Interviewing Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy late last year about the Obama administration's historic climate change agreement with China, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell asked how the administration would handle Republican critics of the deal. Mitchell wondered what the White House plan was to deal with GOP "climate deniers" firmly entrenched against the carbon emissions agreement.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential season, Mitchell and the rest of the Beltway press face a similar query: How will journalists deal with Republican climate deniers on the campaign trail? The question goes to the heart of informative political reporting and the importance of holding candidates accountable.
Political jockeying over climate change was elevated last week when the U.S. Senate, for the first time in eight years, cast votes on the topic. On January 21, the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating, "climate change is real and not a hoax." Then the Senate rejected a second amendment that stated climate change is real and is significantly caused by humans.
"Man can't change the climate," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), announced. "The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate." Republicans, including possible White House candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), voted overwhelmingly against the second resolution, even though the scientific evidence is nearly unanimous that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change.
Meanwhile, the flood of scientific warnings continue and the issue gains urgency. (Tuesday's New England blizzard was the latest example of severe weather that may have been exacerbated by warming seas.) In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did not address climate change one time during their three televised debates. But just two years later during the midterm cycle the topic came up "in at least 10 debates in Senate and governor's races" across the country, according to the New York Times. If that trend continues, climate change could well be a cornerstone topic of the next general election campaign season.
For years though, the political press' handling of Republican and conservative climate deniers has been troubling, as journalists politely make room in the debate for fact-free claims about the lack of human involvement. The pending campaign season raises the stakes in terms of holding politicians accountable. But is the press up to the challenge?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen Tweeted last week, "This train -- climate change denialism -- is coming directly at the campaign press and they have no clue how to deal."
The New Republic's Jonathan Chait writes of his membership in Journolist:
For people like me, the national debate mostly revolves around a liberal-moderate-conservative axis, and more hard-left or even traditional liberal views are fairly marginal. Journolist brought people like me into contact with a lot of those sort of liberals, and my main response was to realize that I'm a lot less liberal than I had thought.
This relates to something I've long argued: Many journalists think they're more liberal than they really are, which leads them to produce journalism that favors the Right. When a slightly liberal person who thinks his reporting should be as down-the-middle as possible mistakenly believes he is very liberal, the result is going to be reporting that often favors conservatives. It's a classic case of over-compensation.
In a town in which the Brookings institution and The New Republic have long been considered liberal entities, a lot of slightly-left-of-center journalists haven't, as Chait says, spent much time around people with "hard-left or even traditional liberal views." Both the "Left" and the "Center" are further to the left than they think. That might not matter as much were more journalists to adopt Jay Rosen's suggestion that they transparently report from their own perspective rather than trying to report from where they think the center is.
NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen's response to the The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication's statement about the Obama administration's purported lack of transparency is a must-read -- not because of what the Association, or Rosen, think about the Obama administration, but because Rosen's critique of the statement illustrates many of the problems with contemporary journalism.
Here's a taste:
What bothers me about this statement is that it is so thinly reasoned and badly researched.
Now let's look at this statement: Obama's Promised "Change" Lacks Transparency. It says that Obama's transparency agenda is a failure, that he is not accessible to journalists, and his claims for a new era of openness have not been met. Now, remembering that research is our strength, our brand, consider this: what is the evidence provided for Obama's failure? As I read the statement, a single piece of evidence is provided: Obama has not had very many presidential press conferences. That's is all.
Where are the figures totaling up the number of press conferences and comparing it to other administrations? Missing. Where is the data for the number of one-on-one interviews with journalists Obama has given, and the comparison to other presidents? Missing. Where is the consideration of the administration's argument that these interviews count as "openness" and "access" too? There is no consideration of that argument. It's like we didn't know of it.
Where is the recognition that "transparency" is an agenda that reaches far beyond the president's relationship with journalists to take in such factors as whitehouse.gov and the whole "open data" movement? Shockingly, it is absent. It's like we are ignorant of what transparency means. Where is the attempt to assess whether, apart from the number of press conferences, the Obama White House has been successful in making the government more transparent and putting its vast collections of data online? Missing.
Go read the rest.
Rosen's critique is aimed at an association of journalism professors, but the same flaws he identifies -- the lack of context and quantification, the extrapolation of broad conclusions from an excessively narrow set of facts -- plague much of the reporting you see every day about politics and policy. It applies to articles that tell you a politician raised $70,000 from employees of a company without putting that number in context, or that tell you how many earmarks are in a bill without telling you what percentage of the bill's cost the earmarks account for, or that tell you a program costs $3 billion without telling you that's less than one percent of the federal budget, or that tell you a politician proposes a tax increase without telling you who, exactly, would pay higher taxes as a result.
That kind of context is necessary not only in order to produce a news report that is useful, but in order to avoid producing one that is wildly misleading.
For a while now Media Matters Action Network, our partner organization, has been offering up fact-checks of the vaunted Sunday morning network political talk shows. Media Matters president Eric Burns announced the endeavor in January:
Every Sunday morning, some of the country's most powerful and influential legislators, government officials, journalists, and newsmakers appear as guests on network talk shows. The programs -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday -- occupy a unique place in our media landscape. As the agenda-setters for the next week's worth of political news, they shape conventional wisdom and determine the terms of debate on crucial issues.
These shows also present a critical opportunity to educate the public and correct damaging misinformation -- a responsibility that too often fails to be met. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has explained, the Sunday show format is broken. Shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation routinely serve largely as hyper-partisan forums that provide little in the way of fact-checking.
To begin addressing these problems, Rosen offered a simple and valuable suggestion: in order to hold politicians and media figures accountable, the networks should produce mid-week fact-checks of the statements made on their Sunday shows. It was an idea that quickly received the support of CNN's Howard Kurtz.
We're not holding our breath while the network heads decide whether or not to act. Instead, we're announcing the creation of a new Media Matters product. Every Monday morning, the Media Matters Action Network will publish a memo correcting the conservative misinformation that was left unchallenged the day before. Over time, we hope that our work will help contribute to a culture of accountability that is currently lacking on Sunday morning.
Good thing we didn't hold our breath because it took nearly four months for one of the shows to move on the idea.
ABC's This Week, which announced last month that CNN's Christiane Amanpour will be taking over as host, is set to make another major change. Writing about Rosen's suggested fact-checking of the Sunday shows, PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair makes the announcement:
Jake Tapper, the interim host of This Week, liked the suggestion and asked us to fact-check the show on a trial basis. So starting this Sunday, we'll be fact-checking the newsmakers who appear on the program. We'll post the items on our home page and on the show's Web site. The items will also be archived on PolitiFact's This Week page, so you'll be able to check back periodically and see how the newsmakers are doing.
It's great to see Tapper -- who regularly seeks input for the show on Twitter as well -- take this great advice, even if it is only on a "trial basis" thus far. Perhaps Amanpour will follow Tapper's lead and make the partnership permanent when she takes over hosting duties.
So, to the other Sunday shows -- NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday (and the cable/syndicated ones too, you know who you are) -- the ball is officially in your court.
Jay Rosen has an excellent post you should read. Go check it out; I'll wait. But come back, because I want to elaborate on something he writes.
OK. Here's Rosen:
My claim: We have come upon something interfering with political journalism's "sense of reality" as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called it (see section 5.1) And I think I have a term for the confusing factor: a quest for innocence in reportage and dispute description. Innocence, meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved. That's what created the pattern I've called "regression to a phony mean." That's what motivated the rise of he said, she said reporting. [Emphasis added]
I don't disagree with anything Rosen wrote, but I think he left out something that is very important (and something I suspect he knows): When reporters omit reality from their stories in order to avoid being seen as "involved" or "taking sides," they are taking sides. And they are taking the wrong side. When you treat two statements -- one true and one false -- as equally valid and equally likely to be true, you are conferring an undeserved benefit on the false statement.
I will simply offer an analogy. When a basketball referee fails to call a foul late in a close game, broadcasters will often say the referee "didn't want to decide the game" or "wanted to let the players decide the game on the court." The implication is that if the referee calls a last-second foul, he is deciding the outcome of the game -- but that if he doesn't call it, he is letting the players determine the outcome. This may be aesthetically and dramatically pleasing to some, but as a basic matter of fact and logic, it is incorrect. By not blowing the whistle on a clear foul, the referee is doing the opposite of what the announcers say he is doing. He isn't really letting the players decide the game on the court; he's giving one team a distinct advantage. When the people in charge of enforcing the rules stop doing so, their actions are the opposite of neutrality. Not calling a foul is a decision, too -- and it, too, has consequences.