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To Catch A Lie: Political Reporting's Dilemma

Jan 20, 2012

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Let's jump into what is a raging debate and side with a colleague, Arthur Brisbane, the ombudsman for The New York Times, not out of collegial loyalty—it would be more fun to disagree—but because he is right.

Brisbane asked the same question that NPR listeners and critics have been asking me: To what extent should reporters, in everyday stories, act as "truth vigilantes" in correcting statements by politicians. He has been roundly attacked and lampooned. Or as he put it: "A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth."

Only days before Brisbane posted his poorly-received inquiry, I received an email from Jeremy Bratt, a NPR listener in Washington, D.C., Bratt cited one of the very examples included in Brisbane's piece:

I am an NPR fan, and a supporter. I spend every morning with the Morning Edition team and think Steve Inskeep is a national treasure. But the wimpy he said/he said reporting in the story "Romney Maintains The Style Of A Front-Runner" on January 1 drives me crazy.

In the story, Steve Inskeep plays a quote from a Romney stump speech in which Romney talks about President Obama's repeated apologies on behalf of America when traveling overseas. But, Inskeep tells us in the story, "Independent fact-checkers, like Politifact.com, have found that Obama did not apologize, and rate Romney's claims false.'"

Why the wishy-washy reliance on Politifact.com? Has President Obama ever apologized on behalf of America in a speech overseas? No, he hasn't. And NPR knows this, because your reporters have been at many of his overseas speeches (indeed, I've listened to their stories filed from overseas about the speeches). So just say that: Romney says this, but actually, it isn't true.

I can't speak for Inskeep, but I can speak for why he did the right thing: Quoting Politifact.com was authoritative and efficient. Had he simply stated of his own authority, "This quote by Romney, however, is not true," Inskeep would have had to provide evidence to back up his claim. The short amount of time he had on-air would be taken up with a long analysis of why Romney's common campaign statement is false. Politifact had already done the work and is widely recognized as independent and reliable.

It's impossible to know whether Republicans or Democrats make more outlandish statements. But in these primary days, the Republicans are doing most of the talking and so the limelight is on them for corrections. Some conservatives, among them talk show hosts on Fox News, are beginning to attack Politifact for focusing too much on the right, though the site regularly corrects Democrats too.

Brisbane's original question was too broadly worded, but I knew what he meant and he corrected it in a follow-up post to say that he was referring to statements in ordinary daily news stories, such as of a debate, in which many statements are included on many issues. How practically should it be done. This is separate from what to do in a story on one issue in which a reporter can go into depth and analyze the claims made by politicians.

The Times story—or Inskeep—might have said, for example, about the Romney assertion, in Brisbane's words:

The president has never used the word 'apologize' in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president's words.

Sounds simple, but then Brisbane also asks: "Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?"

New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen has been strongly outspoken on the responsibility of the media to correct politicians and tell the truth. You might read this interesting post, "Why Political Coverage is Broken." I agree with Rosen in principle and have faulted NPR where I think it has fallen short.

But Rosen and I have publicly disagreed on particular short, daily NPR stories in which I maintain that what he wants is impossible. Digging for the truth—as he suggested for a story on a Kansas bill designed to harass clinics that perform abortions—was good to do, but as a follow-up in which the reporter would have more time. Otherwise, you have no choice but to cite experts like Politifact. Rosen criticizes this as 'he said/she said' journalism.

I was happy to see that Rosen, in public statements, sympathetically understood where Brisbane was coming from, and while I agree with Rosen's sense of ethics and standards, I disagree with his historical analysis and his sense of where journalism is today. Wrote Rosen:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as "maintaining objectivity," "not imposing a judgment," "refusing to take sides" and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it's not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing.

I prefer this history and analysis by Michael Schudson, who is a colleague with me at Columbia University School of Journalism and author of Sociology of News. He wrote to me an email:

The usual story, and the one I believe to be correct, is that journalistic faith in objectivity and the reluctance to make judgments was at its height in the 1950s and 1960s. It was attacked during the Vietnam war. That attack came from activists and outsiders beyond the media but it received support from some (mostly younger) journalists inside mainstream media and received reinforcement in the rise of alternative media and in the work of the likes of Seymour Hersh whose My Lai scoop was published by the left-wing news service, Dispatch News Service. Watergate further reinforced the growing sense that the media should hold government accountable and that this requires digging, investigation, and analysis, not taking the words of politicians at face value. Research on news coverage of presidential candidates shows increasingly negative coverage of candidates of both major parties from the 1960s to 1990s; research also shows a growth 1950s-2000 of the aggressiveness and critical-ness of reporters' questions in White House press conferences, with 1968 being a significant turning point — the level of reporter assertiveness thereafter rising and falling but NEVER falling to levels as those of 1968 and earlier. There has also been a significant growth of "soft news" relative to hard news in the past 40 years — a trend one can see as a mixed blessing but one that certainly enables journalists to be more analytical and to take greater initiative relative to politicians in shaping a news agenda.

The change I see is actually toward a stronger and more complex attention to truth-telling, but that's at the grand philosophical level. The workaday specifics are simpler: "don't give politicians so much control over the news as they had in the 1950s and 1960s. The politician is not your friend." Does this sometimes yield untoward cynicism? I think it does. Is it better than the 1950s coziness of politician-press relations? I think it is.

Is Jay right that the mainstream media are running scared about being accused of bias? Yes, I think that is true, and these days there are thousands of attentive people ready to call the press on signs of bias and able to make their voices heard. But the media are at the same time called on not to let politicians get away with (literal or figurative) murder. And, however complicated this may be, they are responsive to both calls.

To be clear, journalists should do everything possible to confirm the accuracy of the facts they report. The issue that we all face in a changing world of instant, 24-hour media is how practically to do that and maintain standards of fairness and impartiality.

Stephannie Stokes contributed to this report.

More from the Ombudsman:

Santorum, Race and the Limits of Journalistic Fairness

The Media, Civil Liberties and Security in Post-9/11 America

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