What do we gain when reporters characterize the politics of those they quote in stories? There are legitimate arguments on both sides. By telling us that someone is a Democrat or Republican politician certainly provides useful information by which we can judge their observations. Politicians place first, obviously, politics. That provides an overall hue to their observations. How the issue is perceived is more important than the issue itself. So we should know if a comment is from a Republican or Democratic politician.
But they aren’t the only ones sought by reporters for comment. Often, researchers, academics and leaders whose organizations address political issues are sought as sources. Do they have a prejudice? Yes, likely.
Why are these other sources cited by reporters? One would hope is that they provide perspectives that isn’t wholly political. They needn’t be political eunuchs, but hopefully they have some expertise or experience that informs their opinions.
But reporters and editors apparently think that they must characterize almost everyone they quote. A story in today’s Washington Post is an example of what I think is characterization run amok.
Dean Baker, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Obama would have been better off capitalizing more fully on public ire but was being held back by the Rubin protégés.
"He hurts himself enormously by being seen as associated with the bankers," Baker said. "Purely pragmatically, you have an opportunity here where these Wall Street guys are really hated, they’ve been a really pernicious presence in the economy for a quarter-century, and the idea of jumping on them when they’re down makes a lot of sense. This idea that they’re going to help things — well, they’re not our buddies. There’s a real fundamental conflict there, and he’s hoping he can paper it over."
Why do we need to know that the Center is “left-leaning”? And what does that mean? That their research is not to be trusted? More important, Baker seems to be expressing an opinion of the politics of the issue and not a budget technicality. It’s a legitimate and useful insight. But by characterizing his organization as left-leaning, the reporter prejudices Baker’s comment.
Another useful observation comes later in the article.
Michael Maslansky, a Republican-leaning pollster, questioned whether Obama could succeed in channeling public anger toward his longer-term goals after having initially helped stir the anger with his vow to retrieve the AIG bonuses. It would have been truer to Obama’s approach if he had right away put the episode in the context of his overall agenda, Maslansky said.
"It was a strategic mistake," Maslansky said. "He’s supposed to lead, to skate to where the puck is going to be. Going after the bonuses was looking backwards. He should have said right away, ‘These bonuses are the last gasp of a dying culture.’ He would’ve been much better off if this AIG thing hadn’t become such a big issue. . . . Now the White House says, ‘Wow, they really are angry, they have the pitchforks out, and they’re trying to kill the people I need [to fix Wall Street].’ And the American people are watching and asking, ‘Is he a populist, or is he a cool, collected leader?’ "
What’s a “Republican-leaning pollster”? Someone who has his (right) thumb on the scale. If so, he’s not a very useful pollster. His comment is legitimate. Let it stand on its own, and let the reader be the judge of its validity.
As I wrote to the reporters this morning,
Both made comments that are legitimate and insightful. By telling us how they lean you discount their comments for the reader. If the comments are not to be trusted, why include them?
[Later in the article is there’s the quote] “Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin said the approach Obama has settled on is the best available: sharing the public’s ire,…”
Now which way does he lean? Does he believe the Civil War was over states rights or slavery? Did New Deal regulations work or prolong the depression? Was Hitler a monster or “what Holocaust?”
If reporters find observations that are helpful to the reader, journalists shouldn’t prejudice the reader before the poor observer gets the words out of his mouth and into the paper.