Giving up on the idea of balanced analysis
After giving the keynote address at the Maine Municipal Association conference a few years back, I was approached by a woman who introduced herself as a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience. I congratulated her and thanked her for her work. She said she had been impressed by my address, but had been frustrated by something I’d said.
The “something” was a statement I made about the (at times) absurd standard of modern Western journalism that one must demonstrate “balance” by finding and reporting two sides to every story. I had noted wryly that this sometimes means that the community crackpot every citizen recognizes as a crackpot gets quoted, with deference, for opposing something everyone else knows is a good idea.
The journalist told me how much she hated comments like that. She said that any journalist who actually knew what he/she was doing was able to recognize when there really weren’t two sides to a story. In such instances, competent journalists could and did report straight-up accounts that minced no words about what was true, what was sensible and what clearly was the right decision.
I pressed my point politely, acknowledging that I was exaggerating a little. Still, I said, the generalization was essentially true, and did, more often than one might like to admit, lead to the news industry giving a certain degree of credibility to perspectives that were genuinely indefensible. The veteran journalist sighed . . . and agreed.
Yes, she said. In part, this happens precisely because this is what students in journalism school are taught makes for good journalism. Equally important, a reporter who provides competing viewpoints in his/her story, whatever the merits of those viewpoints, is less likely to be questioned by an editor and more likely to see his/her story in print or on the air.
But she reiterated, and I agreed, that the best journalists know when “balance” becomes a liability . . . or worse. The best journalists also have the courage to write the “unbalanced” story when that really is the only reasonable account that can be offered.
I’m not a journalist. Indeed, in some ways I am the antithesis of a journalist. I am a professor . . . a title that refers, in one sense, to advocating a particular understanding of my area of inquiry. While there absolutely are standards of evidence to which scholars in each discipline are expected to hold themselves, there also is an indisputable engagement by many scholars in advancing (“professing”) a particular point of view in areas of current controversy in their discipline. The best scholars do this with respect for the diversity of considered opinion, with a degree of humility about their conclusions, and, perhaps most importantly, a genuine openness to being convinced that they are wrong. But they profess a point of view with all of this in mind, rather than avoiding acknowledging that there might be a “more” and a “less” useful understanding of the situation.
I’m not sure that I fall in the category of “best of scholars.” Nonetheless, here, in the classroom, and at conferences, I try to hold myself to those standards.
What is unfolding in our nation’s capital makes it increasingly difficult for many who normally would strive for balance to stay on that tightrope. Gradually, we are stepping off, taking a stand, proclaiming what rational observation and historical perspective would seem to demand of us. I’m one of those now. Because watching Washington over the last couple of years has convinced me that there is a primary cause of the mess we are in.
I’m in excellent company on this point. Renowned Congressional scholars Thomas Mann (at the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning policy think tank) and Norman Ornstein (at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning policy think tank) are among those who have courageously shifted from placing the blame for the jolting series of failed governance events equally on the various parties to identifying a primary cause (without failing to acknowledge that others are contributing, as well). Their New York Times bestseller, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, makes their case in compelling terms. They lay the blame, in important part, squarely at the feet of the Republican Party. More accurately, they lay the blame at the feet of those within Republican activist, donor and elected ranks who have renounced compromise for the sake of orthodoxy. Such an approach, if adopted by a minority, forces our government into failure. Failure is the inevitable result, because our national political system, as any who have examined our Constitution in detail or read The Federalist Papers will attest, requires cooperation and compromise between the factions in our government to achieve any kind of definitive outcome.
Being a spectator of recent events is painful. It is hard for me to watch a minority block of the Grand Old Party willfully endanger the delivery of government services and the already-tarnished credit rating of the nation to pursue a policy agenda on health care that even their Republican colleagues have said was rejected by the voters in 2012. It is especially so when the only apparent justification for such a fiscally-rash game of chicken is the conviction that they are right, even as they (knowingly or otherwise) make statements that are patently false in the name of proving they are in uniquely privileged possession of the truth.
There are things one wins at the ballot box. There are things one wins through the give and take of drafting and amending legislation. Wise legislators through the decades have recognized that there are times one wins, and times one loses. Losses need to be analyzed for lessons that can be gleaned. But they also must be accepted as products of a process and of institutions that are more important than the outcome of a particular policy fight.
Wise legislators never seriously endanger the very system on which all of this rests. Because wise legislators value something much more than they value their own opinion, something more than winning, more than scoring political points.
Wise legislators value their country.
And wisdom, in certain quarters, seems very lacking right now.