March 20, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I have been highly critical of the New York Times and other news outlets for their stenographic approach to journalism: their copying out of political press statements and officials’ assertions, their failure to rebut or even question false statements by politicians and government officials, and their he-said/she-said practice of reporting “both sides” of controversial issues without reporting that the facts favor one side over the other. So today I want to say thank you to New York Times reporter John Broder for taking a bold step outside the fake “journalistic objectivity” box. Broder wrote a Caucus blogpost titled “Romney Misleads on Obama and Energy Prices,” published yesterday afternoon. He reports,
In a television interview on Sunday and a Web video released on Monday, Mitt Romney said that President Obama has sought higher gasoline and energy prices and called on the president to dismiss three cabinet officers Mr. Romney claims have abetted him.
But the assertion, which echoes charges from other Republicans, is largely unsubstantiated or misleading.
Broder goes on to report the particulars of Romney’s remarks and explain why Romney’s charges are inaccurate. Broder provides links to the source materials he cites.
This may be a sign of reporting to come. Or at least a “green shoot.” As press watchdog Jay Rosen reported last month, National Public Radio changed its ethics and practices “to avoid the worst excesses of ‘he said, she said’ journalism.” NPR’s laudable goal: to be “fair to the truth.”
And as Rosen noted in his report on NPR’s new policy, “lurking in the background: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” This is a link to New York Times public editor Art Brisbane’s January 12 post asking readers “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about,” a post that caused The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows to wonder if “the NYT and the Onion have finally merged.” In fact, Fallows cited an NPR story which “quoted Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, who with straight face mourned the unpredictability of today’s politics: ‘Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people’s lives.’” As Fallows wrote, the NPR story he cited
… didn’t note that Rep. Cantor’s main political function over the past year, and the main source of his tension with Speaker John Boehner, has been precisely to add ‘confusion and uncertainty’ to politics, toward the end of overthrowing what he considers corrupt old bipartisan business-as-usual. During the debt-ceiling showdown, he was a major proponent of risking a default if he didn’t get the spending cuts he wanted. You can admire his brinkmanship or deplore it, but either way it deserves mention when he talks about ‘uncertainty.’ A ‘truth vigilante’ would point it out.
So, if NPR is changing its focus from uncritically reporting politicians’ remarks to providing context in pursuit of accuracy, perhaps the Times, too, is headed in the right direction, ceding its false claims of he-said/she-said “objectivity” to be “fair to the truth.” Then again, perhaps Broder wrote his post yesterday mindful of David Roberts’ March 10 critique of another Broder report, a report Roberts called “unforgivable dreck…. The headline,” Roberts wrote, “tells you everything: ‘At House EPA Hearing, Both Sides Claim Science.’” Roberts goes on:
And it’s true! Both sides did claim science. For paragraph after paragraph, Broder dutifully transcribes who said what, this side’s scientists and that side’s scientists, this guy’s zinger and that guy’s zinger. At no point in the story is there a hint that there might be facts of the matter behind the dueling quotes, that one set of assertions might be supported by more evidence than the other, that one set of scientists might have more credibility than the other….
The average reader will come away with no way of weeding through the claims, no perspective or context, no incremental gain in understanding. Nobody will know anything they didn’t know before, just that a bunch of politicians in D.C. are bickering.
Whatever Broder’s motivations, there are other green shoots at the New York Times: Ashley Parker wrote, and Michael Shear contributed to, this Caucus post, also published yesterday afternoon. The post begins in typical stenographic mode:
Mitt Romney came to the University of Chicago Monday afternoon, the day before Illinoisans head to the polls to vote in their Republican primary, and assailed President Obama’s economic policies in a 19-minute speech that was the first major policy address he has given in weeks.
‘For the last three years, Mr. Obama has expanded government instead of empowering the American people,’ Mr. Romney said. ‘He’s put us deeper in debt, he’s slowed the recovery, he’s harmed our economy, and he has attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity — economic freedom.’
The report goes on in that vein for several paragraphs. Then the tone changes: “Though Mr. Romney’s speech offered sharp attacks on Mr. Obama’s policies…, his remarks were light on new specifics of what he would do as president, instead reiterating many of his policies and proposals that had already been rolled out.” It seems Romney would have done well to stay away from any specifics. As the Caucus blogpost reveals:
‘This administration’s regulations are even invading the freedom of everyday Americans,’ he said, before beginning an anecdote about Mike and Chantell Sackett, a couple who run a small business in Idaho and had bought a piece of land on which they had hoped to build a home. But when they started digging, Mr. Romney continued, they were told by the Environmental Protection Agency to stop, because their home was on a wetland….
However, Mr. Romney did not mention that the Sacketts encountered their run-in with the E.P.A. under President George W. Bush’s administration, not under Mr. Obama.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Romney’s campaign did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.
Continuing his riff against government regulations, Mr. Romney continued, to laughter: ‘A regulator would have shut down the Wright Brothers for their “dust pollution.” And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh yeah, they just did.’
However, Mr. Romney again was referring to a government initiative that happened under Mr. Bush; the 2007 bill to set strict new efficiency standards for light bulbs was approved by a Democratic Congress, but signed into law by Mr. Bush.
The post then returns to copying out more of Romney’s remarks. I suspect Parker did the stenography and Shear did the fact-checking. But that’s fine. I think the post, in its entirety, provides New York Times readers with enough information to discern that Romney gave a speech rich in empty rhetoric and peppered it with false accusations against President Obama. Readers who like Romney can brush off the mendacity as speechwriter error; those who don’t can add these false charges to the long lists of Romney’s lies and misstatements.
The Caucus blogposts do not appear in the print edition of the Times, but a bit of Parker and Shear’s report made it into a print story, albeit fairly obliquely. In this story, which appears on page A16 of today’s paper, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg write,
‘Our choice will not be one of party or personality,’ Mr. Romney said during a lecture-style speech, taking the rare move of trading his jeans and open-collar shirt for a suit and tie and reading from a prompter. ‘This election will be about principle.’
In the speech, Mr. Romney avowed a commitment to conservative economic principles and deregulation. But in citing examples of what he said was the stifling hand of the Obama administration, he presented two specific examples, including the phasing out of the incandescent light bulb, that turned out to have their roots in actions taken by President George W. Bush’s administration.
Perhaps the juxtaposition of Romney’s “election about principle” and his false accusations against President Obama represent intended irony. But Zeleny and Rutenberg’s characterization of Romney’s remarks do not make clear, as does the Caucus blogpost, that Romney’s “proof” of President Obama’s supposed regulatory stranglehold on business were instead “proofs” that the Bush Administration was not as far-right as a Romney Administration would be. As if they were writing for the Style section, Zeleny and Rutenberg pay more attention to Romney’s clothing choice and optics of the venue than to the misstatements he made.
At least this is a start. Prof. Rosen said of NPR’s revised standards, “Much of what’s in the handbook is Journalism 101.” Maybe NPR should send a copy of the handbook to the New York Times and other major media outlets. It could help.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com