One of the problems with news and newslike coverage in the media these days is one-sidedness. Slant has been with us for a long time, but in an era of Fake News and Alternative Facts, it’s taken on a more important role in the way people perceive and interact with the world. People easily fall into echo chambers, populated entirely by peers and media outlets who share their worldview. A lack of dissent, coupled with reinforcement of existing beliefs, surely comforts, but comes at a cost. Not challenging yourself to consider new or opposing ideas means possibly missing out on important truths. Truths which, in a changing world, become ever more crucial for good decision-making and competent policy creation. To step out of the echo chamber and think more critically, we should adopt the accounting concept of the balance sheet.
Think of any commercial you’ve ever seen. Did it ever tell you the negative aspects of whatever product it advertised? Sure, on some ads there is small print or fast talk at the end, inserted by law, explaining risks and side effects of their new miracle pill, but these obligatory messages seldom receive placement on par with the description of how it will cure what ails you. Even worse, disclaimers are inserted largely only when legal regulations force the issue. Most commercials seem to present their products only in the best possible light. They’re more interested in selling products than providing a balanced report of the pros and cons. In other words, their balance sheet has only one column.
The same is true of political issues. Candidates and policies became products to sell. Communication in favor of a political “product” explores only the positives. Meanwhile, those against it paint a grim picture of how that person or policy will bring only ruin. Seeking out what are essentially social or political opinion “ads” means seldom facing contrary information. If, instead of comfort and affirmation, what you really want is good information and food for thought, it’s best to avoid taking partisan hacks seriously. Or, at the very least, consider various slanted viewpoints, using them to balance and correct each other. (Of course, there are not always matched pairs of valid viewpoints.) You can’t force other people to be fair and balanced, even if that’s their advertising slogan. (Especially not after the demise of the Fairness Doctrine.) However, you can choose the sources from which you consume news and opinion.
The Fairness Doctrine isn’t a bad place to start when considering both sides of the balance sheet. According to the generally left-leaning Washington Post, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters seeking a license to devote some of their airtime to fairly presenting controversial matters of public interest. Broadcasters were also required to present varied and opposing views on the subject, choose suitable speakers to represent both sides of the balance sheet, as it were, and to notify those who might be criticized in their programming so those people could provide a defense of their positions.
According to the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t very fair. In their view, having to present multiple views on matters of public importance violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Further, while the limited number of media outlets (like TV and radio stations) in 1949 necessitated the Fairness Doctrine as a public service, the proliferation of media outlets since then meant that people no longer relied on balanced programming to learn about the issues of the day. Instead, people who cared to research such matters could find their own sources, so the civil rights of broadcasters would be protected.
What is the Fairness Doctrine? by Ray Starr
In reality, allowing broadcasters to abandon any pretense of fairness resulted in greater airtime for political hacks. Conservative talk radio proliferated after the Fairness Doctrine died. People are less informed now, but hey, it’s good for business. Chances are slim that the Fairness Doctrine will be re-established when we’re now discussing abolishing the FCC itself. I’ll leave it to readers to decide if they favor an ideology that sees failing to present both sides of the balance sheet as an advancement of the public good. However, looking at both sides of the Fairness Doctrine reveals more information than one would have learned from observing only one side.
The balance sheet is also a useful tool for considering any other political speech. For example, some opinions about gun control present guns only as a source of freedom and strength against would-be oppressors. Others present guns only as a tool which enables the harm of innocents, especially domestic abuse victims and children. In reality, guns are both. They have become so politicized that finding balanced consideration of guns and gun control is increasingly difficult. The same is true of other hot-button issues, such as abortion, religion, and immigration. Almost every issue has pros and cons, and it’s important to consider both. Who would be helped? Who gets hurt? Who pays?
Seeking out opposing viewpoints may not seem comforting at first, because nobody likes to feel like they’re wrong. However, the long-term good of our society depends upon making good decisions, and that means we must consider both sides of the balance sheet. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.