Washington Post

Journalism Takes Too Much Time

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.

GOP Issues Press Release; Post’s Montgomery Provides the Megaphone

Over the past month, there have been 13 stories written by Lori Montgomery. Some of the ledes are revealing:

One tells the reader how Obama won’t be able to overhaul the tax codes because of the tax compromise. (“Extension of tax cuts chokes Obama’s deficit plans”)

Another story complains that Obama hasn’t embraced the deficit commission plans. (“Obama not likely to call for Social Security cuts”)

She ridicules the president by calling his plans for more spending as “investments” in quotes, a writing device used to deride the use of the word. (“Everyone wants budget cuts, but will they work?”)

Meanwhile, she writes about how the GOP pledges “to slice more than $32 billion from agency budgets.” (“House Republicans propose $32 billion in budget cuts”)

Or how they “sketched their vision for a smaller government,” again by cutting programs that would make a miniscule reduction in the deficit. (“House GOP points budget knife at EPA, top Obama priorities”)

She writes about House GOP leaders are hoping to enact “massive and unprecedented cuts,” again for the  portion of the budget that would be meaningless in light of the long-term deficits. (“Rift over spending cuts tests the GOP”)

But then today, when the president presents a 2012 budget with significant cuts, he is derided by Montgomery: “Obama will avoid politically dangerous recommendations to wipe out cherished tax breaks and to restrain safety-net programs for the elderly….” Sunday, she wrote that the proposal “would barely put a dent in the deficits that congressional budget analysts say could approach $12 trillion through 2021.”

Why hasn’t she written during the past month about the GOP avoiding those same cuts? It’s laudable to Montgomery that the GOP is making small cuts in programs they ideologically oppose while she gives them a free pass on the larger budget items, i.e. Social Security and Medicare. But the fact that the party has avoided the big cuts is ignored, even as Speaker Boehner said again this weekend that the party will address those issues sometime in the vague “future.”

No wonder the GOP wins the message wars. The party just issues a press release and Montgomery provides the megaphone.

Post Writer Equates Muslim Brotherhood with ‘Radical Islam’

What would come next in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak? Few know whether this seemingly democratic populist movement will result in true democracy, let alone a Western style and friendly democracy.

I profess to be no authority on the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the largest (though not majority) political force in Egypt, that has clearly play a role in the demonstrations. There is no clear picture of what the country would look like if the Brotherhood gained power. The views of the organization are all over the map.

Even American neo-cons don’t seem all that concerned, warning, as Eliot Abrams did in a Washington Post article this morning, that Israel shouldn’t be defending Mubarak. After all, he is 83 years old.  There’s not much future there. And if the neo-cons aren’t concerned….

"There’s been an Israeli position which is, ‘We love Mubarak,’ that permeates their whole society, the political class," said Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser in the last Bush administration. "That certainly differs from many of us in the pro-Israel camp in the United States."

Abrams said he has made the case to wary Israelis that they would be foolish to build a future relationship with an aging ruler who has served for decades and "presided over unprecedented anti-Semitism in the media" in Egypt, rather than to take a gamble on a potentially more liberal and popular government.

Other neoconservatives in the United States have agreed. "Obviously there are a million problems: Transitions are hard, and you have to worry about who takes over," said conservative commentator William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "But I think it’s a mistake for people to hang on to a false, quote, ‘stability’ with an 82-year-old dictator. There are complicated short-term issues, but at the end of the day, being pro- Israel and being pro-freedom go together."

No one denies the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. So if it were clear that the Brotherhood was a threat, neo-cons would sing a different tune. But that doesn’t stop Post writer Anne Kornblut from labeling the group as such.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likened the situation in Egypt to that of Iran, making the menacing prediction that a post-Mubarak Egypt could join other "repressive regimes of radical Islam." The sentiment has been widespread in the Israeli press – and roundly dismissed by prominent American Jewish neoconservatives, who do not see a takeover of the Egyptian government by the Muslim Brotherhood as inevitable. [emphasis added]

The only way to read this short paragraph is: Muslim Brotherhood equates with other “repressive regimes of radical Islam.” It clearly leaves that impression with the reader.

As I say, some think it’s a true statement. But many others do not.  So it seems unfair and a “radical” departure from good journalism to suggest it is uncontroverted fact.

Post Goes Hollywood

The Washington Post, having laid off over the past couple of  years scores of seasoned reporters who covered the important issues of the day, is beefing up its Style and Arts sections.  Oh boy!


Journalism used to focus on what citizens needed to know, whether they liked it or not. Now it focuses on what the audience wants, explaining the spike in celebrity and entertainment news.

Will the GOP Cut $100 Billion or Not?

The Campaign Desk of the Columbia Journalism Review thinks the New York Times didn’t do all its homework before writing about the Republicans pledge to cut the budget $100 billion this year.  After writing that it would be hard to do, the same reporter, Jackie Calmes, wrote the next day that the GOP is backing off.

Lori Montgomery at The Washington Post apparently didn’t get the memo, even if Congressman Paul Ryan, who made the pledge, did—and then reversed himself.

Ryan acknowledged that the move would save significantly less than the $100 billion Republicans promised during the election. At the time, he said, Republicans were measuring their plans against Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011. But Democrats failed to enact that request or adopt any other budget blueprint. Instead, the government is operating under a temporary resolution that continues funding at lower, fiscal year 2010 levels through March 4.

Adjusting their goals

As Republicans prepare a new spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year, independent budget analysts said they would have to trim about $85 billion to return to 2008 levels. But with nearly half the fiscal year already gone, Ryan said Republicans are further adjusting their goals and would probably cut about $60 billion from current programs.

"We’ve already achieved some of that [promised] savings by virtue of not" permitting Democrats to fund Obama’s budget request, Ryan said. And he vowed that House Republicans will far exceed their $100 billion goal when they put together their own budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October. That plan will seek not just to shrink government to its size in 2008, before Obama took power and authorized new spending on the economy, Ryan said: It will seek to put the budget on a path to balance.

"We will be cutting $100 billion plus over this calendar year," Ryan said. "If you think we’re stopping shy of $100 billion in cuts, you got another thing coming. We’re going to go way beyond $100 billion."

So have the Republicans lowered their goal or not?

Congressional Votes

Memo to The Washington Post’s ombudsman and national desk:

Curious that The Post this morning wrote about the Democrats who voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker. What made this vote so compelling when readers can hardly ever get the roll call on momentous legislation? Even online, The Post rarely links to votes so readers can see how their congressman voted on the big issues of the day.

Topic A: Usual Suspects

One fair criticism of newspapers in general and The Washington Post in particular is that they too often rely on the same people, whether to comment on breaking stories, add insight to enterprise ones or opine on the op-ed page. 

As I read Sunday’s Topic A section in The Post, I felt I was seeing the same names over and over again.  As any casual reader of the section knows, the editors try to balance Democratic and Republican viewpoints. Which is to say not only the usual suspects but the traditional DC-defined left and right.  Rare are the truly left or ultra right viewpoints, although one wonders how much farther to the right one can go from today’s GOP, short of calling for a military dictatorship or a corporate oligarchy.

The same people are called on again and again as a quick search of Lexis-Nexis confirmed.  It appears this Topic A section in The Post, which usually runs on Sunday but has appeared on other days on occasion, began in March 2009.  Here’s how often some usual suspects have appeared:

Name Topic A contributions
Matthew Dowd 6
Newt Gingrich 12
Donna Brazile 9
Dan Perino 6
Robert Shrum 6
Scott Keiter 9
Dan Schnur 19
Douglas E. Schoen 25
Ed Rogers 25

The more I looked at Topic A columns, the fewer new names appeared.  Sure, there are the occasional pundits who only appear one or two times, but over the course of nearly two years, it’s clear we get the views of about a dozen or so people, virtually all of whom are aligned with one party or the other and give us predictably partisan views. You wonder how Doug Schoen or Ed Rogers find time for their day jobs.

Is it really that hard to find different voices? Or is this section on auto pilot as The Post continues to find ways to fill up its dead tree real estate without much heavy lifting?

Bloggers vs. Reporters

Remember in the early days of blogging when reporters would dismiss our work as nothing more than a bunch of people sitting at their computers in their pajamas expropriating journalists’ work? We weren’t doing the hard work of true professionals, who would dig up resources and conduct tough interviews before writing exposes of how things really were.

Fast forward to Monday, when we find this article in The Washington Post.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was bullish in laying out his agenda for the new Congress with Republicans in control of the House.

And how did writer Philip Rucker know this?

Issa, who as chairman will have subpoena power, said he will seek to ferret out waste across the federal bureaucracy. While he used fiery rhetoric in describing the Obama administration in a series of television interviews Sunday, he said he will focus on wasteful spending, not the prosecution of White House officials. [emphasis added]

To be fair, it wasn’t quite a rewrite of a GOP press release.  He had Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland give the rebuttal from a transcript of Cummings’ appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But Mr. Rucker was busy working for this report.  Apparently even going so far as to change the station!

"I think [Attorney General Eric Holder] needs to realize that, for example, WikiLeaks, if the president says, ‘I can’t deal with this guy as a terrorist,’ then he has to be able to deal with him as a criminal," Issa said on "Fox News Sunday." "Otherwise, the world is laughing at this paper tiger we’ve become.

Mr. Rucker may have received overtime or hazardous duty pay.  He actually watch a third TV program, quoting Issa from his CBS interview Sunday.

This entire article was written based on two Congressmen’s Sunday TV interviews.

Mr. Rucker was able to write this entire story by watching TV, probably while in his pajamas.  This one was literally “phoned in.”

Guv, We Love You. Signed, Roz & Anita

This is almost comical. It’s clear that Anita Kumar and Roz Helderman are in love with Gov. Bob McDonnell. Most of their coverage of him has been almost fawning over the last couple of months. Perhaps most egregious was the story the weekend before the elections. It was on the front page with a headline that blared:  “Virginians share lesson learned: GOP in power not so bad.” Really?  Not so bad, Roz? Well, she maybe didn’t write the headline, but she wrote this:

Voters, including some who didn’t back him, credited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell with working hard and engineering deep budget cuts from a generally fractious General Assembly with relatively little heartache. The result of those efforts was a narrow surplus by the end of the fiscal year, achieved through bipartisan action and without the tax increase that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposed before leaving office.

No tax increase, but he borrowed from the retirement fund—and he’s now claiming the budget has a surplus. Which is ludicrous. We only have a surplus because he transferred money from the retirement fund.

The federal government had a balanced budget this year, too. Because it borrowed a bazillion dollars from China.

Saturday’s Metro front page article was but the latest in this line of fluff, though not without its own WTF-edness. Almost the entire article before the jump could have been written by the Guv’s press office.

In his annual speech to the General Assembly’s money committees Friday, McDonnell (R) told legislators that the state’s economy is growing at a pace slightly better than expected, allowing him to raise Virginia’s financial forecast by $283 million over the next two years.

As a result, he announced more new spending than cuts for the first time in years while releasing amendments to a still-lean two-year budget over the last week.

They include down payments on some of McDonnell’s top priorities, which focus heavily on economic development, substantial funding to shore up the state’s pension system, as well as goodies for pet projects, including $500,000 for the state’s food banks and Operation Smile. Proposed cuts include a hit to social services for children, reduced advertising for the lottery and the elimination of state funding for public broadcasting.

"Government must set priorities, encourage cost savings and frugality, fund core functions of government well, set the right climate for job creation and economic development, and then, basically, get out of the way," McDonnell said to a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Square.

So far, so fawning. Then we have a couple of paragraphs that defy rationalization or really, lucidity.

He took lawmakers and college presidents by surprise by stripping nearly $17 million in funding for Virginia Commonwealth University after it raised tuition 24 percent this year. Other schools increased tuition by nearly 10 percent.

The father of five, including three at Virginia public universities, said he hopes his decision sends a message to the rest of the state’s schools that they can no longer dramatically increase tuition and fees. "It’s leaving our kids with a decade of debt when they get out," he said. "This will certainly be a good message to our higher-education institutions that need to govern their tuition rates accordingly."

Help me out here. He cuts funding to colleges after they raise tuition because the state has been cutting state funding for years and then says that further cuts should teach colleges not to raise tuition. What am I missing here?

Ladies, your love is blind. It also must paralyze your ability to put together a coherent story.

Then, apparently just regurgitating what the Guv’s flaks told them, Kumar & Helderman write:

Against that political backdrop, McDonnell has proposed several major structural changes to government, which would come with substantial price tags.

He said state agencies have not been paying for all of the information technology services they have been using, requiring Virginia to spend $58.3 million more over the next two years. The state is already paying billions for such services as part of a troubled technology overhaul contract with Northrop Grumman.

Agencies “have not been paying for all of the information technology services they have been using.” What, are they past due on the bills Verizon sent them? Who are they not paying? And when they are not paying whomever it is they’re supposed to be paying, why does that require Virginia to pay $58.3 million more over the next two years?  Is that the late fee Verizon is charging them for their internet connection?

Ladies, I understand that love can make you silly sometimes. But have an editor take a look at your missives before publishing them.

And take a cold shower before you write them.

7 Issues, 1 Point of View?

UPDATE:  I spoke this morning with the lead reporter on this story, David Fahrenthold. His response was that he didn’t realize he had given rationales for only Republican points of view. He said he was new on the beat and is till trying to figure out how to handle the issues he’s covering. I take him at his word. Which reinforces my suspicion that if Democrats want fair coverage, they’ll need to ask for it. My impression from our conversation is that I was the only one who had made this point to him. He should have had many calls from Democratic leaders asking that their reasons for the policies they are pursuing be included.


This is one of those stories that make you wonder: Do reporters show preference for delivering one side of an argument (in this case, the GOP’s) or does the other side (in this case, the Dems) do a poor job of articulating and pushing its argument with the media?

In this Washington Post article about the seven big issues facing the lame duck Congress, it appears that in all but one case, only the GOP’s side of arguments is articulated.  The first is tax cuts.

Most Democrats want to extend tax cuts covering up to the first $250,000 that a family earns in a year. Republican leaders want to keep all the tax cuts, including those on income above $250,000. In a recession, they say, it doesn’t make sense to cut anyone’s taxes.[emphasis added]

Note that both positions are stated, but only the GOP’s rationale for its position is stated.  Did Dems decline to state that 1)the rich have received most of the benefits from the major tax cuts over the past 30 years and it’s time to re-balance our tax system or 2)we can’t afford to add $700 billion to the deficit or 3)The middle class tends to spend their tax cuts, thereby spurring the economy, whereas the well-off tend to save their tax cuts. Or did the reporter ignore the Dems’ reasoning?

Next was the START treaty.

[Arizona Sen. John] Kyl has said he wants more guarantees that the government will properly maintain the nuclear weapons that remain. He also thinks that the lame-duck session is too short a time to consider the issue.

So why do the Dems want to pass it now? The reporter hints that in the next Congress “there will be more Republicans — and perhaps more support for denying Obama a foreign policy win — in January.” But with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin making noises about the delay, did the Dems give reasons other than it will be easier now to pass it? Did they argue that delaying it could damage relations with Russia and perhaps spark a new cold war?

Next we have DADT.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) could bring it up for a vote on the floor this month. But the ascendant GOP is in no mood to cooperate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he’s still worried about the effect on morale, and other Republican leaders say the whole issue is a distraction from their top priority — job creation.

So we know that Republicans think it’s not important enough to deal with now and, despite the Defense Dept. report that found it won’t adversely impact its operations, where is the Democratic argument for passing it?  The morally right thing to do? It would expand the pool of candidates for the military?

No. 4: the budget continuing resolution.

The sticking point is Republican demands to shrink federal spending back to 2008 levels.

No word if the Dems have a point, sticky or not.

Next, unemployment benefits

Some Republicans have voiced concerns about the high cost of these benefits.

Are the Dems unconcerned…about everything?

On childhood nutrition, the Dems seem to have a position, albeit one articulated in jargon, while the GOPers are concerned about costs.

“Kids that have food insecurity learn at a slower rate than their peers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday. “Food insecurity” is Washington-speak for “hunger.”*

The bill passed the Senate unanimously. But it will face some Republican opposition in the House from members who say it will impose more costs on struggling school systems.

And lastly, the DREAM Act. Only the opponents seem to have a view on this.

To them, it looks like a kind of amnesty for lawbreakers.

Do the supporters have a view?

Is this kind of coverage—where only one side, for the most part, has reasons for its views—the result of biased reporting, poor or nonexistent messaging from the Dems or fecklessness in pressing their points, or something else?

At the very least, I would like to know if this reporter asked Democrats why they hold the position they do?  If he did and they didn’t respond, shame on them. If he didn’t, shame on him. If he did and they did and he didn’t include their reasons in the report, maybe we need an explanation. And Democrats should demand it. I’d like to know.

*This is an example of why Pelosi should not be minority leader.