August 19, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Brian McFadden, who creates an editorial comic strip for the New York Times Sunday Review, has outdone himself today. His topic: “Presidential Campaign Reporting for Dummies.” In the strip, McFadden takes on most of the worst practices of his colleagues, practices we regularly address here at the New York Times eXaminer.
In the first frame of today’s strip, McFadden “advises” reporters on how to deal with a growing problem – candidates who refuse to talk to reporters: “Denied access to the candidate yet again? Just interview whoever shows up to a campaign event.” Felicia Sonmez provided a good example of how it’s done in Saturday’s Washington Post. Her report on Paul Ryan’s rally at a Florida retirement community was, well, abysmal. Generally speaking, Times reporters are not particularly guilty of this brand of reporting, though they do occasionally go for “local color.” In an August 13 Caucus piece on Paul Ryan’s first day of solo campaigning for the Romney-Ryan ticket, New York Times political reporter Helene Cooper concentrated on crowd reaction to Ryan and his austerity plans:
Mr. Ryan was speaking to a generally supportive crowd from an outdoor political soabox at the Iowa State Fair, when protesters gathered in front of him and shouted slogans including ‘We are the 99 percent!’ Two women who tried to climb onstage were hustled away by security officers before they could unfurl a banner….
Mr. Ryan’s visit here on Monday set off many side debates among audience members over his and President Obama’s policies…. Two women who followed him as he strolled through the fair argued over his plan to revamp Medicare into a set payment to individuals to buy insurance in the private market, which Mr. Ryan believes will save the program from insolvency. ‘Vouchers are a cut in Medicare; you just wait, you’ll lose money,” Midge Slater argued. ‘What are you going to do for my two grandchildren when we’re broke,’ another woman told her, declining to give her name.
Cooper’s story finally devolved into a report on an exchange between Ryan and Iowa Congressman Steve King about butter cows. But any conversation in which Steve King – a virulent, fact-averse right-winger – is bound to be stupid. Maybe that was Cooper’s point.
Bill McFadden next suggests to reporters, “If you must fact-check, develop a cutesy scale that talks down to your audience.” This is a particular reference to Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post who has devised a “Pinocchio system” to rate candidates’ remarks and political ads. A four-Pinocchios award is, by Kessler’s definition, “a whopper.” PoltiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times, is a little “less cutesy,” though the “Pants-on-Fire” rating, complete with an animated gif icon, is clearly schoolyard-oriented. We can’t fault the New York Times for its childish fact-checking, because the Times seldom fact-checks politicians’ assertions. The most recent article I could find that specifically fact-checks a presidential candidate was this “Ad Watch” by political reporter Peter Baker dated August 2 – two-and-a-half weeks ago. Baker reviewed an Obama ad titled “Stretch,” which criticizes Romney’s tax plan. His piece eschews Burger King, children’s taunts, “cutesy” analysis, or a ratings scale in any form.
In the third frame, McFadden offers this advice: “Although economic policy is central to both campaigns, never interview an economist. They are bor-ing.” This is a policy to which many journalists strictly adhere. The issues are often complex, made more so by candidates’ obfuscating. But reporters seem to think they’re so smart they can understand and explain fiscal and economic issues without expert assistance. Economist Dean Baker, among others, proves them wrong nearly every day in his “Beat the Press” column. Just today, he highlights a central economic argument missing from John Markoff’s New York Times report on new robot technology. Although Markoff does consult an economist or two and a White House policy wonk, neither the economists nor the policymaker touches on the obvious point Baker makes: “Robots don’t cost jobs; bad economic policy does.”
An example of a New York Times post that should have relied on an economist or fiscal expert is this one by Michael Shear and Sarah Wheaton, dated August 14, in which the reporters describe a Romney attack ad that claims “Mr. Obama is the one who is endangering Medicare through his decision to cut $700 billion from the program as part of his health care bill.” The reporters do allow that “Democrats say the attack is an unfair and misleading attempt to scare seniors. They say that the $700 billion cut was to projected future growth in Medicare costs and did not cut benefits to current retirees. And they note that the budget by Mr. Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, also includes the same cuts.” The technique the reporters employ is he-said/he-said reporting. An uninformed voter has no idea whether the Romney ad or “Democrats” are telling the truth. “Elizabeth,” commenting on the Shear and Wheaton post, wrote, in part,
Wouldn’t it be helpful if the NYT could simultaneously debunk this lie or at least insert a clarifying paragraph instead of just reporting what the ad said? Come on NYT please do your job instead of having headlines that are simply for sensationalism? Our democracy, what is left of it, requires the media to do its job and this goes for reporting on both sides.
Her comment was the most popular comment on the post. Other commenters made similar objections to the post. Readers expect Times reporters to give them guidance, perhaps by citing independent experts – no matter how “bor-ing.”
In the fourth frame, McFadden suggests, “If a candidate is blatantly lying, come up with a euphemism to describe it, because balance takes precedence over accuracy.” Usually, Times reporters don’t bother to look for a euphemism. They just report what the candidate says, then let his opponent serve as “fact-checker,” as the Shear and Wheaton story does. McFadden suggests some handy catchphrases like “unsubstantiated remarks.” Michael Shear likes this phrasing and used it to refer to “unsubstantiated comments from Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, about Mr. Romney’s taxes.” Reid’s comments were so “unsubstantiated” that even Reid admitted he didn’t know if they were true. (Reid, however, was not lying. He did not claim that Romney had not paid taxes for ten years. He claimed that an unnamed reliable person told him Romney had not paid taxes for ten years. Romney has refuted the allegation, but both he and his wife have continued to refuse to release their tax returns, which are the only proofs one way or the other.)
McFadden next advises, “Running late for cocktails? Just repeat what happened. Analysis takes too much time.” This is a particular specialty of the New York Times, which overworks its reporters, especially those who are following candidates on the road. Often these reporters file half a dozen stories, and perhaps a few additional updates, in a 48-hour period. If the stories are for the print edition of the Times, the lead reporter sometimes gets assistance from other reporters. Asking reporters working on the road to crank out this much copy is another way of saying, “Do who, what, when and where; forget fact-checking and analysis.” Saturday, Helene Cooper did what she was supposed to do: reported on what President Obama said, where he said it and when he said it. For “context,” Cooper did note that Obama needed to win New Hampshire, a state to which his opponent Mitt Romney has personal ties. Cooper added this curious bit of “context”: “Tailoring his message for the audience in New Hampshire, whose motto is ‘Live Free or Die,’ Mr. Obama spoke of American character and determination. Despite the country’s economic troubles, he said, ‘the American character has not changed. We saw during this crisis how people got knocked down and got right back up.’” Somehow I think Americans in every state think they have “character and determination.” Whatever their state motto, New Hampshirites don’t have the corner on these qualities.
McFadden next reminds reporters, “Remember, it’s not plagiarism because the campaigns want you to recycle their press releases.” This style of so-called journalism is very much in evidence at the New York Times. It is the basis for much of the he-said/he-said reporting. Whenever you see that odd construction, “Mr. Ryan said in a statement…” followed by “In a statement, Mr. Axelrod” countered….” what you’re looking at is a reporter copying and pasting dueling press releases and turning it in. In this August 3 report on the July jobs numbers, Michael Shear has everybody making “statements”:
‘Last week President Obama said, “We tried our plan, and it worked.” With the unemployment rate going up again, it’s obvious that plan didn’t work at all,’ Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.
House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio welcomed ‘any new job creation’ in a statement….
And, in a statement, the White House stressed that ‘it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report,’ but concluded that Friday’s report ‘provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.’ …
‘Today’s increase in the unemployment rate is a hammer blow to struggling middle-class families,’ Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential hopeful, said in a statement. ‘My plan will turn things around and bring the economy roaring back, with 12 million new jobs created by the end of my first term. President Obama doesn’t have a plan and believes that the private sector is “doing fine.’” [Emphasis, of course, added.]
In his final frame, McFadden recommends, “Always let the campaigns edit their quotes. Access is way more important than the truth.” This journalistic “rule” created a mini-scandal last month when Jeremy Peters reported in a front-page New York Times story that “politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.” Peters went on:
Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House – almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) … The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article. From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position.
Peters added some color:
Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens. Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them.
Appearing on “On the Media” to discuss the of quote approval, New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich said, “I do it probably more regularly than I should. I would love there to be some kind of blanket policy that The New York Times puts in place that I could hide behind.” Let’s see if Leibovich will get his wish:
Peters wrote that he couldn’t find any news organizations that didn’t allow quote approval. But the biggest news organization of them all – the Associated Press – told Steve Myers of Poynter, “We don’t permit quote approval. We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.” Other news outlets, including McClatchy and the National Journal, said they also forbade the practice.
John Diaz, who reports for the San Francisco Chronicle was surprised and appalled when he read Peters’ story. “This trend violates one of the distinguishing traits of a free press: that journalists, not the powers they cover, decide what is fit to print. It is yet another unsettling example of the coziness between watchdog and the watched in Washington.” Diaz blamed reporters for agreeing to the conditions, not the political operatives for requesting quote approval. “At the very least,” Diaz wrote, “readers need to know when the quotes they see have been reviewed – and tweaked, enhanced or neutered – by a political campaign. Anything less is a breach of trust with readers who assume that the publication is solely responsible for its content.”
A week after Peters wrote his exposé, he reported that the Times was “reviewing how its policies might address the issue.” That was on July 22. No word yet on how the review is going. Perhaps being lampooned by their own cartoonist will goose the “reviewers” along. But don’t hold your breath. The one and only opinion piece the Times published on quote approvals was a letter from a former government spokesman who defended the practice.
Anyway, my thanks to Brian McFadden. His strip today was a satirical reminder of how journalists should cover campaigns. For me, reading his strip also evoked a moment of childhood, briefly relived – a remembrance of Sundays long past when, to my young tastes, the comics were the best part of the paper.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com