“Fair and Balanced” and the Contrast Factor

Once upon a time, I worked at a restaurant that featured white cloth napkins, neatly folded, on glossy wooden tabletops. After some time, the owner—no idea what had possessed him—suddenly decided he wanted black napkins instead.

Fine. So henceforth, black napkins graced those wooden tabletops.

One day the laundry delivery was late, meaning our funereal napery wasn’t ready for the dinner shift, and the white napkins from before were pressed into service again.

When I came to work that night, a tidal wave of dazzling albescence almost knocked me back out the door. I thought I’d gone snow blind upon entering the dining room. These napkins were the whitest white I’d ever seen—had they been treated with nuclear bleach?

Of course, they weren’t any whiter than they had always been, but in contrast to the black ones my visual cortex had gotten used to over the months, their whiteness appeared to have increased by a factor of googol.

Take a look at the checkerboard with the green cylinder. Squares A and B are exactly the same shade of gray. If you’re seeing this graphic for the first time, you’ll probably suggest I see an eye specialist, for Square A is clearly several shades darker than Square B. Well, it ain’t. They’re identical in color. (Click here for the graphic with all the other squares removed.)

By some mechanism a neuro-ophthalmologist may be in a better position to explain, our brains pre-process the checkerboard, and then the shadow cast by the green cylinder does such a number on our visual perception, the light squares within the umbra and the dark squares without appear to us as vastly different shades of gray (even though, courtesy of the shadow, they’re identical), which results in our perceiving the checkerboard as we expect its light and dark squares to look, i.e., the visual integrity of the entire checkerboard remains largely intact.

Although, technically, our brains are being fooled, illusions of this kind actually help us get about our daily lives by maintaining a measure of consistency in the way we see the world.

The phenomenon of relative perception via comparison extends to spheres beyond the visual. An elephant isn’t “big” and an ant isn’t “small” except in relation to each other and to us; the Arctic may seem chilly but is actually quite summery relative to areas in space millions of light years removed from the nearest star; and whether the popcorn at the movies tastes excessively salty or barely salty at all hinges on our habitual sodium intake. Upon finally being able to hear normally, congenitally hearing-impaired individuals have been known to rip out their fancy new hearing devices in horror, for they couldn’t bear the noise levels that the non-hearing-impaired among us perceive as commonplace and undisturbing.

More often than not, what we consider absolute qualities are nothing more than customary baselines and deviations thereof.

So when Fox News elicits eye rolls, giggles, and supercilious jeers for promoting itself as “fair and balanced” in spite of its perceived tilt to the right, the question arises whether (or to what degree) the network leans right relative to an an objectively ascertainable midpoint, or whether this perception largely derives from other media outlets leaning left relative to the center and we’ve simply come to accept a larboard slant as our customary baseline, i.e., as truly fair and balanced. (If you have bad posture, habitually leaning to one side and carrying one shoulder higher than the other may feel perfectly upright and even-keeled to you, but the moment you straighten yourself out and are perfectly upright, you’ll feel as if you’re leaning to the other side.)

So the issue is not whether Fox News features more and stronger conservative voices than other mainstream media—it clearly does—but whether the proportion of liberal v. conservative points of view broadcast by Fox is such that promoting itself as “fair and balanced” amounts to false advertising. (Other news networks are off the hook, for they don’t use slogans that connote ideological equilibrium.)

To all who have now doubled over in derisive stitches at my calling into question the familiar Fox-leans-right mantra incessantly bandied about, recall the checkerboard and the tricks contrast can play on our perception.

Whether the American media, in the aggregate, is deemed liberal (because these days, its higher management echelons are staffed with members of the progressive anti-Vietnam hippie generation, and this mindset bleeds over into their news coverage) or conservative (because all major media are corporate entities and hence subject to to commercial interests and beholden to Wall Street) ultimately comes down to one’s personal definition of these terms. Therefore, it is very difficult to determine an objective median between right and left in order to tell which outlet, commentator, or commentary falls on which side; depending on how far out toward either extreme one stands, one may, for instance, view President Obama as a hardcore socialist or a moderate neocon. And many fervent progressives as well as isolationist conservatives or the Tea Party fringe draw little distinction between the mainstream right and left. To them, the whole bunch are right or left (i.e., right or left of them) respectively. Ergo, some perceive Fox News—while the right of their competitors—as left-leaning overall.

So where, if anywhere, does Fox really lean relative to “the” center?

One of the problem in making that call is that giving equal time to both sides of an argument doesn’t necessarily translate into a fair and balanced presentation. In a documentary about evolution or the Holocaust, affording creationists or Holocaust deniers equal time essentially amounts to promoting their positions. Anything beyond pointing out that these people exist and perhaps including a few soundbites for the purpose of discrediting them will engender the impression they’re running the show.

Likewise, any network that gives equal time to liberal and conservative voices will come across as a conservative propaganda network to ironclad liberals, whereas fire-and-brimstone right wingers will accuse it of having caved to the left. Otherwise, why would those that are so egregiously misguided be allotted so much airtime? This must mean that network is in the pocket of the opposition.

Now, of course, you may interject that Fox News does not give equal time to liberals and conservatives; that conservative voices preponderate.

However, aside from the eye-of-the-beholder problem in determining which is which and the attendant difficulty of gauging degree and persuasion potential (e.g., slick and well-spoken conservatives pitted against less articulate and hence less convincing liberals, or vice versa), a fair amount of watching is key in assessing proportionality, as you certainly can’t rely on the tallies published by organizations overtly hostile to Fox News or its direct competitors, nor those of Fox News itself and its votaries. What one person may classify as an independent voice, others may put in the liberal or conservative category. Either way, the results of the tally will likely reflect whatever the tallying agency wants them to reflect.

Yesterday, I happened upon a roundtable discussion on BBC World News. When the debate turned to the current phone hacking situation, one of the participants brought up bias in Murdoch-owned media and stated that while The Times managed to provide impartial news coverage, this wasn’t true of other Murdoch outlets, and “certainly not [of] Fox News” where they just “hammer, hammer, hammer” (conservative talking points into the minds of their viewers, presumably).

I’m not in the States right now. At my present location, no Fox News is coming in through the satellite receiver. Most of Europe, it seems, is a No-Fox Zone. It stands to reason that BBC watchers generally don’t watch Fox, and I wonder how many of the participants in said roundtable ever do, as none offered an alternative perspective to the triple-hammer characterization. Instead, most folks on planet Earth keep getting a lopsided view of Fox News hammered, hammered, and hammered into their eardrums, with no way (or no desire) to find out for themselves how much hammering Fox News itself actually perpetrates—the Fox News Paradox strikes again.

Even if one does watch this network regularly, the contrast factor makes an objective assessment of its rightward slant rather difficult.

It’s all relative—a lesson I learned from those napkins.

  • Peter Practice

    Did the restaurant owner provide chalk or white pens together with the black napkins, just in case Mr Laffer might come to the place one day?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      Laffer? The pharmacy shooter? Did he leave a note at the crime scene, composed on pharmacy stationary because he forgot to bring pen and paper? 

      • Peter Practice

        I meant Arthur Laffer. But I guess you figured that. http://www.polyconomics.com/gallery/Napkin003.jpg

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

          Ah, the curve guy. No, I didn’t figure that. I took your comment as an attempt at black humor of some sort. 

  • Testazyk

    Do you get Aljazerra where you are?  I find them clinically unbiased--but I may be speaking from a relative position after my last trip to the US!

    PS--Is your absence from NY permanent or temporary?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      Very temporary, I hope, but I don’t have a penny to my name and no clue how to ever muster the financial escape velocity to return. Go to school, find a job, work hard, save money. I guess. Whatever. I have no idea. Otherwise, I’d be back in New York yesterday. Or Iowa. Or Alaska, for that matter. 

      On a positive note, yes, I do have Al Jezeera now. Plus BBC World News, CNN International, and some other English-language Euro news channel. As of yet, I haven’t spent enough time watching these networks to get a personal sense of their biases. And once I have, I’m afraid I’ll only be able to assess whither they lean relative to Fox News, not relative to the vertical center, wherever that may be.