It’s my job to notice when a piece of standard brand pressthink “flips” around and no longer works as intended. I have one.
For a very long time, the logic behind “he said, she said” journalism, and “get both sides,” as well as, “I’m sorry, but we’ll have to leave it there” was that operating this way would reduce risk to a news publisher’s reputation. (See my 2009 post.) When you have both sides speaking in your account, you’re protecting yourself against charges of favoring one or the other. By not “choosing” a side — by not deciding who’s right — you’re safer.
You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?
Increasingly that is not right. More and more — but not always — the “no position” position is the chancier move, especially when disputes turn on factual questions and checkable claims. A newsroom that goes with “he said, she said” when a call can be made is engaged in reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face. That wasn’t true ten years ago. But it is now.
Let me illustrate. On August 4, the New York Times ran this story: Reagan Book Sets Off Debate. It’s about Rick Perlstein’s new book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.” Much of the story talked about accusations of plagiarism aimed at Perlstein by Republican operative and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. The Times used the classic “he said, she said” form. Shirley and his lawyer make accusations. Perlstein and his publisher defend themselves. The Times stays in the middle:
Mr. Perlstein, 44, suggested that the attack on his book is partly motivated by conservatives’ discomfort with his portrayal of Reagan. Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter.
But Mr. Shirley and his lawyer contend that Mr. Perlstein paraphrased original research without properly giving credit. “The rephrasing of words without proper attribution is still plagiarism,” Mr. Shirley said in an interview.
The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice, even though it still feels like normal practice and, as I said, the safer choice.
The risk the Times was taking was exposed the following week. After receiving complaints from readers, the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, took a closer look. “We wrote about it because it was out there and thought we could take it head-on in the story,” said deputy media editor Bill Brink. “We did that in the most responsible way possible, and put it in context.”
The most responsible way possible? In Brink’s mind, maybe. But that’s the problem! “The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had,” Sullivan wrote.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.
The readers are ahead of the editors. The old standard isn’t good enough. But that news hasn’t reached the middle managers in newsrooms who grew accustomed to reducing risk by leaving it there. Climate change is probably the most famous (and most serious) example of the shift I’m talking about. Where the weight of the evidence makes it possible to render a judgment, but instead you go with “he said, she said,” you are behaving recklessly even as you tell yourself you’re doing the cautious and responsible thing.
Last month, the Telegraph in the UK reported that 200 senior managers at the BBC had to be re-trained not to insert “false balance” into stories like climate change, where a call could be made. “The BBC’s determination to give a balanced view has seen it pit scientists arguing for climate change against far less qualified opponents such as Lord Lawson who heads a campaign group lobbying against the government’s climate change policies.” That’s a form of distortion, practiced by the BBC against itself. But instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. Still distortion, but it looks more innocent.
Editors have to be on the lookout for those points. They’re dangerous, as I’ve been telling the New York Times for… oh, about five years.