The “Fair and Balanced” Obsession

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Pam Spaulding spots a great example of one of journalism’s most annoying tics: the need to put fake “balance” into stories. The other day the Houston Chronicle ran a profile of Sgt. Jack Oliver, the first officer in the Houston Police Department to undergo a sex change while on active duty. Interesting stuff. But the reporter then feels compelled to gin up controversy where none exists and quotes some pastor or other who gets all squirmy at the thought of transsexuals: “That would raise issues of competency in the line of duty in my mind.”

“Issues of competency?” Who cares what “David Welch, executive director of the Houston Area Pastors Council” thinks about police competency? There might be “competency” issues involved in this story, but a pastor has neither the authority nor the expertise to discuss them. Unless, of course, the reporter’s purpose here is to give voice to bible-thumpers who think transsexuals are “icky” without appearing like she’s wantonly turning the microphone over to bigots just for the fun of it. Which, of course, is exactly what’s going on. But creating fake controversies just for the sake of seeming “balanced” doesn’t count as objective reporting in any sense I’m familiar with.

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You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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