Monday, July 30, 2007

Two sides to every story?

A column on today’s Wall Street Journal (yes, I also read other papers) by Dennis Patrick and Thomas W. Hazlett, both former Federal Communications Commission officials, tackled the now defunct “Fairness Doctrine” — the rule that forced broadcasters to basically give time for other “contrasting perspectives” when a controversial issue was raised.

In it, Patrick and Hazlett criticized U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, and others for efforts to re-impose “fairness” regulation.

The issue of government enforcement and regulation notwithstanding, there is a school of thought in journalistic circles that says that in order to be fair, every side has to be presented. And everyone can agree with that.

But not every position has two or more sides.

If you allow me to be a bit ridiculous, allow me to present the following example:

Say you are writing a story about the roundness of the Earth. Do you have to introduce the Earth-is-flat crowd?
(Believe me, there are some still out there — look them up).

Now, say you are writing the same story at the time it was discovered the Earth was round. Having a large and loud constituency, the Earth-is-flat crowd has to be part of that story.

The challenge, thus, is determining how large is a certain view. If it is too small, giving that side a forum may distort the story by giving the sides equal footing. Some of this shenanigans passes for debate on cable news channels today (they know you’ll watch with amusement if they get the loonies on their show, news be dammed).

I mentioned some of this to colleague and masterful reporter Paul Kirby, who deadpanned me with this:

“There’s only one side to the story: The truth.”

I could not have said it better.

By the way, the “Fairness Doctrine” didn’t apply to newspapers.
And that is good. I’m a big fan of Uncle Sam, but not if he’s making newsroom decisions.