A Newfangled Ethos of Fairness

Old news

“The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was — in the Commission’s view — honest, equitable, and balanced. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987. The FCC formally removed the language that implemented the Doctrine, in August 2011.

The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows, or editorials. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing views but required that contrasting viewpoints be presented. The demise of this FCC rule has been considered by some to be a contributing factor for the rising level of party polarization in the United States.”

Wikipedia (edited of links)

 

The words: “to be fair,” are the three most dreadful words uttered by journalists, reporters, newscasters, as well as, opinion writers in this modern era.  When a journalist, opinion writer, newscaster or reporter casually, utters those three words —usually after a proposition or conclusion, the inferable “end result” diminishes the logical integrity of the entire report or commentary. These words can, also, bring the continuity of the report/piece to a screeching halt, forcing the audience to stand idly by and bear witness as it twirls down the popular-media toilet.  More than just a simple pivot, it can, also, segue into a complex appeal to moderation.

High(er) Broderism is journalistic creed that exemplifies this complex appeal. Forged into a foundational base, High Broderism creates numerous pathways that can straddle a narrative fence.  David S. Broder (1929 – 2011) was a political columnist for the Washington Post.  His centrist proclivity dominated his columns, as well as, his television guest appearances and his writing style used a template where the journalistic objective was to highlight both sides of an issue, state how they both have valid points and conclude that, together, there is an obvious middle ground, which leads to an ultimate endgame conclusion.

Now, the not so nice way to describe Broder’s style is “to play both sides into the middle.”  A standard example of his style would begin with a critique of some politician or to formulate some hypothesis around a particular set of policies. He then followed up by cherry picking some of the details, drawing a predetermined conclusion and finally he diminished the hypothesis/critique with a contrived set of self-deprecating excuses such as: how the people have spoken and he was in no position to challenge the wisdom of the status quo.

Meanwhile, Ron Fournier — currently the Publisher and Editor of Crain’s Detroit Business — was perennial contributor to The Atlantic, The National Review and was the bureau chief for the Associated Press until 2010. During his tenure, he became a perpetual punching bag of his peers; who were critical of his journalistic style; that straddled the ideological fence so well, his political affiliations were cloaked by a cacophony of melodic moderation.

Fournier takes things a step further by removing some of the rebar out of Broder’s foundation thereby dumping Dave’s endgame goal.  His readers were subjected to a gassy explanation about some subject only to be fabulously diminished by a concluding summary, which ends up becoming an extremely weak tu quoque fallacy or a zero-point argument. A journalistic cad who dishonors his ethical vows by insulting the intelligence of his audience.  When offering a journalistic opinion, the opinion must be based on facts and the premise must be followed a proposition or conclusion that does not create contradictions. Yet, some lame contradiction turned out to be the whole point of the article.  Together, Broder and Fournier created the groundwork, by default, of a de facto paradigm based on nothing more than wishy-washy bullshit.

The Press’ main function is to report the facts.  Their secondary function is to offer opinions when those facts do not tell the entire story.  This secondary function is arguably the more difficult of the two.  An Op-Ed is supposed to start with the facts to construct a narrative, which ultimately draws a conclusion that fills in the blanks.  Achieving this goal, without straying into supposition, or fantasy for that matter, can be problematic to say the very least.  Broder and Fournier strayed into supposition by assuming there is always a middle ground or by implying both sides are ultimately the same.  Both assertions create contradictions and promote a form of magical thinking.

With the addition of cable news outlets and the internet, this pedantic paradigm has mutated into a new-fangled standard, which has complicated journalistic ethics and altered their, contemporary, modus operandi. As a result, its potential audience is now subtlety deluged with faulty comparisons or false equivalencies that lead to all sorts of lame contradictions.  As a consequence, an inevitable refrain has manifested itself by calling for the government reinstate the fairness doctrine. The main problem with this notion is that the doctrine only applied to public airwaves. Media in the 21st century is delivered, primarily, by privately owned conduits that would not be subject to the rule. Moreover, the fairness doctrine was about equal time and not about “fairness of content.” Regardless, this goes far beyond equal time, common ground, tu quoque fallacies and has transformed into a bizarre, newfangled ethos of journalistic duty.

Journalists, broadcasters and the rest of the newsroom aren’t the only ones using, or abusing, this newfangled ethos. Publicly traded corporate news outlets complicate matters because their primary purpose is the acquisition of advertising greenbacks and keeping Wall Street analysts ecstatic. Ratings and subscriptions drive the cycle. The on-air news channels bombard their audiences with pissing matches, circus acts and incessant blather by cadres of bloviating know-it-alls who end up creating: journalistic entropy —all in the name of… being fair. Moreover, the growth of the internet and social media has skewed journalistic ethics to the point where the average person is bombarded with more bullshit than actual fact-based news. This, unfortunately, means that the whole point of the endeavor is to sell something, which is basically, “bias-conflict-for-dollars.”

Make no mistake, being fair has become a cash cow for publicly traded corporate entities. Even some of the more ideological outlets use the paradigm to assume the appearance of being neutral.  One particular cable channel included the words “fair and balanced” into their corporate slogan, which was total bullshit once their content was indigested. This means that — not only is this so-called fairness overused, but it’s also exploited to sell 30 second commercial spots.

Facts matter and no amount of moderating emesis can alter that certainty.  Facts, unfortunately, get drowned out by waves of contrived bedlam, perpetrated by an unnecessary need to be fair. Moreover, this fairness is nothing more than visual/verbal drama that creates an illusion of credibility, which is a news consumer’s worst-case scenario. A scenario that will only end when the noise subsides and when facts, logic and ethics take precedence over contrived fairness.

Additional reading:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/rise-of-the-crazy-buts/470430/

https://newrepublic.com/minutes/136532/ron-fourniers-goodbye-ron-fournier-article-time

https://www.thenation.com/article/how-false-equivalence-is-distorting-the-2016-election-coverage/

https://washingtonmonthly.com/2017/05/05/chris-cillizza-the-high-priest-of-higher-broderism/

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