Friday, July 03, 2009

What is Balance ?

I realize that while I have repeatedly defined Ballance, I have yet to offer a definition of balance. I realized that this was a mistake when Howard Kurtz demonstrated complete ignorance of the meaning and etymology of the word.

In a Post chat Mr Kurtz wrote

Howard Kurtz: My pretense hasn't been very consistent, since I've written lengthy pieces on both Joe and Mika. Morning Joe figured into my calculation, in that it's an opinionated show (with Scarborough balanced a little bit by Brzezinski) that no one would confuse with straight news ...

Then responded to a puzzled inquiry from a Morning Joe fan

Balanced by Mika?: I love Morning Joe and don't watch the evening chatter on any cable. I do not know what Mika's politics are, but I often find her marked by deference to her men (reminds me of a "powerful" woman in '40's screwball company). Today's show featured Mika interviewing noted philanderer Rudy Giuliani regarding Sanford and political affairs. Instead of having Rudy talk about his own broad and deep experience on the subject, including the use of public funds on mistresses, she allowed it to become a discourse on Bill Clinton. Oy.

Howard Kurtz: Look, it's Joe's show, he's a former Republican congressman and an unabashed conservative (albeit one who hasn't hesitated to criticize his party). Mika is a lifelong journalist, not a liberal advocate, with views that are certainly to the left of Scarborough's. All I said is that she added a little balance. It's not set up like Crossfire where their views have equal weight.

So evidently someone well to the right can be balanced, at least a little, by anyone to his left. Thus moderate right would balance far right. Kurtz definitely does not claim that Bzerzinski is, in any way, left of center. The problem is that he seems to think that the concept of "balance" has some meaning separate from the definition of the center.

In origin the word refers to a simple device used to weigh things. Simple balances consist of a rigid bar resting on a fulcrum and two pans of equal weight which must be an equal distance from the fulcrum. To get accurate weights it is not sufficient that the two pans be attached at different points on the bar, nor is it enough that they be on different sides of the fulcrum.

A balance can be "in balance." Consider the bar to be an axis going without loss of generality North South. The balance is in balance when the sum of the weights times how far North of the fulcrum they are is zero. Without a fulcrum the word has no plain English meaning.

This means that to agree on whether something is balanced, we must agree on a fulcrum. We don't. This means that we can agree that a news or commentary program presents a variety of points of view making fruitful debate possible, but there is no chance that we will agree that it is balanced. It is possible that the vast majority of people will agree that both left of center and right of center views are expressed, but there is no hope that we will agree about how far left and right they are. There isn't an agreed center and there never will be one unless and until all political debate ends because we all agree.

This is very important, because, in practice, Kurtz et al define the center as half way between Republicans and Democrats. Thus the view that Iraq did not have WMD was a fringe view to be mentioned briefly if at all. Yet it happened to be true. Thus Bush's and Kerry's records with regard to Vietnam were equally controversial.

I think it is clear that the idea of "balance" is not relevant to the practice of journalism. One can aim for debate for consideration of a diversity of views, but one can't commit to balance without allowing Karl Rove to make you give equal weight to truth and lies.


Anonymous said...

July 3, 2009

Does John McCain Have a Legitimate Place in American Politics? I Say No

This is why -

Michelle Goldberg on Sarah Palin:

"Is She a Narcissist?" *


-- Brad DeLong

[Imagine the disdain for a woman from the Berkeley thought police.]

Michael Drake said...

Robert, just a question about nomenclature: did you intend the double 'l' in 'ballance' to represent the equality symbol turned on its side? It would be nice to think so.

Anonymous said...

July 8, 2009

Republicans: The Party for People Who Don't Like Black People

-- Brad DeLong

[The Berkeley intimidator, always ready to swing an "ax handle."]