“Fair and balanced” is the trademarked moniker of Fox News Channel. The phrase is also in the title of Al Franken’s 2003 book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
President George W. Bush said his decision to commute Scooter Libby’s conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice for leaking the name of a CIA operative was “fair and balanced,” an opinion shared by only the most partisan White House supporters.
“Fair and balanced” is both a high standard and a misused moral argument.
Of course, fairness is a virtue taught early in life through practices such as taking turns, playing by the rules, accepting responsibility, telling the truth and treating others with equality.
The opposite of fairness is favoritism, a practice that assigns privilege to some over others for real and perceived reasons. The same bedtime for different aged children is evidence of favoritism for the younger child from the perspective of the older child. Preferential treatment in a classroom earns some students the derisive title “teacher’s pet.”
Balance is both a goal and mechanism to advance fairness and guard against unmerited favoritism or discrimination.
Much of the global culture expects fairness and balance from the media. Many global citizens expect news stories to be fair, to tell the truth, to get the facts right, to quote individuals accurately. In the United States, Americans expect news sources that use the public airwaves to be balanced. That’s to be objective, to share both sides of a controversial issue.
At the same time, informed citizenry understand that editorials and columns carry opinion. We expect truthful facts and correct quotations, but not equal time, not unbiased viewpoints.
Many of us anticipate even more from the judicial system than from the news media. We want attorneys to obey the rules of evidence. We expect judges to preside without favoritism to class, ideology or politics, without temptation of bribe and with an unwavering commitment to equilibrium. We hope juries hear all sides, discern with facts and issue honest decisions.
“Fair and balanced” is a wonderful civic virtue, not necessarily a universal Christian one, however.
No one expects sermons to be “fair and balanced.” Sermons should be truthful, respectful, accurate and free from plagiarism. Sermons should contain biblically informed and Spirit-led opinions that challenge the prevailing belief system of listeners to a higher standard, a deeper faith, a renewed commitment to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly after God. Sermons should convict the listener’s heart and head to put their hands to earthly good.
Now, some congregants criticize preachers when troubling words hit too close for comfort. They accuse preachers of being unfair, meaning unkind and disrespectful, or lacking informational balance.
Others congregants have the itchy ears of intellectuals who want to hear all sides as a way to avoid taking a side. They think sermons should offer the “on one had this and on the other hand that” approach, a way to sterilize Scripture.
No one expects Bible studies to balance Christian faith with the viewpoint of atheism. Can one imagine a Baptist Sunday school class where the teacher presents the arguments for and against God with equal passion and with a closing prayer followed by the refutation of the merits of prayer?
Good Bible teachers may disclose scholarly disagreements about a text or different theological arguments. Good Sunday school teachers may raise more questions than provide answers as a way to stretch minds and expound on faith. But teachers need not pursue “fairness” with far-out viewpoints or viewpoints that harm those weak in faith.
If Jesus had been committed to the “fair and balanced” method of moral instruction, then he would have needed to give the Pharisees and Herod equal time in the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew would have recorded Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (5:9).
The next verse would have recorded, “And Herod replied, ‘Blessed are the warmakers for their protection, for they shall ensure that God has sons to be called.'”
Or what about when Jesus said, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men” (6:5)?
A “fair and balanced” Sermon on the Mount would have allowed a Pharisee to say: “And when you pray, you must be like the publicly righteous. Stand and pray loudly in the synagogues and street corners. Public prayer models faith to the weak in faith and draws unbelievers to God. Showy prayers are good to be seen by men.”
A “fair and balanced” Jesus might have called the dejected rich young ruler to return after having instructed him: “sell what would have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21).
Jesus might have said: “On the other hand, you can keep your wealth and let’s get Caesar to give you a big tax cut. After all, that will stimulate the economy.”
Should Jesus have given Pharisees, Herod or Caesar equal time in the Sermon on the Mount, in his other teachings?
“Fair and balanced” is the wrong standard for moral critique and teachings, which is, of course, why opponents to social change trot out the “fair and balanced” argument when they disagree.
It’s easier to accuse others of unfairness and imbalance than to correct one’s own political loyalties and pre-existing ideological commitments when contrary to the biblical witness.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.