Fair and balanced?

Posted 6/3/21

When Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch cooked up the Fox News Network in 1996, Ailes decided to subtitle the network “Fair and Balanced.” As marketing gimmicks go, it was clever. It spoke to …

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Fair and balanced?

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When Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch cooked up the Fox News Network in 1996, Ailes decided to subtitle the network “Fair and Balanced.” As marketing gimmicks go, it was clever. It spoke to longstanding critiques of the so-called mainstream media and served as a meme for both critics and advocates of the network. When you thought of “fair and balanced,” you thought of Fox News.

Today, Fox’s slogan is long gone. The network abandoned it in 2017. Its head honchos decided either to drop the pretense or freshen the brand, depending on your point of view. It did so during a period in time during which the reputation of news networks has never been lower.

A recent poll by Edelman Communications, a global PR company that has tracked public opinion of media, found that 46% of Americans trust traditional news media. The same poll also determined 56% of Americans believe journalists purposely mislead people and traffic in exaggerations in service to an agenda. According to prior polling by the firm, trust in American media is at an all-time low.

The struggle then for all media companies to demonstrate balance and fairness is profound. Most people don’t understand that the vast majority of reporters honestly only want to report good stories. Those reporters are also supervised by editors, the vast majority of whom want only to hold those reporters to the rigorous standards of journalism – to strive for balance and thoroughness. Yet those efforts are consistently diluted by media figures ranging from YouTube polemicists to late night hosts on cable news networks like Fox and MSNBC, where balance is clearly not the prime objective.

That struggle has been made even more difficult in recent years by a steady stream of cuts to media companies. According to PEW Research Center, newspapers cut their newsroom staffs by 51 percent between 2008 and 2019. With cuts to staff and other funding to news gathering, it’s difficult to produce balanced, thorough coverage. What is a lot less expensive is opinion journalism in which editorial standards take a back seat to entertainment values, a feature of prime time cable news networks.

It’s not hard to understand how these degradations in the news Americans consume has been the source of a widespread lack of trust. That mistrust has also been fueled in no small part by politicians for whom media skepticism is a convenient way to avoid deeper scrutiny of their own actions. Nothing has been worse for the news than the “Fake News” refrain from a political class that has never been more free to act shamelessly than they do today.

There are no really easy ways to combat the worsening outlook for public trust in the media, not while the incentives of genuinely biased media are so great. We all work in the hope the stories speak for themselves and that a savvy readership can discern a source of genuine journalistic practice from a slanted propaganda generator. It’s an increasingly tough education effort, but one we need more than ever.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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