So what is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics… more like a fact checker would?
I was alerted to the find by Alec MacGillis of the New Republic. He was exasperated by this brief report in the Washington Post, which appeared at The Fix, the Post’s top political blog. If you don’t know it, The Fix is a reporting and analysis franchise built around the many talents of Chris Cillizza, a star reporter and key presence on its most important beat: national politics.
The Fix is a group blog now; the item in question carried the byline of political reporter Aaron Blake. It’s a 700-word analysis of a Mitt Romney ad that twisted some words of Obama’s into a claim that could be more easily attacked:
Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans.
Context is dead. Long live context.
For the second time in two weeks, Mitt Romney’s campaign has an out-of-context quote it can use to bludgeon President Obama. First it was “You didn’t build that,” and now it’s two ill-fated words that Obama spoke at a fundraiser Monday: “It worked.”
As with “You didn’t build that,” the Romney campaign’s attacks on “It worked” will be criticized for being out-of-context, lowest-common-denominator politics. And as with “You didn’t build that,” “It worked” is going to … well … work.
The rest of the item runs in this vein: Scream all you want about “context” and accuracy; these ads are effective, and that’s what counts. Listen to a bit more:
Fact-checkers are great (especially our Glenn Kessler), but as long as either side has an argument to justify its attacks, the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game.
Romney’s team is exploiting that fact — to the credit of its political acumen, if not its strict adherence to accuracy.
Some people don’t hear it, others do: the way the tone of the piece… don’t get me wrong, fact checkers are great, but… eats away at our confidence that this kind of journalism can ever be the truthelling kind. MacGillis of the New Republic heard it. “Ah yes,” he wrote. “If only there was someone whose job and calling it was to ferret out the truth of such things, to provide some context for voters. Let me think, there must be someone we can think of, a profession of some kind perhaps, sort of like a researcher but also a communicator…”
Now I ask you: What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a “straight” reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its “base” in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you’re thinking: the press should do both! But this is exactly what’s missing in the Aaron Blake item. There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant. And that alone is a reveal. MacGillis is among the amazed:
That’s part of our job, isn’t it, holding the candidates to some modicum of reality? Or we could simply sit by our screens and marvel at their “acumen.”
Here we have a dispute. But the dispute has yet to break into the open among journalists. I wish it would, because it would be fascinating to see who lines up where.
One camp, represented for the moment by Aaron Blake of The Fix, has drifted into a state of low grade nihilism in which complaining about truth, accuracy, fairness and missing context is beside the point because those very complaints have become another way of doing politics. Both sides pretend to get all worked up about it. Both sides rely on misleading claims when it’s convenient for them. Observing this, a smart reporter like Blake can’t fall for any of it. He stands between warring camps, reminding each side that they too are sinners. Here, “both sides” is a kind of magic phrase, putting partisans in their place and clearing the ground for the journalist to come in and settle matters. Thus:
The fact is that the Obama team’s hands aren’t quite clean when it comes to context, either, including its use of Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” and “I like being able to fire people” quotes.
In all of these cases, we’re dealing with a somewhat ambiguous quote.
From Blake’s point of view, the story that needs to be told is not about the granularity of deception, the misuse of words to make them mean what they did not mean when spoken, or the tricky matter of which side is relying to a greater degree on truth-busting, context-shredding claims. The real story lies in the game of it all: the daily routine of scoring points, landing blows, seizing on any little advantage and making it work for your side. “Acumen,” as he put it. There is a worldview on display here, but to my knowledge it has never been articulated or defended by a journalist who holds it.
“First, do no harm” is supposed to be bedrock for the medical profession. First, show you’re savvy. That’s how I would sum up The Fix’s worldview. But it’s not just The Fix or Aaron Blake. This is the first commandment for a whole class of reporters and interpreters who keep the politics beat humming. Mark Halperin of Time magazine is at the head of that class, along with Chuck Todd of NBC and Cillizza of the Post. The Politico has the first newsroom that is built entirely on the savvy worldview. I have written about it many times:
Savviness! Deep down, that’s what reporters want to believe in and actually do believe in— their own savviness and the savviness of certain others (including operators like Karl Rove.) In politics, they believe, it’s better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere or humane.
Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.) Savviness—that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political—is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it.
Praising “political acumen” while putting questions of accuracy and context to one side– this is the essence of the savvy outlook.
Fight for what is true. That is how I would put the alternative to “first, show you’re savvy.” From this point of view, it is a regrettable loss for the polity, and for political journalism–and for the voters, the public–when dubious claims gain traction and quotes pulled from their context appear to “work.” What the press can do to prevent this is try to raise the costs of making false or misleading claims, which is the whole point of fact-checking.
Recognizing that there are no angels in competitive politics, recognizing also that our choices are typically binary, journalists can point out to voters (or at least the portion of voters who are users of political journalism) which candidate is stretching the truth more often or more strenuously. If it’s fair game (Blake’s term) to assess which candidate is connecting more effectively with voters or following a shrewder strategy, then it is equally fair to judge who’s being more deceptive.
But the savvy won’t do that. Instead they do this: “Obama team’s hands aren’t quite clean when it comes to context, either…” Which is another reason Blake’s item illustrates everything that’s wrong with political journalism today. Again: There are no angels in politics. We know that. Both sides mislead. But we still need to know who’s misleading us more because our choices are binary. If political reporters can’t tell us that, but they can tell us things like “the history of politics dictates that it’s all fair game…” then why do we need them?
It probably took an hour or so for Blake to draft his post. But 25 years of drift went into it. I could be wrong, but I think a growing number of Blake’s colleagues in journalism are losing patience with the kind of analysis on view in his rancid item. They are not for the most part political reporters, for whom the savvy is everything. They are journalists from other beats and other persuasions. And they’ve had it with the “who cares if it’s true? it works” attitude.
After I talked on Twitter about the Blake item, Nick Fox, an editor in the opinion section of the nytimes.com, said he could not recall an instance of more cynical reporting. Michael Powell, a columnist in the metro section of the Times, described the Blake post thusly: “In which reporter locates his brain’s off switch…” Powell’s comment was in turn picked up by ProPublica’s Jesse Eisinger.
These are small clues that a split is beginning to develop within the journalism profession. The savvy is still in charge. It is the worldview of choice in pro journalism; in the political reporting wing it wins maybe 95 to 5. But it has a potentially fatal weakness built in: it brackets questions of truth, suggesting that they have become either quaint (meaning: of interest only to the unsavvy) or irrelevant in making distinctions (because both sides do it.) The more open this attitude becomes among political reporters–and this is what distinguished Blake’s post, its baldness–the more repulsive it feels to their colleagues.
Though some might like to think so, “first, show you’re savvy” is not compatible with “fight for what is true.” It’s time we saw journalists line up behind these claims so we know who’s who.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
The Blake Item: a debate in five links. When confronted with misleading claims that work, should journalists accept and report that, or fact check and fight back? (Supply your own framing; that’s mine.)
1.) Begin with Aaron Blake’s piece at the Washington Post’s blog, The Fix, Context be damned: Obama’s ‘It worked’ quote should work for Republicans.
This provoked 2.) “It’s All Fair Game” by Alex MacGillis in The New Republic. He wrote in exasperation about the Blake Item.
Which led to my contribution at PressThink 3.) Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item.
and then to 4.) Fix-ing Aaron Blake by David S.Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix. He was not impressed with my case.
Then 5.) The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: Should the Press Shame Presidential Candidates for Lying? digs in further on the Blake post and why it bothers some people. A lot.
Bonus link: CJR, Another factchecking fiasco. Journalistic failure in coverage of Harry Reid and his mysterious source. Also about “confronted with misleading claims, what do journalists do?”
If there is more, I will add it.
Obama as press critic: It was amusing for me to read that President Obama’s critique of the press corps resembles my own in that he’s disgusted with “false balance” and “he said, she said” journalism. But far more significant is this quote in the same article from Paul Steiger:
“I think sometimes we in the media — particularly under the crunch of deadlines — don’t have time to work through all the issues of discerning what is fact,” said Paul E. Steiger, chief executive of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, and a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, “and so we say ‘he said, she said.’ ”
Here is the shift to watch for. From… our job is not to take sides, and that upsets partisans who of course think they’re right, which had been the standard reply, to… we fall back on “he said, she said” when we don’t have time to do a better job. If a mainstream heavyweight like Steiger is opting for the latter, that could be a sign that professional opinion is starting to shift against the church of the savvy and its ways.
The Economist comments on the Obama’s critique of the press: The Balance Trap.
A reaction to all this at US News by opinion editor Robert Schlesinger.
The Romney campaign’s gambit plays on two things: One is the instinct on the part of the press to treat such disputes as he-said-he-said in the name of objectivity (hence much coverage of the welfare ad as being Team Romney charge followed by Team Obama retort with little discussion of the facts).
But underlying the cynical belief that they can game the press is an even more contemptuous and condescending belief in the basic laziness and stupidity of the American people.
If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press report it? No, they would not. This falls under: too big to tell.
How interesting: Aaron Blake comes back at it with this passage at The Fix:
We’ve argued recently on this blog that out-of-context ads tend to work, provided there is a modicum of believable justification and the media don’t call them out. It may not be right or just, but most keen observers recognize that fact.
Actually that part about “…provided that the media don’t call them out” was not in the original, which is part of what led to the criticism Blake got.
Truth vigilantes? That was the question earlier at PressThink: “Somewhere along the way, telling truth from falsehood was surpassed by other priorities to which the press felt a stronger duty. Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, was unaware of this history when he asked users of the Times whether reporters should call out false statements.”