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Last week, we noted Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman's suggestion, during an online discussion, that journalists have a choice between "complicity" and "stenography" -- between ignoring false statements by government officials (complicity) and credulously reporting them without challenge (stenography). When readers pointed out to Weisman that he and his colleagues have a third choice -- to "report the ... claim accompanied by actual reporting to determine its credibility" -- Weisman explicitly rejected that option. Weisman went on to suggest that such an approach would be inappropriate "analysis."
Unfortunately, Weisman's apparent belief that it is inappropriate for journalists to assess the truthfulness of the statements they report is shared by many of his colleagues -- an attitude the Bush administration and their allies in Congress have taken great advantage of in recent years.
For example, Jim Lehrer, host of PBS' NewsHour, recently told CJR Daily's Liz Cox Barrett that he doesn't think it is his job to tell viewers that a false statement is "untrue":
[Liz Cox Barrett]: How do you approach reporting what a public official has said something that is blatantly untrue?
[Jim Lehrer]: I don't deal in terms like "blatantly untrue." That's for other people to decide when something's "blatantly untrue." There's always a germ of truth in just about everything ... My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others -- meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever ... I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism. I have great faith in the intelligence of the American viewer and reader to put two and two together and come up with four. Sometimes they're going to come up with five. Best I can do for them is to give them every piece of information I can find and let them make the judgments. That's just my basic view of my function as a journalist.
LCB: That goes beyond presenting a claim and several counter-claims that appear to call into question the original claim?
JL: That's part of it. Absolutely that's part of it. I mean, if somebody says -- doesn't matter if it's the president or who -- if somebody says, "It rained on Thursday," and you know for a fact it didn't rain on Thursday, if the person was of a nature that you felt you should quote him, "It rained on Thursday." Second paragraph, third paragraph -- or in television terms second or third sentence -- you would say, "However, according to the weather bureau it didn't [rain Thursday]." But you don't call the person a liar. The person who would call that person a liar would be the person who'd read that story and say, "My god, Billy Bob lied." But I'm not doing that. I'm providing the information so that the person can make their decision. People might say, "Well the weather bureau has lied. Or I was out that day and it was raining ..."
LCB: Is there any place for writing, "Billy Bob said it rained Thursday. The weather bureau said it didn't. I was out that day and I say it didn't."
JL: I would never do that. That's not my function to do that.
LCB: Is it a newspaper's function?
JL: Look, I'm just telling you what I do, ok? I'm an expert on the NewsHour and it isn't how I practice journalism. I am not involved in the story. I serve only as a reporter or someone asking questions. I am not the story.
Lehrer, at least, argues for following the false statement with a contradictory statement by another party. But his approach treats the two claims -- that it rained, and that it didn't rain -- as equally valid, even though he knows "for a fact" that one of them is false.
Longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee took a similar stance during a conversation with Lehrer for a PBS special that aired in June, called "Free Speech":
JIM LEHRER: Somebody who's watching this thing now and listening to us and they're going to read their newspaper in the morning. What assurance can -- what can you say to them, not to worry about?
BEN BRADLEE: I think that you ought to be able to say to yourself that this newspaper is put together by people who are dedicated to finding out the truth and dedicated to the proposition that they're not going to publish any misinformation.
JIM LEHRER: How do journalists, how do editors, how do reporters keep lies out of their newspaper or out of their news broadcast?
BEN BRADLEE: By the seat of their pants, they keep lies out. It's one thing if you know it's a lie. Then you can keep it out.
JIM LEHRER: Sure, just don't run it.
BEN BRADLEE: Just don't run it. But you have to run -- it has become socially proper and right to run what the President of the United States says. And if in the process of that, say, press conference he tells something, he says something that isn't true, you've got to learn how to handle that. You can't come right out, quote the statement and then have a paragraph on your own saying, parenthesis, this is a lie, period.
JIM LEHRER: What do you do?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, you, if it's important enough, you would assign a special story to it and say, when the President said A, he flew in the face of-- there are lots of little euphemisms you can use-- of much of opinion, which says the opposite. And you can highlight the controversy. That seems to me to be quite an intelligent way of doing it.
Bradlee's approach is to report a presidential statement "that isn't true," and then report that "much of opinion ... says the opposite," treating a factual question as a mere difference of opinion.
In June, WashingtonPost.com columnist Dan Froomkin explained the reluctance on the part of many journalists to call a lie a lie. In a column noting that President Bush "chose to lie about" then-Treasury Secretary John Snow's future in the administration, and the press corps' failure to characterize his comments as a lie, Froomkin noted:
Lying is probably the one word mainstream journalists are the most averse to using when recounting what the president said -- even when they know he's not telling the truth. The act of lying requires not just the presentation of false information, but an intention to deceive. Reporters -- and, particularly editors -- are notoriously resistant to ascribe such volition without ironclad evidence.
The next day, Froomkin's Washington Post colleague Dana Milbank made a similar point in an online discussion:
The fact is the word "lie" implies that you know what's in somebody's mind. For example, if what Patrick Fitzgerald has told us is true, Scooter Libby "lied" to the grand jury, because he had to have known what he was saying was false. The president four years ago may well have known what he was saying was false, but that's not provable. I try to stick to what's demonstrably true, and leave the rest to the bloggers.
The sensitivity to the word "lie" that Milbank and Froomkin and Bradlee and Lehrer all expressed is, as far as it goes, correct. The word "lie" does, as Milbank says, imply "that you know what's in somebody's mind" -- and, as such, should be used sparingly.
Unfortunately, the reluctance to call a statement a "lie" all too often extends to failing to note that a statement is false, or even that one of two contradictory statements is more likely to be false. He-said, she-said reporting is a standard -- and damaging -- practice in political journalism.
You don't have to take our word for it. Froomkin and longtime Washington Post editor Barry Sussman recently wrote for the Nieman Watchdog, a project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University: "Some veteran American journalists see the 2006 elections as offering the press a momentous opportunity to revolt against the status quo of spoonfed soundbites and he-said, she-said coverage." Among the comments highlighted by Sussman and Froomkin was the following, from Nieman fellow Valerie Hyman:
Halt the he-said, she-said coverage. It's insufficient, lazy, and sheds no light on important issues. Instead of spending time getting reaction quotes, test the veracity and authenticity of the original statement. Journalists are under no legal obligation to provide equal space and/or time to opposing candidates. We ARE obliged, however, to expose and illuminate and provoke discussion of critical matters.
In a memo a month before the 2004 presidential election, ABC News political director Mark Halperin both explained the importance of news organizations using their "skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest" and touched on one of the complications in doing so: a relentless effort by Republicans to prevent journalists from doing just that. Halperin wrote:
We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides "equally" accountable when the facts don't warrant that.
I'm sure many of you have this week felt the stepped up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions.
It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right.
Last week, we quoted Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dick Polman's blog post explaining the importance of journalists acting as more than mere stenographers. Polman's post was offered as a response to one of his readers -- a reader who offered a dangerously flawed and all-too-common view of journalism. Polman explained:
Yesterday, after I poked at the Associated Press for failing to fact-check Dick Cheney and thereby allow him to utter a demonstrably false remark, somebody named Anonymous complained that "the AP article was a straight news story. Straight news stories are supposed to report facts and what was said. Separate analysis or commentary articles would then debate the merits of what Cheney said. That's journalism 101."
Back to Dan Froomkin's statement: "Lying is probably the one word mainstream journalists are the most averse to using when recounting what the president said -- even when they know he's not telling the truth."
That certainly seems to be true now, but it wasn't that long ago that the nation's leading political reporters showed far less restraint. Indeed, when Bill Clinton was president, some of the media's most influential voices seemed quite comfortable calling him a "liar."
On June 16, 1999, the CBS Evening News aired a story on then-Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign announcement, during which CBS played a clip of reporter and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer interviewing Gore:
SCHIEFFER: He made the announcement in the little town where he spent summers on the family farm. But as a senator's child, Gore has always been more a man of politics than a son of the soil. Like his dad, he served in the House and the Senate before he was Bill Clinton's running mate. In the White House, he says he wants to champion family values. So I asked him, how does that square with his vociferous defense of the president during the Lewinsky scandal?
GORE: I made a commitment. He's my friend and m -- and my co-worker, and I keep my commitments. I take them --
SCHIEFFER: But he turned out to be a liar.
GORE: -- very seriously. Le -- let me -- let me finish my answer, i -- if -- if I could.
That's how Bob Schieffer described the sitting president of the United States: "[H]e turned out to be a liar."
(For the record, the CBS Evening News segment included an extended exchange between Schieffer and Gore in which Schieffer grilled the vice president about President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Absent from the CBS Evening News report about Gore's campaign kickoff was any mention of why Gore was running or what he would do if elected. We were reminded of the segment by this Daily Howler post.)
By comparison, Schieffer described President Bush as a man of "integrity" during a 2004 appearance on CNN's Larry King Live.
Bush has lied about everything from war to cheese, and yet Schieffer describes him as a man of integrity. But he was comfortable flatly declaring Bill Clinton "a liar." Lying about life and death, apparently, is one thing -- but lying about an affair is going too far.
What is perhaps most incredible about Schieffer's harsh assessment of Clinton is that it elicited not a word of protest from his colleagues in the media (or from much of anyone else.) Imagine what would happen if the host of a network news program, in the midst of interviewing Dick Cheney, referred to George W. Bush as a "liar." Among other things, Howard Kurtz would dedicate the next year of his life to the media's "war on Bush."
But Bob Schieffer isn't alone in taking a different approach to presidential lying now that George W. Bush is president. Washington Post columnist David Broder -- the "dean" of the Washington press corps -- was asked in an online discussion about President Bush's obvious lie about his summer reading list:
Charles Town, W.V.: Do you believe for one minute that George Bush reads (and understands) Camus and Shakespeare?
David S. Broder: Is that a requirement for the presidency?[sic]
Faced with an obvious lie by the president, Broder essentially said, "Who cares?"
Things have really changed since 1998, when Broder said of Bill Clinton "The judgment is harsher in Washington. ... We don't like being lied to."
Broder, Schieffer, and the rest of the nation's political media elite were once quite comfortable calling the president of the United States a liar. Now they hesitate to even say that a claim is factually incorrect.
The typical explanation -- from journalists and observers alike -- for why news stories should not state that a claim made by a political figure is false is that to do so would be to make an inappropriate judgment that is best left to the reader. As Lehrer said: "I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism."
While shying away from making judgments about matters of fact, of readily-discernable truth, journalists do make judgments all the time. In particular, judgments about how events and actions are likely to be received by the public are a regular feature of political reporting.
We frequently note the tendency by journalists to tout the political advantage Republicans are likely to gain from ... well, from just about everything. Author and blogger Glenn Greenwald made the same point this week.
In other words, reporters often refuse to offer their judgment about matters of fact, but they do offer their judgment about the potential political effects of events and actions.
This is completely backwards.
Consumers of news lack the time, expertise, and, in many cases, ability to determine which of two contradictory statements by competing political figures is true. They often lack the resources to determine if, for example, President Bush's claim to have "delivered" on the promises he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is true. That's where news organizations should -- but, with depressing frequency, have not -- come in. They have -- or should have -- the expertise and the time to assess those claims, and to report the facts. That's what readers, viewers, and listeners need. That's what journalism should be all about.
On the other hand, as consumers of news, we don't need journalists telling us what the "political impact" of something is going to be; how it will "play at the polls." It's our job to decide that. It's our job to decide who we'll vote for and why; how we'll assess the parties' competing agendas and approaches to the problems we face.
Instead of telling us how they think we'll react, we need journalists to give us the information upon which we can make an informed decision. To tell us the facts, and the truth, and the relevant context. Then we'll tell them the political impact.
Last week, we highlighted the ridiculous amount of media attention given to the JonBenet Ramsey investigation, particularly in comparison to the relative lack of coverage of a federal judge's ruling that the Bush administration's warrentless wiretapping operation is illegal and unconstitutional.
Relentless media coverage of stories like the JonBenet Ramsey investigation -- or, worse, foolishness like last year's "Runaway Bride" media frenzy -- drives us crazy, as regular readers know. Still, we acknowledged last week that "if news organizations think they can pay some bills by appealing to the public's inner voyeurs, that's their business. Literally." Our objection comes "when they leave stories of actual national significance uncovered, or poorly covered, while devoting massive resources to lurid local crime stories."
Last Saturday, Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten made similar points about the coverage given stories like the Ramsey investigation. But Rutten also argued that news organizations may not be right in their belief that tabloid news is the right business decision. Rutten wrote:
So what's wrong with delivering news -- even faux news -- in which people are interested?
In fact, if you don't do it, you go out of business. But if it's all or most of what you do, and if you only deliver on the lowest common denominator along the whole range of interests normal viewers or readers have, you're not a journalist. You're a pander -- and people instinctively know the difference and make the distinction. You can see that at work in cable news' overall audience size: While playing the tabloid game moves the ratings needle in relation to all the other shows doing the same thing, the overall audience for cable news continues to decline. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that although 38% of Americans said they regularly watched a cable news channel in 2004, only 34% say the same thing this year.
But the ultimate rebuke to his sort of trivial sleaze was administered this week by CNN itself. Just 24 hours after Tuesday's absurdity, the network aired an excellent and extensively reported two-hour documentary on Osama bin Laden hosted by Christiane Amanpour. You remember Osama bin Laden, the guy who killed thousands of our fellow Americans and is lurking out there still, plotting further murder and mayhem? He may not be blond, female or missing, but it turns out a lot of people are interested in him too. More than 2 million of them watched Amanpour's documentary, which made it the network's most watched show this year.
AARON ALTMAN: What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing ... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance ... Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women.