News is not Slantable

Slantable

by Ben Resnik

“Join Slantable for news slanted to your preference!”

So says a small box on the side of news-aggregator website Slantable.com. The premise of the site is similar to that of RealClearPolitics: It sifts through a range of Internet news sources which span the political spectrum — from the conservative National Review to Politico to liberal publications such as the Atlantic — gathering articles pertaining to the same issues.

One feature, however, distinguishes Slantable from RCP. Each section contains two opposing views on an issue with a slider bar in the middle. At any point while browsing news, the reader may pull that slider to one side or the other — either the blue side on the left or the red side on the right — to very literally silence the opposing opinion. They are also given the option right from the start to click the donkey button to receive all-liberal news, the elephant button for its conservative counterpart, or the button with both to see both sides displayed side by side.

There is no veneer of bipartisanship on Slantable, and its editors are unapologetic. “In many ways, the effort to remain objective is futile and can even be stifling,” claims an article titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slant.” Later, the piece adds, “We encourage everyone to embrace their political bias.”

Slantable is wrong. It is not its fault that it is wrong — as the article goes on to explain, Slantable exists in part because it was inspired by the success of media outlets like Fox News and the Huffington Post. The site’s existence is clearly an instance of opportunism, not of malevolence. But Slantable and the media world it caricatures are doing their jobs wrong, and every reader and audience member is paying the price.

The editors of Slantable are observant in their analysis of Fox and HuffPo: Slant sells. It is considerably easier to target an audience and to pander to their biases than to waste time and energy on objectivity, the Brussels sprout of the media world. It is much more lucrative to present the news as a binary, as supportive of one of two sides (or of both, in this case), than as an endlessly complex tapestry of cause and effect. And it is painfully easy to push the slider and cover up the other side.

But here’s the catch with Slantable, and with the media in general: If the piece is slanted, then it’s not news. It’s opinion. News is composed of substantiated facts and analysis gleaned from firsthand events and from salient comments by respected experts in a field. Sometimes there is disagreement over a projected outcome. Sometimes a line of questioning based on fact proves unflattering to one side of an argument. But the moment facts critical to the understanding of a subject are willfully covered up to make a point more convenient, the argument is fit only for the tabloids. News is news, opinion is opinion, and anyone who tries who to give you the latter as the former is either trying to convert you or sell you something.

It is important to note that Slantable’s sources aren’t just a mashup of “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Sean Hannity Show.” They link to pieces on Politico, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, publications of respect and merit. But many of these worthy pieces from worthy sources, including an illuminating analysis of the Romney campaign’s blunders and a simple statement of fact about the Colorado governor’s stance on marijuana, are placed in arbitrary opposition to such pundit fodder as the National Review. At that point, any reader can shove them off to the side, never to be read because the read isn’t a pleasant substantiation of already-held beliefs. Facts are facts, and disliking them doesn’t put them on the same level as puff pieces from Mother Jones, but, unfortunately, they are treated as such.

No news source can be truly unbiased, nor should it try to be. CNN’s bloodless interviews of people who should be rightfully taken to task are children of the urge to “present both sides,” even when one side is demonstrably, factually wrong.  Writers, anchors, and reporters should spend their time getting their interviewees to give up as much information as humanly possible, even if the process is uncomfortable, and to leave it to experts in the field — not Kim Kardashian — to explain to viewers what those facts mean.

Lamentations about the intellectual laziness of the viewing public are not without merit; it’s just easier to hear something you like than something you don’t. But the media is acting as an enabler, happily providing the audience with all-out falsehoods provided they come back for more. The media is a business. The news is not. Those tasked with the responsibility of informing the public should learn the distinction.

graphics by Donkey Hotey: http://bit.ly/S7zZqT