Teach the Controversy

controversy - pyramidOn Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald discussed the media’s tendency to call anyone who supports torture prosecutions the ‘hard left’. He makes the good, and self-evident, argument that those who are calling for prosecutions represent a bipartisan range of Americans; that pro-prosecution arguments are based on principle, not politics.

However, I was struck by this passage quoted from the comments of an earlier post:

I want to point out that the main reason, if not the only reason, for this overwhelming media view is because the only lens through which they can see this issue – like every issue – is the Republican/Democrat or conservative/liberal lens. When one’s entire point of reference for even issues of egregious lawbreaking goes no further than fixating obsessively over the identity of the people and parties to the “controversy” and the issue’s putative effect on partisan politics, whether a leader of one party was informed of the crimes of the other takes on a meaning perversely greater than the evil of the underlying conduct itself.

Our establishment media simply cannot get beyond this stultifyingly narrow framework. It is pathological.

In the face of repeated court-rulings, creationists have been unable to formally inject their beliefs into high school science classrooms, whether as creationism or ‘intelligent design’. Instead, they argue that we should ‘teach the controversy’ – if they cannot teach that God created the earth 6000 years ago, they want to teach the debate over whether God created the earth 6000 years ago. It is a crafty argument and finds some measure of support.

It is easy to see why – ‘teach the controversy’ speaks directly to the core beliefs of a liberal democracy. Through vigorous and unfettered public debate the truth, or the best course for the nation, can be charted. It is the premise behind both the 1st amendment and the principle of academic freedom. So, while the application of this kind of  modern disputatio to high school education is dubious, it is not surprising that a similar principle has wormed its way into the media.

In the interests of ‘balance’, we are told, it is necessary for the media to impartially present both sides of any argument. But this is not an arbitration – the adjudication of the truth is left as an exercise to the reader. This, in an open and intellectually honest debate, would be less objectionable. However, like calls to ‘teach the controversy’, the media now seeks out two-sides to all arguments – even those were no real argument exists. They actively present those among the fringe so as to create balance, giving an open microphone to anyone who disagrees with any position – frequently without providing any context whatsoever. Teaching the controversy is the traditional media’s default position. The effect of this behavior can be seen everywhere: evolution, climate change, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, even vaccine safety. It is the hallmark of the local news promo: Tonight at 11, why some people are questioning whether your children should eat carrots.

There are innumerable legitimate debates in this country and it is the media’s role to cover them. But, it is also the media’s role to help us learn about the important ones. By teaching the controversy, the media opens itself up to manipulation by any unscrupulous or fringe group that wants to bury a story  – by stirring up a fake debate, they turn real news into a petty his-says-she-says distraction. That the controversies come packaged in an easy partisan format is all the better.

And people wonder why newspapers are dying.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. What a great article. Something I’ve been ranting about for ages now. What kind of bias are you teaching when you over-represent the minority and under-represent the majority?

    Have you seen my blog? It has to do with how climate change relates to ideas such as credibility, responsible journalism, and risk management. You’d especially like the post “Artificial Balance”.

    You can probably just click on my name and it’ll take you there.

    Thanks!


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