Monday, December 19, 2005

The incentive problems caused by journalistic "balance"

There's been a lot of comment on the blogosphere, especially on the left, concerning journalistic "balance," or the habit of treating everything as a "he said/she said" story with no effort at assessment even if one side is provably correct. Thus, if Cheney says up is down and Harry Reid disagrees, the headline will say "Cheney Vigorously Insists Up is Down," with Harry's disagreement in paragraph five.

(Of course, this is better than Bob Woodward-style journalism, which would simply report as unsourced fact, based on the best inside sources, that up is down.)

I saw another example of this journalistic idiocy in the Sunday NY Times Book Review for 12/18, where the reviewer of the book "The Republican War on Science" denounced the author for being too one-sided and shrill, despite (a) agreeing that in fact what the book said was accurate, and (b) recollecting an occasion when the author of the review had been forced to supply "balance" even though one side was demonstrably totally wrong. Some habits are too deeply engrained to shake even when the truth is staring you in the face.

But if you think a bit more about mindless "balance." you come to realize that the Bush Administration, in a sense, is not entirely to blame for how they have exploited it to make wildly false assertions that then can reported without demur. These people are simply responding to the incentives the press gives them - admittedly, a bit more aggressively than most of their precursors on either side of the aisle, but then again successful strategies evolve over time.

If the press is going to say "He said/she said" no matter what, with absolutely no effort to test either side's assertions for internal logic, consistency with known facts, etc., then one no longer has any incentive to be reasonable. (The usual incentive to be reasonable is that you will lose credibility otherwise. Better to claim and get half a loaf then to claim the whole thing and get zilch.) But if your side will be your side no matter what, then the only thing that benefits you is being as extreme and shrill as possible. Just like, in a tug of war, the harder you pull the better off you are.

A stupid, mindless, timid, self-serving, cowardly, incompetent, ignorant journalistic practice that emerged by itself as a useful professional norm turns out to be a great danger to democracy and public deliberation. I wish I had a cure to suggest other than the naive one of better, smarter, more honest and honorable people in the press, which is a tall order when you observe where even the vile Woodward started out.

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