'd only come to Marshall.

What does the "Balanced" part mean? Balanced to what? Liberal to conservative. Good to evil. Republican to democrat. Fact to fiction. There is absolutely nothing "Balanced" in news reporting if one is striving for the facts.

A news story is simply that...a story. It is told by the reporter who takes the facts and writes them up in a way that make some sort of sense out of many muddled situations. Truth is in the eye of the beholder. I get the feeling that conservatives think that they have a lock on truth telling. Liberals are much the same in their condescending attitudes toward social issues. The facts are neither liberal or conservative. The facts are the facts...nothing more nor less. Sometimes the reporter gets the facts wrong. That is why there are retractions.

The next time you hear Fox News declare that they are "Fair and Balanced," just ask yourselves...what exactly does that mean?


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