Early in the 20th century, the FCC and the Communications Act of 1934 introduced something called the “Fairness Doctrine” and the “Equal-time rule,” respectively. In laymen’s terms, the Fairness doctrine required American broadcasters to present pressing issues of great importance to the nation and to offer a “balanced” perspective of those issues in their media. So, too, the Equal-time rule meant that if a politician got a few minutes of air time on the radio, the broadcaster was legally required to offer his opponent the same amount of airtime. These “rules” played a huge role in how people received media up until 2011 when the FCC voted to do away with the Fairness doctrines altogether.
Of course, gone or not, those rules are, in many ways, still ingrained in our expectations of how we consume information. Turn on any TV, and even Fox News will offer a “liberal” perspective. And though neo-cons complain that CNN is part of the liberal mainstream media, Newt Gingrich has his own show there, too. So, it’s fair to say that the media strives to portray itself as “fair and balanced,” even though we all have different opinions about what really is “fair” or “balanced.”
To be fair (pun intended), it’s a nice idea, really, that we could have a news organization that presents information from both sides of the aisle. It’s kind of the Socratic method in action, is it not? Even in college, if you’re writing a philosophy paper, you’re taught to anticipate and present the opposing argument tearing it down before you present your own point of view. But there’s a few problems with this way of presenting information. The first is the assumption that there are only two points of view. Maybe that stems from our history as a nation with a two-party system. Or maybe if you reach back farther even, it has something to do with our very Western notions of Platonic dualism. That is, all the way back to St. Augustine, you can find somebody in Western history talking about the world in terms of good vs. evil, as if it’s just that simple. So it’s not really a big surprise that today, we still look at our world in these really oversimplified terms.
The other problem with a news organization presenting a “fair and balanced” perspective from “both sides of the aisle” is what’s called the false balance fallacy. The false balance fallacy “occurs when two sides of an argument are said to have equal value regardless of their respective merits.” In other words, it’s a bit like putting an elephant and a mouse on a scale and claiming they have the same weight.
And that’s exactly what’s happened to our modern media and our country. Today, there are extremists who make completely false claims on television, the radio, and the internet, but rather than dismissing them for making extreme or outrageous claims, we have given them a voice. We’ve allowed them to occupy a chair which once belonged to more moderate thinkers. In fact if you look at this breakdown, an infographic by XKCD, of some of these extreme ways of thinking – just on the Congressional level – it’s clear that we haven’t been this divided as a country since at least the Civil War.
There’s a scene in one of my favorite new dramas, the “Newsroom,” where Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels), the lead anchor and self-proclaimed Republican of a fictional news network, responds to an attack where a fellow anchor doubts Will’s conservative values asking him, “Do you call yourself a Republican so you can make a claim to credibility when you attack the GOP?” Will responds,
No, I call myself a Republican ’cause I am one. I believe in market solutions, and I believe in common sense realities and the necessity to defend ourselves against a dangerous world and that’s about it. Problem is now I have to be homophobic. I have to count the number of times people go to church. I have to deny facts and think scientific research is a long con. I have to think poor people are getting a sweet ride. And I have to have such a stunning inferiority complex that I fear education and intellect in the 21st century. But most of all, the biggest new requirement, really the only requirement, is that I have to hate Democrats. And I have to hate Chris Christie for not spitting on the President when he got off Air Force One. The two-party system is crucial to the whole operation. There is honor in being the loyal opposition.
Will makes a good point (he makes several). Sometimes, it’s important to hear all perspectives. But sometimes, perspectives are so ridiculous, so insane that giving the extreme view a voice is outright dangerous. Some viewpoints should be killed off, muted, ignored. They should never have gotten the kind of airtime that allowed them to, in any way, become mainstream.
But whose fault is that? The media? The consumer? If we hope for anything to change, we’re going to have to change what we watch, what information we consume. Because what we watch drives what they show us (after all, that’s what makes money). And they’re smart: they, the media, have figured out that we’ll keep the channel on so long as what we’re hearing scares us too much to change it. Fear makes money, which is part-and-parcel why they’ve been giving extremists a voice, because extremists are always fear-mongers. It’s really a pretty simple concept: extremists scare the people, people are consumed with fear, fear makes money, so more extremists means more money.
So, how do we backtrack? How do we take our country back? How do we silence those extremist voices, or do we merely hope that as we trudge forward into the future, those voices will inevitably die off and remain on the “wrong side of history” where they belong? It’s a nice thing to hope for, but history is written by the winners, so maybe it’s better we don’t let them win. But that’s going to require more of us than a blog post or a meme floating around on the internet.