Marolt: F.A.I.R.ly certain there is no such thing as unbiased news
I am tired of being F.A.I.R. Now it’s somebody else’s turn.
You remember F.A.I.R.? Fair Accurate Investigative Reporting? OK, maybe not. It was a not-for-profit Aspen organization of experimentation started back in 2008 to produce — no guffawing, now — unbiased news stories. OK, go ahead and guffaw. But, while you are laughing, please note that we raised almost $30,000 in only five months of existence to further the cause of “truth” in our hometown. (Eat your hearts out, starving artists and worthy, charitable organizations.) There was demand for what we tried to do.
It is important to put the experiment into context. We began it in early 2008. That was when foam was lipping over the top of the big, frosty beer mug that our economy once resembled — sort of — if you use your imagination — liberally. We all were sipping and there still was plenty to go around.
I point this out for two reasons. First, $30,000 wasn’t that big of a deal. Just about anybody could have generated that by opening their junk mail on any given day and checking the “yes, send me the damn card” box on what passed for an application form back then. And, second, when money is easy, work is easy. When work is easy, we don’t spend much time doing it. When we’re not working, we are playing. When we play too much, we get bored. When that happens, we start bitching. We bitched a lot in those days and quite often it was about the biased media.
That’s where the story starts to get funny, in an odd kind of way. F.A.I.R. was started by three people who thought that they could spot bias in local reporting and then retool the information to present it to the good people of Aspen in a perfectly neutral way. These three people were an Aspen Times opinion columnist (moi), a once-and-future local politician, Tim Semrau, and the owner of a gossip factory on Main Street known for it’s delicious fresh-baked goods and strong coffee, Bill Dinsmoor.
Raising money was the easy part. Editing our unbiased reporters’ work was impossible. We hired a friend of a friend to be our first man on the street. He came with a lot of credentials and experience from way back East and seemed a perfect fit. I wish I could remember his name. We gave him full authority to pick out his topics and write about them without interference. That is, until he picked out his first topic and wrote about it. The four of us sat down and argued. By the time it was published, nobody was happy, least of all our readers. Absolutely nobody thought it was unbiased. Donors demanded their contributions back.
Although I will never forget old What’s His Name, he didn’t last long on the job. He endured about three stories and then went crazy. I believe that is literally true. He disappeared in the middle of one night and we had to find a new reporter. I don’t think she matched his tenure. Then there was Brent.
Let me say that Brent Gardner-Smith is one of the finest local reporters I have ever read. He was with F.A.I.R. for about a week.
We ran out of writers. We will never run out of bias. I am hard-headed enough to state that it is impossible for anyone to write a purely unbiased news piece. And I know there are people out there who will argue about this. Point proven! Every story is porous enough to penetrate and debate by reasonable people — even the most boring of them; people and stories.
So, you say, what about just presenting facts and figures. Sure, we can do that. We can graph a story. USA Today does it all the time. But look at some of those unbiased graphs. You can alter what they say drastically just by changing the scale on either axis. Make one longer and it looks like a steep rise in unemployment. If you make it shorter, instead, it looks like the rate barely nudged. It is up to you to find the truth in it!
So, Tim, Bill and I are out. Very soon we will have nothing more to do with our grand experiment. I have no regrets. I wouldn’t even call it a failure. The results definitely were not what we expected, but it is (ahem) fair to say we learned something.
Best of all, F.A.I.R. is being revived by fresh blood. That’s all I’m saying. It is going to become very interesting again, very soon. Hold on!
Roger Marolt now knows that to be F.A.I.R., you have to be C.R.A.Z.Y. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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