An airtime problem is when someone spends too much time talking about a serious but minor issue relative to the time spent talking about a serious and major issue.
This is the problem with a lot of discussions about rape: they end up turning into discussions of false accusations. False accusations are real and serious. As Amia Srinivasan points out in The Right to Sex, feminists have nothing to gain from denying the fact that sometimes innocent men are punished for crimes they did not commit. The problem is that false accusations get much more airtime in popular discourse than I think they deserve, relative to actual cases of rape. (Never mind the fact that men are much more likely to be victims of rape themselves than to be falsely accused of it!)
I won’t get into the very messy debates about these statistics, but our best data show that false rape accusations are just as likely as false accusations of other crimes (for a great overview, see here). Yet I think we talk way more about false rape accusations—relative to actual rape—than we do false theft or fraud accusations—relative to theft or fraud.
But these are just speculations.
Another place I see the airtime problem come up is whenever a political riot takes place. People will riot against an injustice. Then the riot gets out of hand—innocent stores are looted. The media spends all its time discussing the damage done to innocent stores and relatively little time on the injustice being protested, even though the injustice is likely much worse than the damage done to the innocent stores. Then white people will start saying things like, “I support the protesters, but violence is never the solution. The looting really doesn’t help their cause. They should do what MLK did!” And that’s all the airtime that the actual injustice will get—basically none. And this is why riots end up being so counterproductive; they beget an airtime problem.
Many people like to get worked up about fake news and alternative facts. But it’s pretty easy to shoot down false information. We can fact check and say, “this guy is full of lies,” and everyone agrees that’s a bad thing. Airtime problems don’t carry the same weight, but I think they should.
Suppose you send your child to school. In history class, they are learning about the Holocaust. Your child comes back and says he learned about the Holocaust, but in the following way. The teacher spent 10 minutes on the history of the Holocaust—Kristallnacht, concentration camps, Hitler, etc.—but the rest of the class the teacher spent telling stories of Jewish criminals and immorality pre-Nazi Germany (highly reminiscent of the ‘stab-in-the-back myth,’ but entirely factual). Any parent would be outraged—but why? Every story he told was factual: you can find stories of bad apples among any culture—but there is still something wrong with the lesson: it was an airtime problem. He placed emphasis on the wrong things, gave too much airtime to something serious but minor compared to the Holocaust.
So I propose we call out airtime problems when we see them. Things can be true but miss the point, true but said at the wrong place and time, true but said too much. Others are said too little.