You write the words and make believe there is truth in the space between
In a Swampland blog post titled "Anecdotal hit job," Time Washington bureau chief Jay Carney criticized a column in which Brad Warthen, the editorial page editor of South Carolina's largest newspaper, accused John Edwards of being a "phony" based on three ages-old anecdotes. According to Carney, "the anecdotes are flimsy concoctions at best. Only one of the three is personally observed by the author. The other two are stories told to him by others. And all three -- even if true -- say almost nothing substantive about Edwards' true motivations as a politician. Warthen's article is a hit job masquerading as a reported editorial."
Carney's take on Warthen's piece is a useful reminder of the dangers of anecdote-based reporting. But his post began with a defense of the same. "I believe in the usefulness and validity of the telling anecdote -- the seemingly small story that reveals a broader truth about a politician or other subject," Carney wrote. And who can blame him? For the reader, an anecdote -- a "short account of an interesting or humorous incident" -- is often more accessible and enjoyable than a dry recitation of statistics and facts. Similarly, it isn't hard to imagine that relating an anecdote is more enjoyable for the reporter, as well. So if a journalist stumbles upon an anecdote that "reveals a broader truth about a politician or other subject," who can blame him or her for using it?
But there is a danger or three in reporting by anecdote.
Reporting by anecdote is how we got a president who doesn't windsurf, doesn't order the "wrong" kind of cheesesteak, doesn't wear earth tones, doesn't sigh, and doesn't exaggerate* -- but who does lie to the nation on the way to war, spy on Americans, torture people, threaten to veto health care for children, allow arsenic in our drinking water, politicize the Justice Department, take an à la carte approach to the Constitution ("I'll have the Second Amendment and a little bit of the 10th, but hold the First, Fourth through Sixth, and the Eighth, please") and generally behave like a despot.
So, you know, there's a downside.
Actually, there are a few downsides to the fondness many journalists have for the illustrative anecdote. One is a tendency to repeat anecdotes that aren't true.
For example, the July 30 edition of Time -- Carney's magazine -- included a "Washington Memo" about "campaign trivia." The piece, written by Amy Sullivan and Bill Powell, quite reasonably concluded that "[t]he Trivial Story has its place, but in 2007 it needs to move to the sidelines. With the country at war and a presidency in crisis, this may be a good time to remember that a candidate's foreign policy instincts tell us more about his fitness for office than his grooming habits do."
But along the way, Sullivan and Powell offered an example of the "Trivial Story": "Al Gore wears earth tones on the advice of a consultant." That's trivial, all right, but it is also false, according to all available evidence -- as anyone who has been paying attention should have known for about eight years by now. But Sullivan and Powell don't merely repeat the story as though it is true, they claim it actually tells us something significant:
Reporters argue that seemingly small details can illuminate larger truths about a candidate. And they often do: Gore's sartorial hire told us about his insecurity as a candidate.
No. No, no, no, no. "Gore's sartorial hire" didn't tell us any such thing. It didn't tell us anything at all, because it never happened.
Time Washington bureau chief Jay Carney defends the "usefulness and validity of the telling anecdote -- the seemingly small story that reveals a broader truth about a politician or other subject." But at his magazine, to this very day, political reporters repeat "telling anecdotes" that are simply false -- and debunked long ago -- then pretend that the anecdote tells us something about the candidate rather than about the sorry state of journalism at Time magazine.
But there's no reason to single out Sullivan and Powell. A Nexis search for "Gore AND earth tones" in the Time library yields 12 hits. For example, the November 6, 2000, edition of Time referred to Naomi Wolf as the "[f]eminist author behind earth tones and alpha maleness."
And who is listed in the byline of that article? You guessed it: Jay Carney. Carney and his fellow Swampland contributor Karen Tumulty wrote that article falsely claiming Naomi Wolf was "behind earth tones."
A few weeks later, Carney and Tumulty signed their names to a post-election, pre-Supreme-Court-fiat article purporting to explain "the inside story of the key moments that propelled Bush and Gore to a deadlocked Election Day." That article devoted five full paragraphs to the controversy over Wolf providing "the Vice President with everything from wardrobe tips to big-picture theories of the race" -- one of several Time articles that discussed Wolf's role in the campaign.
And it's no wonder the magazine flogged the story so hard: Time reporters Tumulty and Michael Duffy had "broken" the "story" in a November 8, 1999, article headlined "Gore's Secret Guru." Duffy and Tumulty reported: "Sources tell TIME that since Gore 2000 set up shop in January, Wolf has been paid a salary of $15,000 a month ... in exchange for advice on everything from how to win the women's vote to shirt-and-tie combinations."
The Al-Gore-hired-Naomi-Wolf-to-tell-him-how-to-dress nonsense isn't the only "telling anecdote" about Gore that appeared under Carney's byline -- and it isn't the only one that was false. A November 20, 2000, Time article written by Carney, among others, called Gore "the man who invented the Internet." Of course, Gore never claimed to have invented the Internet. Don't take my word for it; here's what Time reported in its August 21, 2000, edition: "He never claimed to have 'invented' the Internet." But the fact that he had never made the claim didn't stop Carney and his colleagues from saying he did. After all, it was a telling anecdote.
To be clear: there's no reason to pick on Jay Carney or Time magazine. False "telling anecdotes" like the claims about Gore and Naomi Wolf are endlessly repeated by countless journalists. The focus here on Carney is only because he brought it up, not because he is particularly guilty. In fact, Carney's willingness to publicly point out flaws in a fellow journalist's work is refreshing. His post is a useful component to a valuable discussion about media use of what he calls "telling anecdotes." Hopefully, as someone who believes in the "usefulness and validity" of the practice, he will continue to weigh in.
Even anecdotes that are true can be problematic. Some anecdotes are true, but aren't "telling." Or they don't tell us what journalists say they do.
Pretend for a moment that Naomi Wolf had told Al Gore he should wear earth tones. What would that have told us?
It could have told us, as countless journalists have claimed, that Gore wasn't "comfortable in his own skin." That he didn't know who he was. That he was a big phony who would do anything to win.
But, just as plausibly, it could have told us that Al Gore -- like the vast majority of Americans -- occasionally asks for a second opinion when assembling an outfit. Who hasn't on occasion asked a spouse or a partner or a friend, "Does this shirt go with this tie?" or "Do I look OK in this?" It could have told us any number of similarly mundane things about Al Gore. It could have told us nothing at all.
Pretend for a moment that Gore had said "I invented the Internet." What would that have told us?
Well, it could have told us, as countless journalists have claimed, that Al Gore is a liar, an exaggerator.
But, just as plausibly, it could have told us that Al Gore occasionally misspeaks -- just like everyone else. It could have told us he is a regular guy: maybe even that Matthewsian Ideal -- Someone We'd Like to Have a Beer With.
These "illustrative anecdotes," and countless others like them -- John Kerry windsurfing or ordering cheesesteak, John Edwards' big house and expensive haircuts, etc., etc. -- aren't inherently illustrative. Journalists use them to illustrate not only things they know about the candidates, but things they think about the candidates as well; to dress up their guesses and hunches as factual observations.
President Bush has been widely mocked for saying upon his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. ... I was able to get a sense of his soul."
But that's essentially what journalists do when they claim these "telling anecdotes" illustrate something completely subjective about the candidates. They don't really know Al Gore is a phony; they're guessing at what is in his soul, then finding anecdotes that can seem to support their guess.
Take the most oft-repeated "telling anecdote" of the 2008 presidential campaign thus far: John Edwards paid $400 for a haircut. What does that really tell us about John Edwards? Many journalists insist (endlessly) that it tells us that he's vain, or a phony, or a hypocrite. Maybe it does tell us something like that. (For the record: It certainly does not tell us he is a hypocrite.) Or maybe it tells us he is inattentive to detail and didn't know how much it cost. Or maybe it tells us he didn't know how much it cost because he focuses his attention on important things like health care, poverty, and war, rather than on his hair. Or maybe it doesn't tell us anything at all. Sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut.
But the political press corps -- many of whom, according to Marc Ambinder, simply don't like John Edwards -- insist that the haircut does tell us something. They choose to repeat it again and again as though it has great meaning. They do not, on the other hand, repeat this "telling anecdote":
The visiting dignitaries were each issued a hammer, a carpenter's belt, and a pair of brown cloth work gloves. While the actor [Danny Glover] immediately donned his gloves, the candidate [Edwards] chose to stuff his into the empty pouches of the carpenter's belt, an accessory that seemed to irk him a bit, you could tell, devoid as it was of any real utility in his present situation. ... From the start, it was clear that the actor was not quite as comfortable with a hammer as the candidate, employing the tool in a series of choked-up staccato taps, as opposed to Edwards's longer, more confident strokes, the mark of a man who'd spent the summers of his youth mucking out looms, building mobile homes, painting markings on highways.
Seemingly every news story that has anything to do with John Edwards and poverty or health care or any economic issue at all mentions his expensive haircut, or his big house. There's no good reason why his house is mentioned in those articles rather than the "telling anecdote" about his confident use of a hammer, which nicely illustrates the fact that he spent his youthful summers doing manual labor. There's no good reason why his haircuts are mentioned as though they reveal something about his character, while his disinterest in using a utility belt as a prop is not.
The choice to repeat the anecdote about the haircut rather than the anecdote about the hammer is entirely subjective. There is no way for reporters to know that the haircut tells us more about Edwards than does the hammer. But they act as though they do know this. Some, like McClatchy national correspondent Matt Stearns, even insist that it isn't their fault that they repeat "silly, frivolous" stories. In his August 10 column, Stearns criticized those who criticize media coverage of things like Edwards' haircuts and Barack Obama's trip to the beach, concluding: "Maybe the media will stop reporting 'silly, frivolous' stories as soon as candidates stop doing 'silly, frivolous' things."
Think about that for a second: Matt Stearns thinks the media should endlessly report " 'silly, frivolous' stories" as long as candidates do silly and frivolous things. But candidates -- like everyone -- will never stop doing silly things. Nobody goes through life without doing anything silly. That's no justification for treating a trip to the beach or a haircut like it's life-and-death news. You'd have to have a pretty warped view of journalism to think that journalists should focus on the least consequential things the candidates do.
So what's wrong with the "telling anecdote"? The people who do the telling, that's what's wrong.
Recent (and not so recent) history makes clear that it is simply foolish to think that the political press does a good job of deciding which anecdotes are true, which are false, which are telling, what they tell us, and which are anomalous. Just look at the 2000 campaign: The media decided that anecdotes that seemed to indicate dishonesty on Al Gore's part were "telling" and should be repeated over and over. George Bush's dishonesty was not treated similarly; apparently, journalists didn't think his false statements revealed a "broader truth" about him. How does that judgment look now?
So, should news reports consist solely of actuarial tables, pie charts, and other dry recitation of names, dates, and places? Of course not. Storytelling can be a highly effective and valuable form of journalism. But only if the stories are true and mean what we're told they mean.
And that isn't so hard to ensure, if journalists care enough to do so. Verifiably true anecdotes can be used to illustrate verifiably true concepts. When news consumers encounter "telling anecdotes," they should think about what the anecdote really means:
1) Is the anecdote verifiably true?
2) Is the anecdote illustrative rather than anomalous?
3) Does the anecdote illustrate something that is verifiably true, or is it merely a convenient vehicle for suggesting something the reporter believes but cannot prove?
4) Does the anecdote illustrate something that is not only verifiably true, but is also important to understanding how the candidate would govern or how the issue would affect people? Or is it just pointless snark?
Ideally, of course, journalists would think about these things before repeating the "telling anecdote" in the first place. Doing so shouldn't be hard. It merely requires a commitment to telling the truth, to reporting rather than guessing.
Speaking of commitments to truth ... a new Pew Center report finds that a majority of Americans think that news reports are often inaccurate.
One thing news organizations could do to combat this attitude would be to start indicating that they give a damn about being accurate.
To be clear: Everybody makes mistakes. We all understand that. No reporter, no news organization is ever going to avoid errors in their reporting. Nobody expects perfection. It is the apparent brazen indifference to errors on the part of many news organizations that is sickening.
Time magazine prints references to Al Gore claiming to have invented the Internet even after Time itself has debunked that claim.
It repeatedly claims that Naomi Wolf told Al Gore what to wear long after that lie was debunked.
The New York Times finally gets around to running a correction on that same topic more than seven years after it first began printing the lie -- and, in the belated correction, fails to acknowledge that the paper has been printing the untruth for years.
The Washington Post runs a snark-filled report suggesting Hillary Clinton has changed her story about sending Chelsea Clinton to private school; when Media Matters points out a strikingly similar comment by President Clinton in 1993, the Post refuses to run a correction.
The Post's star investigative reporter falsely suggests John Edwards is required by "federal campaign law" to reveal the buyers of his home, and refuses to correct his error when it's pointed out to him.
And those are only a few recent examples.
Two others are worthy of mentions -- perhaps even of being considered "telling anecdotes."
On December 1, 1999, Katherine Seelye of The New York Times and Ceci Connolly of The Washington Post both falsely reported that Al Gore had taken credit for discovering Love Canal. "I was the one that started it all," both reporters quoted Gore as having said. Both reporters equated the statement with other (false) examples of Gore stretching the truth.
That very same night, MSNBC's Hardball aired a clip of Gore's comments -- a clip that made undeniably clear that Gore had not taken credit for discovering Love Canal; he had not said "I was the one that started it all."
But the next morning, rather than correcting their mistake, Connolly and the Post continued hammering away at Gore for "verbal missteps" -- including the Love Canal line -- that he never made.
It wasn't until six days later -- December 7, 1999 -- that the Post finally got around to running a halfhearted correction. A correction that ignored the fact that the paper had run entire articles calling Al Gore a liar based on the fictitious quote. Three days after that, the Times finally ran its correction. Like the Post, the Times' correction failed to make clear the magnitude of the error, making no mention of the fact that Seelye had used the fictitious quote to portray Gore as dishonest.
Again: on December 1, the very same day the articles appeared, MSNBC aired the actual clip of Gore speaking to a national television audience -- a clip that made undeniably clear the falsity of the Post and Times reports. But the papers waited six and nine days, respectively, before running halfhearted and grossly inadequate corrections. During that time, the Post even ran another Connolly article attacking Gore over the quote Connolly and Seelye made up.
Competent news organizations that give a damn about the truth simply do not behave this way.
Another example, again courtesy of The New York Times. On March 18, 1994, the paper ran one in a long line of highly questionable Whitewater articles. In this particular article, Jeff Gerth falsely reported that during Bill Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas, Tyson Foods Inc. "benefited from a variety of state actions, including $9 million in government loans." It took The New York Times more than a month to run a correction acknowledging "Tyson did not receive $9 million in loans from the state."
A month to correct such a basic error!
Believe it or not, that isn't the appalling part.
In May of this year, Media Matters discovered that the online version of Gerth's March 18, 1994, article is freely available on the New York Times' website -- and it still contains the false claim about Tyson, with no correction appended.
So what did The New York Times do after Media Matters pointed this out? Not a thing.
Visitors to the New York Times web page can still read, to this day -- 13 years after the newspaper ran a belated correction, and more than two months after Media Matters pointed out that the article exists uncorrected on the newspaper's site -- false claims about the Clintons. Just click here. The newspaper knows the claim about Tyson receiving $9 million in loans is false. It has publicly acknowledged that it is false. The newspaper knows this false information continues to reside, uncorrected, on its website -- Media Matters pointed it out more than two months ago. There's a word for knowingly trafficking in false information: lying.
Competent news organizations that give a damn about the truth simply do not behave this way.
Again: Nobody expects reporters to be perfect. Nobody demands that news organizations never get anything wrong. But until news organizations adopt as one of their core values the notion that errors must be promptly and thoroughly corrected, they will continue to lose the trust of the American people.
And they will deserve to lose it.
* He does, however, ride around on $10,000 worth of bicycles, lie about ordering the "wrong" kind of cheesesteak, wear earth tones, sigh, smirk, scowl, and lie through his teeth about darn near everything. Point being: the repetition of "revealing anecdotes" isn't exactly fair and balanced. Back to column.
UPDATE: I wrote above: "Reporting by anecdote is how we got a president who ... does lie to the nation on the way to war, spy on Americans, torture people, threaten to veto health care for children, allow arsenic in our drinking water ..." As Brendan Nyhan points out, "[T]here will always be some acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water; the question is what the standard should be." Nyhan has a fair point. More accurate wording would have been: "... try to increase the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water."