Goodwill vs. “Fair and Balanced”

This blog post is inspired by Jon, whose excellent question about the eunoia aspect of ethos got me thinking more about the concept of “goodwill” toward one’s audience, and also by one of my students. Let’s call her Sally. Here’s an anecdote to frame Sally’s conception of goodwill, which makes me challenge my conception of goodwill as it pertains to ethos.

Sally is a dream student who works hard and really cares about the quality of her writing. She continually questions her scholarly ethos and continually seeks feedback on her work. It was not surprising, then, when she approached me after class to ask about the sources she gathered for a research project. She recognized that her ethos depends largely upon her use of credible, scholarly sources. So far so good. After class, she volunteered a report on how the researching was going and told me, proudly, that she was confident that one source in particular was a good one. The author cares about all readers, she said. She could tell it because the website where she found the source described itself as administering unbiased information. This disclosure, she felt, revealed the corresponding organization’s honesty and goodwill toward multiple audience/s. Hm.

Perhaps it is unfair that my mind immediately produced a slogan from the most watched source of news in the nation, FOX, which proclaims the phrase “fair and balanced.” Over the few years that FOX has actually been around (and yes, here I am contrasting this station with NBC, ABC, and CBS, to argue that longevity does relate at least somewhat to reputability, even if no news source is perfect), this phrase has caused me a range of emotions, from anger to laughter. Recently, the Simpsons poked fun at the concept of Fox as “fair and balanced,” sparking a rebuttal from Bill O’Reilly. Let me just say—I love a confrontation that pits a pundit against animated characters.

Maybe, the whole “fair and balanced” tagline has something to say about eunoia. First of all, it strikes me that FOX could change its tagline to “Conservative News for Conservative Americans” and still carry its primary audience. Also, I would argue that most Americans are smart enough to know that FOX promotes a conservative take on—well—most everything. Even if we substituted “Real” for “Conservative” in my hypothetical tagline, “Real News for Real Americans,” implying that there’s a relationship between conservative viewpoints and authentic Americanness, I do not imagine an audience would be lost.  Why does Fox call itself “fair and balanced” then? Is this the guise of goodwill?

A friend in the communications department told me once that as a reporter, the primary goal is to be “a conduit for information,” that is, there should be no value judgments, and the reporter should report “both sides.” To demonstrate, she said that, for instance, if she had to do a story on global warming, to be ethical, she would need to present the perspectives of both scientists who argue the existence of global warming and global warming deniers. Even if 90% of the population believed one thing and 10% the other, the responsibility would be to show both sides, equally, without bias. Of course, she was speaking generally here. There are some news stories that clearly do not celebrate certain interests (consider news stories on the Westboro Baptist churchers for example).

Clearly, I’m no communications person, and I apologize if I’m misconstruing here, but I wonder if the idea of fair and balanced is a modern-day version of eunoia. That is, for a news source to have ethos, it has to have “goodwill” toward its audience/s. Because the audience could essentially be anyone who has a TV set or Internet connection, is the idea that the best way to do right by everyone is to present issues as pro/con, with half of reporting time devoted to one side and half the other? Translation: pro and con tends to create two clear cut groups when perhaps those groups weren’t so clear cut before–Fair and balanced?

It strikes me that this strategy could be as dangerous as calling yourself “fair and balanced” when you’re really not. For instance, the most “balanced” television show I think I’ve ever seen was Jerry Springer, where the member of the KKK got as much screen time to explain his racist views as the victim of hatred. Jerry just listened on—so concerned and caring . . .

So all my rambling leads me to these questions: at what point does calling oneself “fair and balanced” begin to have nothing to do with eunoia and everything to do with gesturing toward a concept in order to be granted permission to run amuck? At what point does having goodwill toward one’s audience actually mean failing to represent the perspective of one group of people as valid? And is it even possible to have goodwill toward one’s audience when issues are framed as either pro or con, this “camp” or this “camp” when audiences are much more diverse than either “these guys over here” or “those guys over there”? What meanings does this obscure, and what opportunities are missed?


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2 Responses to Goodwill vs. “Fair and Balanced”

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Are there really two legitimate sides to the global warming controversy? Well, on the science side, no. There might be legitimately differing points of view toward what public policy we should take in response to global warming, sure, I can see that. But to deny the science of global warming is wrong — and thus for the media to represent the denialists as having a legitimacy is also wrong. At that point the media is failing in its responsibility to make judgments about legitimacy and validity. An analogous argument lies in the realm of Holocaust denial: Does the US media present two sides on the issue of whether the Holocaust happened? No, they don’t because there aren’t really two sides. There is what we know, and there are crazy people, and you don’t give voice to craziness even in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”

  2. Ben says:

    I find it really bizarre how so many Americans feel it’s their patriotic duty or something to take scientists to task about global warming. I don’t, because I’m not a scientist, and the study of science is a better way to understand global warming than that of rhetoric or composition pedagogy or blues guitar or anything I else I do proficiently. (Though I will say global warming makes me want to play the blues.) I don’t go around telling gourmet chefs how to make the best hollandaise sauce because I’m not a chef. Same situation.

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