Paul Krugman on Journalistic Balance

The missing voices

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman addressed the cult of balance in the debt debate Friday when he wrote:

News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of ‘centrist’ uprising as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides. Some of us have long complained about the cult of ‘balance,’ the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”

You can put Campaign Desk in the camp of complainers. We have long argued that the kind of oh-too-typical “he said, she said—differing views on an issue” story has served audiences poorly. It has left them either uninformed about what they should or need to know or unable to sort out the divergent views presented as balance. Is the earth really flat, or is it round, to carry on Krugman’s analogy? The coverage of health care was an example, but so has been coverage of Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, and their role—or non-role—in the deficit mess.

Krugman asserts that the cult’s role in what the public sees and hears is no laughing matter. “The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster,” he wrote. I am not going to comment on whether a disaster befalls us now, in the future, or ever. That’s for economists like Krugman to sort out. The press questions he raises are a different matter. Krugman could have carried his balance cult theory one step further. One kind of balance—and a necessary one—has been almost entirely missing from the coverage of these issues. That’s the balance provided by ordinary people affected by changes in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food programs, and whatever else is cutable that the pols have in mind.

CJR continues to point out that the voices of ordinary people have been missing—those who will get smaller COLA increases on their Social Security benefits, or who will have to tough it out until they reach age sixty-seven to get Medicare, or will find their Medigap policy doesn’t cover what it used to. Some in the media have started to report poll results indicating people don’t want these programs cut—not because as a group they are about ruining America, as Robert Samuelson asserts in his Washington Post column headlined “Why are we in this debt fix? It’s the elderly, stupid,” but because they need those programs. A good many are struggling as it is. Even some Tea Partiers aren’t thrilled
by those cuts (pdf).

Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be worrying about the “he said, she said” balance we all know and don’t love, but the absence of any balance at all. That is, those journos who simply assert what they believe is true with barely a nod to the “he said, she said” stuff. That’s what senior producer John Schoen produced. “No matter what plan emerges from the debt talks in Washington, future Social Security benefits will be trimmed back,” he wrote. “There’s widespread agreement that the program needs fixing.” And the story went on from there without noting that there are wide differences of opinion on this point.

So there you have it: the flat earth balancers versus those with a pipeline to God. In either case, journalism is the loser.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,