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Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us? | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us?

Reed here, Eric’s away on vacation this week, enjoying the warm Mediterranean sun, I’m told. But go read his long Nation article on what America might expect out of a “President Romney.” I warn you, however, that afterwards you might need a stiff drink, or another kind of diversion. 

As such, here’s my favorite, probably overlooked, performance of these London Olympic Games so far. Yes, golden girl Abby Wambach can work the refs with the best of them and, sorry my friends from north of the border, but yes, your keeper had it coming. (Let’s just hope Wambach doesn’t start using these keen powers of persuasion for nefarious purposes, like being a political spokesperson, since it seems a certain campaign might be in the market for a new one quite soon.)

Now here’s, well, me.

Forgive Those Who Press Pass Against Us?
by Reed Richardson

Recently, the folks at the Poynter Institute have been debating editorial strategies for protecting against journalism malpractice, in general, and, more specifically, identifying dangerous habits in young, promising writers before they snowball into career-wrecking episodes. Episodes similar to what we’ve seen (and, I suspect, will continue to see) with the rapid downfall of wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.

Their discussion, however, has been mostly focused on the journalistic equivalent of mortal sins—plagiarism, fabrication, lying, egregious quote doctoring, and so forth. But as Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark argues, a news organization shouldn’t bother training new reporters to avoid this kind of flagrantly unprofessional behavior, it should simply expect it, and then police them to make sure. And save for those extremely rare instances such as Lehrer, Jayson Blair, or Stephen Glass, they do. That’s why I’m more curious about the media’s more venial sins—those smaller, daily transgressions and subconscious bad habits that, while they don’t violate any laws or professional ethics codes, can still exact a reputational cost on the press over time. And there is perhaps no better crucible to observe some of these journalistic peccadilloes in action than the highly charged atmosphere of a political campaign.

So, I’m starting a kind of occasional, ongoing series to identify, document, and classify these sins as I run across them. As I am but one man, I welcome outside input, so feel free to send in the best (worst) examples you might find as well.

The betrayal of “false balance”

It was with piqued interest that I read this New York Times piece from Tuesday. In it, none other than President Obama eloquently sounds off on what he perceives as the biggest failings of the political press.

“Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a ‘false balance,’ in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.”

If I may say, it’s about damn time these faults were acknowledged by the president. Sadly, for far too much of his first term, he ignored the first while falling victim to the second in his legislative efforts. As I wrote in this space in December 2010, Obama’s continued willingness to play against his own party as well as the Republicans threatened to leave him vulnerable come reelection time, which, of course, he now is.

“I do know that that wavering resolve and hectoring, a-pox-on-both-houses language ominously left open a lot of doors to compromise down the road. To a future where [Obama’s] speeches, press conferences, and ultimately, campaign stops will have to present half a loaf, a slice or even a few crumbs as the best way, given the circumstances, to satiate the American people, while acknowledging that it actually satisfied no one. Seeking out an intellectually denuded center, whether it’s in pursuit of some falsely contrived sense of objectivity or a quixotic attempt at postpartisanship, is a prescription for more than just poor journalism or a difficult reelection campaign, it’s potentially a recipe for disaster for our democracy.”

So Obama, having finally learned these lessons, has come around. The press, as exemplified in that very same Times story still doesn’t get it, though. For example, here’s the passage that directly follows the earlier description of Obama’s media analysis:

“Mr. Obama’s assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits, but when coming from a sitting president the appraisal is hardly objective, the experts say.

“‘I think we’ve learned through history to beware of presidents playing press critic,’ said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ‘They’re not press critics—they’re people trying to advance a political agenda.’”

So, here the Times reporter dutifully notes that some experts side with Obama while others disagree, but the public never really hears the merits of his argument either way. (And the subtext here is striking: Obama’s position is tut-tutted as “hardly objective,” and, thus, to experts like Rosenstiel, is easily dismissed as inherently flawed. In other words, one cannot be trusted to both have a point of view and be right at the same time.) This exchange presents an almost laughable meta-moment—in a discussion about the political media’s penchant for enforcing balance at the expense of context, we witness the political media enforce balance at the expense of context.

Who might have a valid point about the media’s habitual behavior? What might be the consequences for the public? Who knows? But at least the reader can keep score of who’s on which side. If that sounds all too familiar, then you have been paying attention to the coverage of political Washington these past few years. Then, to further illustrate the point that making qualitative judgments about sources is often sacrificed on the altar of expediency and a snappy quote from the other side of the ideological fence, the Times reporter has the gall to innocently quote a critique of Obama’s press strategy from the chief executive of Newsmax. (For more on the ignominious history of conservative propaganda mill and birther-friendly website Newsmax, go here.)

To be fair, the article does later cite some specific examples of Obama’s disappointment over the falsely balanced coverage of the stimulus and healthcare debates. But, again, there’s no effort on the part of the author to refute or substantiate his assertions. (Even though there’s ample evidence of the latter.) And while there are a couple of more voices supporting Obama’s point included at the end of the piece, they are predictably couched within a volley of intellectual rebuttals.

Why does this matter? Well, as Eric’s piece up top demonstrates, the consequences of this presidential election, to stoop to a cliché, might be the biggest of our/my lifetime. Yet, a political press corps handicapped by the mistaken impression that fair coverage must necessarily be equal coverage will be hard pressed to live up to its civic duty. This is especially true if one campaign boldly decides to dispense with pleasantries like intellectual honesty, proof, and substance and merely run on hyperbole, innuendo, and secrecy. Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen observed: “If Mitt Romney were running a ‘post-truth’ campaign, would the political press report it?”

Prompted by this recent and fairly typical post at the Washington Post’s “The Fix” column, the answer Rosen arrives at isn’t one we should want to hear. Indeed, the Post’s conclusion that the Romney campaign’s naked distortion of Obama’s words will still “work” as a political tactic is to almost get the sense that it presupposes the absence of an independent press corps altogether. Then, when the Post author weakly laments: “The problem is the gray area is just too gray,” one can see just how deeply a learned helplessness has gripped our nation’s “objective” news organizations. But perhaps the most damning indictment of how media misdemeanors like false balance can eventually add up to a capital betrayal of the public trust is found in the column’s final paragraphs:

“Romney may be attacked in the days ahead for running an out-of-context campaign, and some objective reporters might even say it has gone too far.

 “But the fact is that these two comments further clarify a picture (or caricature, depending on where you stand) of Obama that’s already out there. And plenty of — nay, almost all — people who don’t dissect this stuff as much as we do are going to take the pulled quotes at face value.

 “Is it warm and fuzzy? No. Does it work? Yes. And that’s why they do it.”

In other words, context is dead, the press corps is chronically ill, and, more and more, our democracy ain’t looking so good either.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.  

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