Deciding What's Controversial
"Both sides ought to be properly taught."
That was the advice of President George W. Bush when he was asked whether so-called intelligent design should be taught in schools alongside the theory of evolution. His statement sounded reasonable enough. Shouldn't we provide opposing views when it comes to a controversial theory like evolution?
But is the theory of evolution controversial? As the host of a public affairs talk show, I've asked myself that question. These Days has an obligation to cover both sides of controversial issues. But some things just aren't controversial. Prayer, for instance, is not controversial. There may be an anti-prayer society, but I doubt that many people take it seriously.
A true controversy is comprised of two reasonable, opposing points of view. Intelligent design is an opposing view to evolution. But based on the rigorous standards of scientific theory and research, it's not reasonable. So far there's no good reason to believe that intelligent design is anything more than a new flavor of creationism.
Keep in mind that almost any human activity, behavior, theory or orientation is disliked or opposed by somebody. That does not mean that everything is controversial. Let me offer a few examples of what I'm talking about. Take note that these are my own views and not necessarily those of These Da ys or KPBS News.
Gay marriage is controversial, but being gay is not. When I host a show on gay marriage, I want to get both sides. But if I interview a man about his experience, growing up gay in a small Midwestern town, I don't feel obligated to "balance" his statements with someone who thinks that gay people are sinners.
Keeping chickens confined in tiny cages all their lives is controversial, but eating chicken is not. If I interview a chef who's talking about the best way to roast a bird, I don't feel the need to present an opposing view that killing animals for meat is murder.
Police use of deadly force against a man, armed with a stick, is controversial. But police work, per se, is not. I'm satisfied that society has the right to use police force to maintain peace and order.
Deciding what is or is not controversial can be a tricky business. It's a judgment based on the facts and on prevailing societal values. And it's clear that all of the statements cited above can be disputed. Most conservative Christians think homosexuality is a sin. Members of some animals rights groups believe it's wrong to eat animals and anarchists say official use of force is never legitimate.
Am I saying that we should dismiss those opinions? Not really. All contrary views challenge us to be more disciplined in our own thinking. But as a journalist covering a story, there comes a point when you have to decide whether an opinion has enough currency and merit that it cannot be ignored. Not all viewpoints rise to that level.
Over history we've seen fringe ideas enter the mainstream while others have just stayed at the margins, eventually ending up in history's famous dustbin. None of us can be sure what will pass for reasonable thinking a hundred years from now. But for the present, we in the news business have to apply our best common sense to the task of deciding what really is controversial.