Surprisingly, my favorite news network has turned out to be C-SPAN. It has a relaxed, subdued tone that underlies the just-the-facts style. It’s not running to be out on top of any stories or scare you about what’s going on, it just provides a window onto what’s really happening. Calm classical music, not harsh attack themes, play when it switches programming.

The network airs live on the Web, as well as providing archived versions of most of its shows. There are no ads or tie-ins or promotions, and it seems every time I turn it on they’re showing something interesting and educational.

The show doesn’t get bogged down in pomposity. They ask simple questions, and then let the viewers take over by calling in. (Because I’ve watched most of the shows delayed or in the archive, I’ve never actually called in, but I suspect it’s not particularly difficult to get on the air.) They even have whole segments just to let normal people air their views, and will sometimes air footage from focus groups. This stuff is invaluable for getting a sense of what’s going on in America — far more than what you could get thru poll numbers alone.

The one thing the network is missing is a good debate show. Now TV news debate shows (so memorably parodied by the Daily Show’s Even Stevphens segments (Real: Middle East, Iraq, Religion, Patients’ Bill of Rights) are not by their nature the kind of calm, thoughtful atmosphere that C-SPAN has. But I think a C-SPAN debate show would be quite interesting and valuable.

Instead of two screaming heads, you’d get two very thoughtful intelligent people who were willing to concede when the other side is right and lay out their thinking step by step so you can point out exactly where they went wrong. And while you’d start off with some very contentious topics (gays, the environment) by the end of the show you’d have agreement from both sides (there’s nothing wrong with gays, the environment isn’t in immediate peril).

Naturally, the people on both sides would be bloggers, experienced with carefully laying out their arguments and dealing with the resulting commentary. For the right, the ideal person would be someone like Eugene Volokh (who not only concedes there’s nothing wrong with gays, but writes long and careful criticisms of popular arguments that there are). I’m still looking for the blogger who would be good for the left. (If you’re out there, let me know!)

In addition to just debate, perhaps another segment we could do would be criticisms of the media being unfair to our respective sides.

Lefty: The media is lying and distorting what Howard Dean said to make him look angry and gaffe-prone. Here’s what Dean really said: [clip]. Here’s how the media presented it: [clip].

Righty: The media continually makes Bush out to be gutting the environment, but he just increased these various environmental protections.

Now that’s fair and balanced.

posted January 13, 2004 12:45 PM (Politics) (6 comments) #


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Shorter Paul O’Neill
Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to Be Free
C-SPAN Crossfire
Shorter George Lakoff: The Framing of Politics
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The Clinton-Gore Plan to Stop Al-Qaeda: Would 9-11 have happened?
Suspected Terrorist
TV Update: Monk back, 24 bad, American Beauty great, Zim good


Oh, the irony of stating that a right-winger is fair and balanced because he thinks homosexuality is just fine is astounding.

Aaron, this is the sort of bias right-wingers are talking about when they talk about media bias. It’s the idea that “balance” means completely embracing the left-wing position, or that thinking that there are problems with homosexuality constitutes extremism.

Sure, I see the point that some issues go one way and some go the other, but it’s amusing to note your bias in the post.

And for the record, I’m in favor of civil unions and adoption by gay people, so I’m merely noting the irony with detached amusement.

posted by Phillip Winn at January 15, 2004 08:52 AM #

There’s a difference between balance and reasonableness.

The media should be balanced: it should present the facts fairly, and provide the reasonable arguments for the major positions.

But participants in an argument should be only reasonable. They should hold positions because they are rational, not because they further their goals or their friends hold them. And they should be willing to acknowledge things that cut against them. But it would be silly to say that they couldn’t hold positions! (Otherwise, what would be the point of the argument?)

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 15, 2004 11:41 AM #

Phillip, I don’t see how Aaron’s post displayed any biases whatsoever. Eugene Volokh’s stance on homosexuality is an example of his reasonableness because it shows his willingness to take stands opposed to the general concensus of his chosen faction when his own reasoning dictates he should. Whether you personally think homosexuality is right or not has bugger-all to do with it.

posted by Nicholas Liu at January 15, 2004 03:47 PM #

Sorry, correction: whether Aaron thinks accepting homosexuality is right or not has bugger-all to do with it.

posted by Nicholas Liu at January 15, 2004 03:50 PM #

Aaron, why should the media be balanced? Or objective? Objective journalism is a product of the 20th century. Before that, most newspapers were highly biased and opinionated (much like most blogs are today).

When I read Slashdot, I know their biases—a pro-GPL, pro-Linux, anti-Microsoft slant towards news. Most articles about Microsoft have a negative slant towards them, those about Linux a positive slant. Is that bad? Not really, since the biases are pretty much in the open and I can counter by reading a site like the Joel on Software Forum (pro-Microsoft, anti-GPL, anti-Linux).

So I ask: Why does media have to be balanced?

posted by at January 15, 2004 04:58 PM #

Why should the media be balanced?

I explain this in more detail in a forthcoming interview on under the iron, but the essential problem is that people have trouble quickly distinguishing truth from spin and lies.

Somewhat-fictional example: Dean seals his government records. Opponents say he’s hiding things. Dean says it’s normal behavior for governors. Opponents say it’s not, and give examples of release records. Dean says they’re being misleadingly selective and points to examples of sealed records. Opponents say Dean is being misleading, and that only portions of those records are sealed. Dean says that only portions of his records are sealed. Opponents say that far more of his records are sealed than those records. Dean says the opponents statistics are misleading. etc.

At the end of the day, I don’t have time to check all the facts myself or wade through the increasingly deep levels of argument and counter-argument. I wish there was someone I could trust to look at the facts and come to a reasonable conclusion on such topics, so I don’t have to.

Now I suppose some other organization could do this, but this task seems almost ideally suited for the media.

posted by Aaron Swartz at January 15, 2004 10:22 PM #

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