Everything That’s Wrong with Political Journalism in One Washington Post Item

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?

5 Aug 2012 2:19 am 57 Comments

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…”

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The Boston Globe reports: Mitt Romney stayed at Bain 3 years longer than he stated. ”Firm’s 2002 filings identify him as CEO, though he said he left in 1999.”

Fallout. Which fits well into the controversy of the day template, that reusable campaign good.

Un-templated: Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way. Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?

I say no. They would not tell us. Not in any clear way.

Instead, they would do what the Globe did here: try to nail the candidate on specific misstatements that can be documented. Which is good and necessary and difficult and contentious and honorable. Keep going, Boston Globe! And don’t forget to credit others who have done similar work.

What template is there for reporting on a strategy that incorporates…

1.) Key lesson of the climate change debate: you can run a political campaign against verifiable facts, and thereby weaken those facts in the public’s mind.

2.) The Palin-ator: you can invent stuff and stick with it when it is shown to be false because culture war politics feeds off the noise and friction when fictional claims are fact-checked by the mainstream media.

3.) David Frum’s observation from within the Republican tent: “Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”

4.) Old-fashioned secrecy, as in: don’t release information, don’t explain.

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Covering Wicked Problems

This is my keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists, June 25, 2012 at The Royal Society, London.

25 Jun 2012 5:12 am 26 Comments

I think every writer, every journalist, every scholar, should tell you where he’s coming from before he tells you what he knows. I am not a science journalist, or a science blogger, or a scientist who writes. But I am interested in your world, and I try to follow developments in it. My field of study is what I call “pressthink,” which is sort of like groupthink– but for people in journalism. Lately I have been fixated on the problems of the press as it tries to adapt to the digital world. So that’s what I do. But it’s not where I’m coming from.

Culturally, I’m a secular Jew. (From New York.) Demographically, a baby boomer. Socially, I’m an introvert who has learned to fake conviviality. Politically, a liberal democrat. Musically: lost. Intellectually, I am a pragmatist. Among professional philosophers, practitioners of what used to be called “moral science,” pragmatism is sometimes called the only homegrown American philosophy. William James and John Dewey are the heroes of the discipline, and two big ideas animate us. First: the test of a good idea is what you can do with it. A thinker should try to be useful. Second: pragmatists believe that our knowledge advances not when we have the best theory, or the best data, or the best lab, but when we have really good problems.

And that’s what I have for you today: a really juicy puzzle. It begins with a distinction that I have found useful. The distinction is between tame and wicked problems. Now given what’s happened to science writer Jonah Lehrer lately I should tell you that I’ve written about this issue before and since I said it about as well as I could say it then, I am going to say it in a similar way again… okay?

Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.

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Rosen’s Trust Puzzler: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press?

Help me figure it out. Here are five explanations, each of them a partial truth.

17 Apr 2012 10:58 pm 267 Comments

As you can see from the chart, the percentage of Americans who had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the news media has declined from over 70 percent shortly after Watergate to about 44 percent today.

Why? That is my question here.

It’s a puzzle because during that same period several other things were happening. Journalists were becoming better educated. They were more likely to go to journalism school, my institution. During this period, the cultural cachet of being a journalist was on the rise. Newsrooms were getting bigger, too: more boots on the ground to cover the news. Journalism was becoming less of a trade, more of a profession. Most people who study the press would say that the influence of professional standards, such as we find in this code, was rising.

So the puzzle is: how do these things fit together? More of a profession, more educated people going into journalism, a more desirable career, greater cultural standing (although never great pay) bigger staffs, more people to do the work … and the result of all that is less trust.

Why?

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I’m There, You’re Not, Let Me Tell You About It

A Brief Essay on the Origins of Authority in Journalism

27 Mar 2012 1:50 am 27 Comments

A few months ago at PressThink, I published Voice of San Diego’s guidelines for new reporters. They say:

Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.

Which is true. The way I like to phrase that idea is in the title of this post: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” This, I think, is the original source–headwaters–for all forms of authority in journalism.

By “authority” I simply mean the right to be listened to, a legitimate claim on public attention. You begin to have authority as a journalist not when you work for a brand name in news (although that helps) but when you offer a report that users cannot easily get on their own. If we go way back in journalism history, the first people to claim this kind of authority were those who could say… I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.

1.

Perhaps the first people to be employed as professional correspondents were letter writers hired by rich merchants and bankers in early modern Europe. These correspondents lived in cities from which the banker or businessman needed regular reports. Their letters conveyed much the same news that a trader would want today: prices, conditions for trade and transport, what the local authorities were up to, rumors of war, court news and gossip, business disruptions. The most famous examples are the newsletters written for the House of Fugger, perhaps the most powerful banking family in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Here’s a sample:

Insolvencies at the Exchange at Antwerp
From Antwerp, 9th December 1570

Here the Genoese have arranged a competition at the Exchange & because of it two Genoese houses have gone bankrupt this week: they are Giovanni Grimaldi & then Pedro Francesco et Pedro Christophoro Spinola, who have behind them all the Germans here. It has always been regarded as a well-established business, & has long traded in this town. The creditors kept of good cheer. It is, however, to be feared that it may be with this as with other bankruptcies. At first there is ever enough on hand, but in the end no-one can obtain anything…

This bankruptcy has put an end to credit among the Genoese. Within the space of a few years many bankruptcies have taken place, but I have never seen such excitement on the Exchange as there is regarding this. They are owing a large amount, but no-one knows how much, for their books have not as yet been balanced.

It will probably not end with these two, but they will drag others down of their nation with them.

What is this, but a dispatch from 442 years ago on the difficulty of valuing toxic assets? “I’m in Antwerp. You, the Fugger family, are not. Let me tell you about two big bankruptcies.” Reporting! At a minimum, it involves a correspondent, an event, and a report, but also—and this is the part we tend to overlook–recipients who have a stake but can’t be there themselves to see how their investment fares.

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NPR Tries to Get its Pressthink Right

It now commits itself to avoiding the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth.” My verdict: Bravo, NPR.

26 Feb 2012 5:15 pm 60 Comments

Within the world of pressthink there are occasional “events,” things that happen and by happening bring to light shifts in thought. It happened last week when NPR released a new document, an ethics handbook headlined: This is NPR. And these are the standards of our journalism.

Much of what’s in the handbook is Journalism 101. Much of it resembles an earlier document, The NPR Code of Ethics and Practices, which I reviewed in the writing of this post. (The new handbook replaces that earlier code.) But there are some crucial differences, and some of them speak directly to earlier posts at PressThink about the troubles at NPR.

In my view the most important changes are these passages:

In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.

and….

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

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