Washington Post reporter David Hilzenrath called me last week after I sent him an email asking if he was going to look into claims that “regulations kill jobs.” (see also and here) He and Phil Rucker had written a front page story that included a statement by the reporters that no one making those claims could provide any evidence. Yet for about 1600 words Hilzenrath and Rucker allowed mostly those asserting the claim full rein.

In my talk with him I characterized it as a “he said, she said” story. He took umbrage at that, but we did find common ground. Rucker had stated in an email to me that they would conduct their “due diligence” to fact check the claim. But Hilzenrath said that would be unlikely for the simple reason that it would take too much time to examine the veracity of the claim. He also said it may impossible to verify it or disprove it.

I agree it would take some time and no definitive answer may be possible, but what he said speaks to the sad state of journalism today. Even the best newspapers, such as The Post, can’t do their job of seeking truth, as the ethics code of the Society of Journalism sets out as one of the profession’s guiding principles: to seek the truth. They are short-staffed and must stick to reporting what happens with little examination of the claims of either party.

Even on the big issues, fact checking is too slow. As Mark Twain once said, a lie will go around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on. I recalled a conference I attended years ago in which Mike Shear, then a Post  reporter covering Virginia state government, admonished bloggers for reporting rumors. I pointed out to him how The Post  had allowed the rumor, false as it turned out, by the “Swift Boaters” against Sen. John Kerry, to receive coverage in his paper for more than a week before it refuted the rumor. He conceded my point. The best known recent example is Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” still believed to be true by nearly half of all Americans.

Yet it requires “too much time” to verify the truth. Are readers being well served? And is it any wonder that newspapers, where we expect to find the “first draft of history,” are dying. Fewer people trust the information they get from mainstream media. Seventy percent of respondents to a CNN poll said the media was “out of touch” and from 1972 to 2009 those who have confidence in the mainstream media fell from 68 percent to 45 percent, according to a Gallup poll.

So here’s a suggestion for The Post. For national political reporting (its bread and butter), contract with another news organization that covers the back and forth of Congress and the White House. Maybe The National Journal, AP or Roll Call. Ask those news organizations to provide short stories about what happened on the Hill or at the White House briefing. These stories would be no more than a couple hundred words that would say this is the issue and here’s the spin from each side. No quotes, just synopses of the issues and the spin. These stories could be on page 2 or 3 and graphically laid out to be quick reads.

That would free up Post reporters to dig behind the spin. That analysis of the issue may not be produced the same day in some cases, but as issues percolate, reporters could be working on the different issues encompassing the political story. In the “regulations kills jobs” scenario, reporters would be looking at questions such as:

  • Has this issue been studied by a reasonably non-partisan group and what were the findings?
  • Which type of regulations create new jobs and which ones simply cost money?
  • What regulations are truly silly or address a problem that no longer exists?
  • Which regulations seemed to be put in place to help a special interest?

With each hearing or press conference, AP, Roll Call or the National Journal would summarize the tit for tat or any new development and the Post would provide the context.

There are too many smart people at newspapers throughout the country to waste their talents being stenographers of the political process.