by Prof. Laurel Leff
(Laurel Leff is associate professor of in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and author of Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press. This article was made available by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.)
Controversy has erupted over C-Span’s plan to broadcast a speech by a Holocaust denier to “balance” broadcast of remarks by a Holocaust scholar.
“Balance” is a cherished concept for journalists, but sometimes it can run amok. Consider the textbook, “The Reporter and the News,” a 1935 volume that was then used to train American journalists. The book offers a startling example of a news story that needs to be “balanced,” that demands that “both sides in a controversial matter be given a chance to have their position stated.”
“A case in point,” the textbook solemnly declares, is “the Jewish persecution by the German Nazi Government.” It involves a struggle “between rival groups, each of which is strong in its own right, and each of which is anxious to get as much propaganda across to newspaper readers as is possible.” In other words, every claim by the “strong” German Jews had to be balanced with an equal response from the Nazi regime – even though Jews at that point were being subjected to German-government sanctioned or orchestrated beatings, imprisonment in concentration camps, property confiscations, boycotts of their businesses, dismissal from government and university posts, and restrictions on their ability to practice their professions.
Lest journalists smugly assume we’ve gotten past such insidious examples of the need for “balance,” C-Span reminds us we haven’t. The cable network, which broadcasts Congress in session and other public affairs programming, planned to show a March 16 speech by Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt discussing her experiences as the defendant in a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving. Irving sued Lipstadt for statements she wrote about him in an earlier book. A British court dismissed Irving’s suit against Lipstadt in 2000, concluding that he deliberately misrepresented historical evidence.
Still, C-Span decided that it couldn’t show Lipstadt’s speech without balancing it with Irving’s position. As a C-Span spokeswoman told the New York Times, the network decided to tape an Irving lecture in order to cover “the plaintiff’s side of the trial.” When Lipstadt learned that C-Span planned to include Irving’s talk, she refused to allow the network to tape her speech. At first, C-Span said it would show Irving’s lecture anyway, but is now debating what to do.
The episode suggests that some journalists continue to lack both an understanding of the Holocaust and of the proper use of balance.
Balance in journalism is best understood as a philosophy, not a methodology. It should be a guiding principle that leads journalists to delve deeply into any story rather than accept the most readily available version of an event. But too often journalists transform this worthy goal into a mechanistic exercise with consequences that can range from merely sloppy to downright dangerous, as the C-Span example shows. Journalists identify the two sides of the story, seek out a comment from one side, then the other, include them both, and call it a day.
But this ode to impartiality masks the many subjective judgments the journalist has made along the way: defining “the sides” of the story; limiting the possibilities to two sides when many more positions exist; discounting some positions as unsupported by evidence; identifying those who can speak credibly on a topic and excluding those who can’t. That means it’s rarely obvious or automatic that journalists have to present “both sides” in order to be impartial. And, in fact, they often don’t. For example, not many news organizations felt obligated after 911 to balance victims’ stories with those of Al Queda supporters.
Some journalists seem to resort to a mechanistic view of balance out of laziness – it frees them from the hard but necessary work of sifting through contradictory information – or out of ignorance of the underlying event. In the case of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in 1930s, both sides weren’t equally strong or equally worthy, and for the 1935 journalism textbook to present them as such did a disservice to the suffering of the Jews and to the truth. In explaining the history of the Holocaust, there aren’t two sides. Those who claim the extermination of the Jews didn’t happen have only prejudice and lies to support their position.
The Lipstadt-Irving episode is a bit more complicated because it involves a court case in which there were indeed two sides. But what the British court in fact decided was that Lipstadt and Irving didn’t have equal claims to the truth, they didn’t have an equal right to have their sides aired. Lipstadt could call Irving a Holocaust denier who distorted historical facts without being liable under Britain’s defamation laws because that’s what he was. Serious journalists sorting through the trial records, or simply understanding the Holocaust, could have and should have concluded that there was no need to balance Lipstadt’s version with Irving’s.
C-Span is now deciding whether it will air Irving’s lecture alone. That would be the worse possible outcome. It would be almost as bad, however, if the controversy led C-Span to avoid broadcasting anything about the Holocaust rather than risk another ruckus. Journalists are always making decisions about the information worth presenting to the public — and they are in fact decisions, not obligations. As long as they acknowledge their choices and can defend them, journalists should be able to treat some views as worthy of being presented and some as not. In C-Span’s case, it’s not even a close call.