Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Calling torture, "torture," and the problem of false balance

If you have a moment in the next couple days, listen to Monday's Radio West (a brilliant interview show produced by Salt Lake City's NPR affiliate), which centers around the recent controversy over the NPR ombudsman's declaration that water boarding cannot be referred to as torture (a characterization accepted by 140 of the world's nations) by NPR reporters, for the sake of supposed objectivity.

The program provides an interesting discussion about journalism, ethics, and the power of language. The best moment comes when guest Bob Garfield, of On the Media, talks about this as an example of the media's insistence on what he calls "false balance," or the idea that anybody who has a different view than the majority, should be represented as a legitimate voice, even if it is completely irrational. Sometimes there are not two legitimate points of view, he argues, sometimes there is the truth and there is a lie. Knowing which is which requires a journalist's judgment and is a sign of good journalism, not of bias.

I truly think this false balance problem is a symptom of the ridiculous clammering about the "liberal media" that has been going on at least since the Reagan era (at least that's what I always hear was the beginning of this claim). Moves like the ombudsman's, especially from such a respected news outlet like NPR, can only be read as desperate attempts to appear nonpartisan or ideologically neutral.

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