What’s fair in today’s hothouse media/political world?
Trouble is, fairness is very hard to define, as I learned during several decades working in U.S. media, government and politics. You think you know it when you see it. But these days pretty much everyone sees everything through a political prism that slants fairness toward their own view and against the news courier, the media.
This is not a defense of all media, of fake news, or news organizations that intentionally slant their stories, of which there are a good number. This is just an honest explanation of the trek to fairness by those who seek it.
In, well, fairness, being fair isn’t as easy as it sounds. For instance, someone makes a sexual harassment allegation against a public figure. The public part makes it news. The harvest of such recent charges makes it timely. But — News Flash — people make false accusations all the time.
Often this story comes at a time calculated to ensure maximum attention to the charges. For instance, Friday afternoons are terrible for gaining attention, but Sunday evenings are great. Less news competition then.
There’s a reason why so many of FDR’s fireside radio chats came on Sunday and why President Trump’s tweets typically come in the morning. They can dominate the ensuing news cycle that way.
Unfortunately for reporters, potential targets of such accusations and their agents or representatives are not sitting around then awaiting media calls. They may legitimately be out of touch at the beach or on a plane.
So a reporter leaves messages, sends emails, maybe even tries a DM on Twitter. This is where a vast collection of cell numbers is priceless.
And you wait. And wait. And wait. The charges are probably lurid. The accused deserves a chance to respond. But how long a wait for the other side is fair?
Here’s a modern-day media reality: Most of these accusations are competitive stories. That is, the accuser or her lawyer are shopping it around to various outlets seeking the biggest publicity impact for their tale. They probably prefer the accused’s response be absent. So, how long do you wait for it in fairness sake while balancing the risk of being beaten to publication?
Most reporters probably would make several attempts for reaction, leaving messages and documenting the times. Perhaps even setting a deadline to respond. Here’s why: Many people asked for comment will intentionally not reply, playing on the reporter’s devotion to balance in hopes of preventing the story from appearing or at least delaying it.
If the story has been in preparation for some time, like last year’s revelations on Harvey Weinstein and others, the target already knows a bad story is coming. They still deserve a chance to respond, but knowing publication is imminent, they’re likely to use the waiting time not only to prepare a proper defense but probably to leak their version to other outlets in hopes of minimizing the original story’s impact.
The ombudsman at National Public Radio has an interesting examination of several real examples of waiting here.
Truth is, what’s fair varies by case. That’s when you see or hear the now too-familiar line: “Mr. X did not respond to repeated efforts for comment.”