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The joke's on us

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Absurd news item of the week: "Fox News Channel has sued liberal humorist Al Franken and the Penguin Group to stop them from using the phrase 'fair and balanced' in the title of his forthcoming book."

The name of the book is slated to be Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. It's a joke, which means we've come full circle. News that really should be fair and balanced--fair, meaning a news organization has analyzed an issue and revealed its findings without prejudice, and balanced, meaning all points of view are accurately represented--has become the joke. And when someone tries to joke about it, they get nailed for telling the truth.

That's the state of affairs we find ourselves in after the mainstream media's pathetic coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq, its breathless reportage during the invasion, and its scramble since then to figure out what went wrong--with the policymakers, not themselves. Coverage wasn't fair because it didn't critically examine the evidence presented to support the war--evidence that's only now getting scrutiny. And it wasn't balanced, because those who raised those issues got barely a mention. Remember the hundreds of thousands of Washington protesters who couldn't get counted?

It has led some Big Thinkers to ponder what's next. One of the biggest, James Fallows in The Atlantic (a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter), thinks the commercial success of Fox News Channel's right-wing pandering will force other media to declare their point of view, making us more like the European press, or the American press in the 19th century. "There will be liberal papers, radio shows, TV programs, and Web sites for liberals...," he writes.

Fat chance. The problem, as we've said before, is that regional and national media (print and TV) don't attempt to reach truly fair and balanced conclusions, wherever they may fall, because they're afraid of alienating readers and viewers. Less alienation=bigger numbers, they figure. The resulting journalism--which (on a good day) translates fair and balanced to mean merely getting a comment from both sides--is just plain boring. It's also dishonest, because both sides usually don't deserve equal weight. Most government decisions pit private gain against the public interest--from a defense contract for a new weapons system down to a shopping center rezoning.

A good example of a story in which it's clear which way the balance is leaning is on page 13. Last week, the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham put out a press release saying its was organizing a campaign against war profiteering in Iraq. It called for congressional hearings into the billions of dollars in contracts given to Halliburton, Bechtel and our own Research Triangle Institute. Radio stations in other parts of the U.S. followed up. But not a single local newspaper or television station covered the story of a local group that had gotten the support of such national figures as Noam Chomsky and Jim Hightower.

It reminds me of coverage of the FCC's deregulation fiasco--as clear a case of public vs. private interest as there can be. It got scant attention at first, but it was a grassroots movement--like the one the Institute for Southern Studies is starting against war profiteering--that made the difference.

We'll see how fair and balanced coverage of the war profiteering campaign is. If the past is any indication, it'll probably be a joke.

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