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John Milewski Headshot

Unfair to the Unbalanced: When Fair and Balanced is Not Required

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This "birther" movement is wacky at best, and dangerous at worst. The fact that it has gained any traction at all as a matter of public discourse is a source of national shame. We are flirting with a new low. But could this insanity actually provide us with an opportunity to build some common ground between liberals and conservatives of good will? I'll return to that notion in a moment.

I've had a running debate with a number of my fellow journalists over the years about the idea of journalistic balance, particularly as it relates to political reporting. Too often, and this is certainly true in the world of cable news, we feature a couple partisans exchanging talking points and pat ourselves on the back for being fair and balanced.

Perceptions of our biases, or lack thereof, are often based on judgments by viewers concerning whether we treated bickering partisans equally. The assumption seems to be, that no matter the quality of the arguments and evidence presented, our job is to be fair to both sides by allowing each to make their case on a roughly level playing field. And if we challenge one combatant, we must provide equal scrutiny to the other's arguments.

Sounds good to a point, but here's the problem. Not all arguments are created or presented equally. Some are nothing more than unsupported assertions built on lies or distortions masquerading as arguments while others are coherent, logical, and heavily backed by facts.

When this type of imbalance is the case, what is the responsibility of the journalist/host/interviewer? Should she pretend that it's a 50-50 split for fear of being charged with a liberal or conservative bias?

What if one position ("President Obama was not born in the United States") is demonstrably untrue while the counter argument ("Uh, yes he was") is proven to be true? In this case, is someone guilty of that old demon "liberal media bias" if they call a crackpot a crackpot because that would be the pro Obama position? Do we really need to be respectful of the views of the scarily unhinged, tragically misinformed, or strategically dishonest?

Is there a point where men and women of good will and sound intellect, liberals and conservatives alike, can say enough is enough and agree that it's time for a better standard? Can we cast aside the knee jerk charges of liberal or conservative bias for once and agree that encouraging this silliness in any way is beneath the dignity and interests of a great nation? Is there no line that can't be crossed when attempting to score political points?

Barack Obama is the legitimately and legally elected president of the United States. And that's true whether you like his policies or not. There is no evidence to support the "birther" movement's paranoid conspiracy theories. What is Lou Dobbs talking about when he says, "I'm starting to believe we have a document issue?" Why wouldn't every member of Congress, when given an opportunity to do so, make a definitive statement denouncing this craziness once and for all? Why are we talking about this at all considering the many real and very serious challenges we face? Is there no too low when it comes to ratings and politics?

This is not a liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican debate. Those battles should be waged over health care policy or other matters of real import. This "birther" thing is about responsible adults with integrity and the ability to reason firmly saying "no" to a group comprised of the delusional and the devious.

Maybe, just maybe, this is an opportunity for liberals and conservatives to come together and say, "We're better than this."

We are, aren't we?