Issue 98, Summer 2005
Balance seems an unassailable ideal. But consider how the concept can be misused.
This issue of CN reports that Kenneth Tomlinson, chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, thinks public broadcasting should feature more conservative voices, ostensibly to achieve better "balance." What he really means is that he wants it to represent his political views. He secretly commissioned a review of Bill Moyers’ program, Now, by someone long affiliated with a group that describes itself as "the principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement." That review, according to Senator Robert Dorgan (D-ND), described Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as "liberal" because he took issue with administration views on Iraq. Tomlinson is now trying to install the former co-chair of the Republican National Committee as President of CPB.
In our prior issue (CN97) we wrote that the "Academic Bill of Rights" is promoted as a way to achieve "balance" in the classroom. Its promoters, chiefly the conservative activist David Horowitz, claim that Democrats outnumber Republicans and that "liberal" faculty dominate the nation’s colleges and universities. Does this mean that academic hiring committees should start asking applicants about their political affiliations and that schools will achieve better "balance" if they simply hire more Republicans?
As reported on NCAC’s website, an art exhibit at Arizona State University, titled "Democracy in America," was scheduled to open last fall to coincide with the final presidential debate. University officials decided that the exhibit should be "balanced," meaning that criticism of Republicans should be counterbalanced with criticism of Democrats. But Democratic nominee John Kerry had not attracted as much reaction among artists as President Bush. To create "balance," works chosen on artistic merit were replaced by others chosen solely for their pro-Bush viewpoint.
What is "balance" in an art exhibit, a television program, or a college course? If the concept is used to mean that all opinions must be countered by their opposite and that content is reduced to "on the one hand and on the other," then it offers little. As the American Association of University Professors observed in response to the ASU exhibit, "the meaning of balance is controversial in many academic disciplines and subject to sharp academic debate," and consequently the university should "adhere to the principle of institutional neutrality with respect to … diverse ideas…."
There are professional standards and assessment guidelines that neutrally define "merit" in every discipline and endeavor. These are far more salient, and far less subject to abuse by the content police, than the effort to achieve "balance"–whatever that means.