Equal Time

Back in the day the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Fairness Doctrine, which stuck with us until 1987. The Fairness Doctrine mandated that television and radio broadcasters give balanced coverage to opposing viewpoints on a topic. While the doctrine is gone the attitude many hold that broadcasters must give balanced coverage remains. Recently a group of creationists have taken offense to the way life on this planet was presented on the show Cosmos (a new show that many of my friends swear is the most important show on Earth but I decided not to watch). In reaction to this offense there has been come murmur about requiring Cosmos to provide airtime to the theory of creationism:

Creationists held a pity party for themselves Thursday because “Cosmos” isn’t being fair and balanced to their beliefs.

“Creationists aren’t even on the radar screen for them, they wouldn’t even consider us plausible at all,” said Danny Falkner, of Answers In Genesis, which has previously complained about the show.

Falkner appeared Thursday on “The Janet Mefford Show” to complain the Fox television series and its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, had marginalized those with dissenting views on accepted scientific truths, reported Right Wing Watch.

“I don’t recall seeing any interviews with people – that may yet come – but it’s based upon the narration from the host and then various types of little video clips of various things, cartoons and things like that,” Falkner said.

Mefferd said the show should at least offer viewers a false compromise.

I don’t care about this particular pissing match but it has provided me an convenient platform to discuss the idea of balanced coverage. When people think of balanced coverage they often believe that it requires all views to be given equal coverage or at least a mention. In practice this is not how balanced coverage works.

People often mistakenly believe that there are only two points of view on any issue. They see the issue as “us versus them”. That is to say one side of the issue, specifically the side they agree with, is correct while the other side is wrong. This leads people to believe balanced coverage involves providing the Republican and Democratic views of an issue, Christian creationism and evolution, Christianity and Atheism, etc. But binary options don’t cover all sides of an issue.

I’m guessing both Mefferd and Tyson would agree that the origin of life stories from Norse mythology shouldn’t be given airtime. In this case I would argue that such a viewpoint held by Tyson would be consistent since he is arguing in favor of providing scientific theories on his science show. But Mefferd, who is arguing that Christian creationism should be given equal time as evolution on Cosmos, would be making an inconsistent argument by claiming equal time should be given to her views without it also being given to other points of view.

The argument over the origins of life on this planet are the only occurrences of issues that are mistakenly treated as binary by the general public. Politics is rife with binary choices. We generally get viewpoints from Democrats and Republicans. Left out of the debate are libertarians, communists, socialists, anarchists, etc. Many people who argue in favor of balanced coverage between Republicans and Democrats would argue that third-parties or apolitical viewpoints shouldn’t receive any coverage.

This is where the idea of balanced coverage begins to look a little ridiculous. How can you offer balanced coverage to thousands of different theories and beliefs? Many religions have differing accounts on the creation of life on Earth. There are almost as many political views as there are people on this planet. Each of us is a unique individual so there is the potential of roughly seven billion points of view on any given issue. Mandating balanced coverage of all viewpoints of an issue is unmanageable. But offering binary choices and calling it balanced is dishonest. Either way mandating balanced coverage is idiotic.