The Daily Show's interview with Anderson Cooper tonight had Jon Stewart and Cooper musing about Cooper's unflinching description of Mubarak's disinformation as lying, and the LA Times' James Rainey's peculiar criticism of him:
JS: Now is that maybe just a misunderstanding that you have with modern journalism? That things that are demonstrably untrue--that you should then bring on somebody--like, you say "Mubarak is lying, but we also have someone here who believes he's not, and also believes that ice cream cures cancer. So, let's have a fair discussion about it." Is that an issue?
AC: That's certainly a problem that I think journalism has a lot of, of being afraid to say that something that is demonstrably not true is not true. There are things that are facts. I'm not so sure why so many people shy away from that.
The problem with "fair and balanced" journalism is that it purports to achieve its aim by simply giving equal time to diametrically opposed viewpoints, letting the viewer sort out which is true. In fact, neither may be true: fiscal balance can only be achieved by raising taxes vs cutting spending. Or sometimes only one is true: life arose through natural selection vs intelligent design. In some cases, both can be true: to reduce crime we must improve crime detection vs rehabilitate criminals.
One pitfall of this strategy is that little effort is made by the journalist to assess the veracity of either of the viewpoints they report. They aspire only to present a clash of ideas, the more extreme the better, and the emergence of the truth from this clash is less important than boosting ratings. Reasoned moderates need not apply.
Another pitfall is that merely by lending the proponents of these polarized views a platform, the journalists lend them legitimacy. More people will believe a crazy idea if it appears on FOX News than if it doesn't. And that's precisely why FOX News exists.
Truly fair and balanced journalism weighs reportage against the truth. That exercise takes a lot more work than mere punditry. And, much to the chagrin of the right wing, "reality has a well-known liberal bias" (see 6:38).
Colbert isn't the only one who gives America "the truth, unfiltered by rational argument." FOX News adds another wrinkle: in order to balance reporting of the mainstream media, which provides a simulacrum of truth, FOX is the soapbox of the neocon, gussying up every crazy notion with stock video, beautiful blonde fembot anchors, a news ticker, and other accoutrements of serious news stations. They don't bother to present the other side of the story except to mock or discredit it.
In the end, we are left with no reliable arbiter of truth. The task is left to us to parse the truth ourselves.