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Separating the 'Savvy' from the 'Truth-Tellers' in Political Reporting | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Separating the 'Savvy' from the 'Truth-Tellers' in Political Reporting

For years, Jay Rosen, the well-known journalism professor, blogger and citizen journalism advocate, has been in the forefront of those probing, and criticizing, the “he said/she said” kind of “balanced” journalism that often passes for reporting in the United States on politics and topical issues. He gave it a name that has stuck: The View from Nowhere, which he once defined this way: “Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position impartial.” Besides allowing lazy work habits, it’s a way to counter claims of bias.

Rosen was also a pioneer in probing “the savvy”—saviness as the new prime goal for a certain kind of political or DC insider reporting.

So it takes a lot to impress Rosen as an especially egregious example, but he had to tip his hat a week or so ago to a piece at the popular The Fix political section at the Washington Post. He flagged it on Twitter, which I happily re-tweeted while suspecting there was more to come. Nick Fox, an editor in the opinion section at the New York Times, also RTed, adding: “Can’t recall more cynical political rptg than this.” Michael Powell, a Times metro columnist, tweeted of the piece in question: “In which reporter locates his brain’s off switch.”

And sure enough, a full critique by Rosen arrived yesterday, at his long-running and influential Press Think blog.

All of this was sparked by the tempest in a Tea Party pot created when the Romney camp ripped a few ill-chosen words by Obama out of context and built a week of ads—hell, the entire focus of their campaign—out of it. I refer, of course, to the “you can’t build that” meme, with Obama supposedly (but not really) dismissing the efforts of big and small business in America. It took a few days for mainstream news outlets and fact-checking sites to label the GOP effort hogwash. As often the case, Jon Stewart got there first.

Alec MacGillis at The New Republic was appalled on July 26 when he observed that possibly the media had already forgotten this lesson, in the form of a new post at The Fix. This is the very popular feature run by the tireless Chris Cillizza for several years, although now others post there as well. In this case, the offending piece was written by Aaron Blake and headlined “Context be Damned,” a promising start but done in by what followed. Blake covered a new GOP campaign focus based on another Obama quote (“It worked”) that it was again exploiting in a completely misleading fashion. “Context be damned,” Blake decided. “Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans.…

“The problem is, the gray area is just too gray. Fact-checkers are great…but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game. Romney’s team is exploiting that fact—to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.”

MacGillis dryly observed: “Ah yes. If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator…”

Now we come to Jay Rosen. He headlined his piece yesterday, “Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.” Rosen asked, “What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a ‘straight’ reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its ‘base’ in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you’re thinking: the press should do both! But this is exactly what’s missing in the Aaron Blake item. There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant.”

The “savvy” camp, represented by Aaron Blake of The Fix in this case, he added, “has drifted into a state of low grade nihilism in which complaining about truth, accuracy, fairness and missing context is beside the point because those very complaints have become another way of doing politics. Both sides pretend to get all worked up about it. Both sides rely on misleading claims when it’s convenient for them. Observing this, a smart reporter like Blake can’t fall for any of it. He stands between warring camps, reminding each side that they too are sinners. Here, ‘both sides’ is a kind of magic phrase, putting partisans in their place and clearing the ground for the journalist to come in and settle matters….

“From Blake’s point of view, the story that needs to be told is not about the granularity of deception, the misuse of words to make them mean what they did not mean when spoken, or the tricky matter of which side is relying to a greater degree on truth-busting, context-shredding claims. The real story lies in the game of it all: the daily routine of scoring points, landing blows, seizing on any little advantage and making it work for your side. ‘Acumen,’ as he put it.”

This ties into Rosen’s view of saviness, “the first commandment for a whole class of reporters and interpreters who keep the politics beat humming.” He’s previously described it this way: “Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in—their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be.”

Now he points out: “Praising ‘political acumen’ while putting questions of accuracy and context to one side—this is the essence of the savvy outlook.”

How to counter all of this? Rosen urges, Fight for what is true. From this point of view, “it is a regrettable loss for the polity, and for political journalism—and for the voters, the public—when dubious claims gain traction and quotes pulled from their context appear to ‘work.’ What the press can do to prevent this is try to raise the costs of making false or misleading claims, which is the whole point of fact-checking…. If it’s fair game (Blake’s term) to assess which candidate is connecting more effectively with voters or following a shrewder strategy, then it is equally fair to judge who’s being more deceptive.”

Rosen admits: “But the savvy won’t do that…. It probably took an hour or so for Blake to draft his post. But 25 years of drift went into it. I could be wrong, but I think a growing number of Blake’s colleagues in journalism are losing patience with the kind of analysis on view in his rancid item. They are not for the most part political reporters, for whom the savvy is everything. They are journalists from other beats and other persuasions. And they’ve had it with the ‘who cares if it’s true? it works’ attitude.… The more open this attitude becomes among political reporters—and this is what distinguished Blake’s post, its baldness—the more repulsive it feels to their colleagues.”

UPDATE  David S. Bernstein has a problem with Rosen's criticism of Blake, read it here.

Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen including three on very influential American political campaigns: Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s 1934 race) and Why Obama Won. He also blogs daily at Pressing Issues.

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