“He said, she said”

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.

Truth & Lies

Kudos to American Journalism Review’s Rem Reider who is the latest to say what Anderson Cooper did (a sin to the David Gregory’s of the world) is what journalism is all about, speaking truth to power. Cooper, who called some of Mubarak’s pronouncements as he tried to hold to power “lies.”

Is calling a lie a lie out of a journalist’s "purview"? Was Cooper guilty of "taking sides"?

I don’t think so.

All Cooper did was tell the truth, albeit in an unvarnished, perhaps jarring, way. As Platt would say, Cooper was the explicit adjudicator of a factual dispute. He drew conclusions from his reporting.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

For too long, mainstream journalism has pulled its punches. Admirably dedicated to fairness, balance, not picking winners and losers, it too often settled for "on the one hand, on the other hand" stories that left readers in the dark.

Clearly it’s important to be impartial, to represent many points of view, to give each side its say. But that doesn’t mean treating both sides of the argument equally when one is demonstrably false, or even deeply flawed. The world isn’t flat, no matter how many times some misguided soul might say it is.

To treat everything equally is to create a false equivalency. And that really shortchanges the readers.

The rise of the Internet, and the emergence of so much punchy point of view in the blogosphere, underscored the fact that too much journalism was too mushy, and unnecessarily so.


Do Regulations Kill Jobs?: Q but no A

Well, the Washington Post  has made a feeble attempt to weigh in on this question but in a way that makes one wonder why. As I wrote on Monday, a front page story that day had at least 13 references to jobs either in quotes or attributions that made the claim that “regulations kill jobs,” exactly the message Republicans want delivered. Even though the reporters of that story admitted in it that those making the claims didn’t provide evidence that it was true, Post reporters David Hilzenrath and Phil Rucker gave a big megaphone to that claim.

When I sent my Monday post to Rucker, he responded that “we will do our due diligence to fact-check industry’s claims.” Perhaps today’s article is that “due diligence.” If so, it is thin gruel served up not on page one in a 1,500+ word story as was Monday’s, but on page A13 and in less than 600 words. And it makes no effort to fact check.

In fact, the story’s headline sort of promises something the article doesn’t deliver. In the print edition this morning, the headline is “Panel: Do regulations kill jobs?” Hilzenrath then spends the first part of the aisle quoting from a clearly partisan report by the staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Republican California Congressman Darrell Issa. All the quotes or attributions are unsubstantiated.

"Many regulations that appear to impose a large burden on the private sector, while providing a dubious benefit to the public, still remain on course and on the books," the staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says in a report prepared for a hearing Thursday on complaints from business groups.

The report is part of a broad review of federal regulations by the new Republican leadership in the House, spearheaded by the chairman of the oversight panel, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.).

Issa asked business groups to identify regulations that have hurt employment, and the report draws on more than 200 responses addressing rules in areas such as the environment, workplace safety and Wall Street.

Though Issa’s staff has said it is still gathering information, some conclusions appear in the report.

"There is some evidence that regulations affecting the financial services industry may limit the job creation and growth capabilities of the U.S., reducing economic growth by as much as 4 percent," the report says.

The report cites Environmental Protection Agency standards for industrial boilers as "an example of the Agency getting the cost-benefit balance wrong."

It cites the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as arguing that "industries are effectively regulated out of business."

And it highlights the benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a process by which natural gas deposits are extracted. Some communities have protested that the process can contaminate drinking water.

The staff report says fracking "is crucial to accessing enormous deposits," and it says the EPA’s approach to the issue "could be a precursor to full-blown EPA regulation of this job-creating domestic power resource."

Similarly, the report expresses concern about potential regulation of the ash created when coal is burned to create electricity. "The substantial costs of handling coal ash as hazardous waste would be insurmountable for many power plants," it says.

Hilzenrath then turns over the last part of the article to arguments from folks with a different view. They say regulations may spur innovation and create jobs in new fields, or that lack of regulations actually hurts the job market, i.e., insufficient financial regulation costs lots of jobs, and not just in the financial sector. Former labor secretary in the Clinton administration Robert Reich argues colorfully.

"Presumably, we could generate a lot of jobs by getting rid of all regulations and working for $2 an hour in dangerous and fetid working conditions in cities whose air could hardly be breathed and spewing out products that one in 10 consumers might die from."

So the article itself never answers the question in the headline. In fact, the headline is misleading as the panel didn’t pose the question as much as gave a one-sided partisan answer. Granted reporters don’t write headlines and headline writers all too frequently seem not to read articles. But the bottom line is that this is just another “he said, she said” article.

Here is another way of getting to the question.

I grant you that it would be pretty easy to argue that regulations cost businesses money. A particular business hit with regulations may be poorer for it and may consequently, not hire as much as they would if they didn’t have to spend the money complying with regulations. However, even that conclusion is suspect. How do we know that the cash saved by not having to comply with regulations won’t simply go to shareholders as higher dividends or executives in the form of higher pay?

And what about the jobs that regulations create. Certainly someone has to work on the regulations and enforce them. And regulations that might hinder one industry create opportunities for other companies in competing industries.

But I don’t think that’s what regulatory critics are arguing. They are referring to jobs in their companies or industry. But is that what is most important for the common good, or as the U.S. Constitution puts it, are the regulations designed to “promote the general welfare”?

After more than 2,100 words from The Post, we still don’t know.

The View from Somewhere Isn’t Where It’s At

Part two of David Folkenflick’s excellent report on the news media is online. And indeed Jay Rosen, who I cited in yesterday’s post, makes the case for reporters revealing more of their beliefs. In fact, it is the focus of this report.

"If they’ve been covering a beat for a while, I’d like to know what fascinates them about their beat, what they think are the biggest challenges facing the nation, who some of their heroes and villains are, and any convictions — deeply held convictions — they’ve developed by reporting on the story over a long period of time."

"We can tell where the person is coming from and apply whatever discount rate we want to what they’re saying," Rosen says. "I also think that it’s more likely to generate trust. And this is the main reason why I recommend ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ replace ‘the view from nowhere.’ "

I agree completely with Rosen’s critique of today’s media and the “view from nowhere.”  Peter Goodman, who recently left the New York Times to become business editor at the Huffington Post describes the problem pitch perfectly.

"This is not about ranting; it’s not about working for a particular partisan interest or set of interests; it’s not about getting individuals elected," Goodman says. "It’s about the same mission that I think has been part of quality journalism forever, which is uncovering truths that aren’t so easy to uncover."

He says The Times gave him great leeway to follow his reporting, wherever it led. But Goodman says his reporters at the Huffington Post will have some liberties other news organizations might not afford.

"I don’t want them feeling like they have to hand in [stories that say], ‘Well, these people said this, those people said that; here, dear reader — you know, you figure it out,’ " Goodman says. "I would like them engaged in a process of getting to a satisfying conclusion." [emphasis added]

In other words, “he said, she said” journalism, another phrase that may be Rosen’s.  While this type of journalism is well accepted in America (and in the NPR report former Post editor Len Downie vigorously defends it) to other western countries it is laughable.

"I’m rather extreme on this subject," says Simon Jenkins, the former editor in chief of the center-right Times of London who now writes columns for the liberal Guardian. "I find American newspapers boring — and biblical. I cannot believe how dull they are. These are news sheets for a genre of readers who want vast slabs of information and get entertainment in a different way. And they are micro-monopolies, all of them."

Still, I can’t bring myself to agree with Rosen’s conclusions. I object when reports describe even institutions as “liberal” or “conservative,” “left” or “right.” What that does is signal the reader to be ready to discount or embrace the following viewpoint because it tracks (or doesn’t) with their view of the world.  Labeling these institutions really does nothing to combat the rampant “view from nowhere.” And having reporters reveal their politics, if that indeed is what Rosen is suggesting, will be an impotent solution to the problem. I think what it will lead to is the same thing we now see: groups from either side demanding that a news outlet add more conservative or progressive reporters to offset a perceived imbalance, as they do now with opinion writers. Then what? Do you have a conservative and a progressive covering the same beat? Otherwise, if it’s one or the other, the opposite inclined reader will not read the stories at all or complain incessantly about them.

Besides, it’s hard to pinpoint where someone is coming from based solely on a few biographical paragraphs. I am a progressive and support many progressive causes. But I also think government is seriously flawed, inefficient and ineffective. I think the age at which one can start to draw Social Security should be raised. Gun control laws are largely ineffective. If I were a reporter, would I need to reveal all my views on each issue?

Let reporters gather the facts, weigh them on the “truth-o-meter if possible, and report the truth as close as they can divine it. The truth is what readers want. The reason newspapers and other MSM are failing is not because we don’t know the ideologies of the reporters and editors. It’s because they are not giving us information we can use. The are stenographers of the status quo, worried more about their continued access to the centers of power than in revealing what’s really going on.

Is the British Press a Better Model?

Can we expect any news organization to be fair and balanced? Is objectivity an unattainable goal?  More important, does the quest for objectivity require the American press to become not only neutered but lacking in any useful information and reluctant to declare anything true or false?

David Folkenflick has what is described as the first in a two-part series examining such questions on this morning on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” (The article on the website follows closely the audio story but isn’t verbatim from the ME report.  Listen to the story from the link at the website.)

Basically, he reports that British newspapers, while striving to be accurate and fair, do not try to hide their point of view.  Anyone who’s ever read, say the Guardian or The Telegraph would recognize the different takes on the same event.

"In Britain, we feel that it’s better to know where people are coming from and then to make up your own mind about what you think, because the truth is nobody can be completely impartial and objective," Boles says. "I mean the idea [that] The New York Times doesn’t have a political point of view — it’s ridiculous. It does, but it twists itself into knots in an attempt to pretend that it doesn’t."

This idea of transparency among reporters is one explored in depth by Jay Rosen of “PressThink” and others. It has been suggested that reporters should reveal their biases for everyone to know, so we can make a judgment about their reporting.

Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger argued that British papers give more room than their American counterparts to voices that challenge conventional wisdom.

"I think it’s quite a striking thing about the British press that you get this polemical battle over the basis for what news is, which I feel is to a large extent missing in the American scene," Rusbridger says. "No judgments are free of ideologies, so who you choose to quote and how you structure stories are highly political judgments. I think that’s the problem with trying to place too much faith in something called objectivity."

I disagree, perhaps because I have a different definition of objectivity.  (However, I agree that American mainstream media typically rely on the “usual suspects” and often little opportunity for views outside Washington conventional wisdom a voice; but that’s another topic.) Objectivity does not mean that you give both sides of an argument equal voice or that you make no judgment about an argument. It does mean, to me, that you give both sides a chance to explain themselves but that a reporter should be free to express a judgment on those arguments. All too infrequently, you’ll see a reporter say that something isn’t true or misleading. But it should happen far more often. For example, the GOP argument that taxes hurt the economy or job creation is not one that many informed economists will make. The CBO reported last year that of 11 ways it studied to improve the job market, tax cuts were the least effective. It’s OK to allow one to make a claim once, especially if the reporter doesn’t know if it’s true. But a good reporter will try to gauge the accuracy of a claim and at the very least suggests in her reporting that the claim is suspect and point to informed sources as evidence. That’s objective reporting, which is to say reporting that objectively strives for truth. It’s what’s required for a democracy to function, that is, an informed voter.

Which is what I think this Labor member of Parliament is getting at.

In the Palace of Westminster lobby, surrounded by marble statues of prime ministers that date back centuries, Anne Begg — a Labor member of Parliament who represents the south part of Aberdeen, Scotland — says she reads British newspapers every day, but finds them wanting.

"One of the concerns I have with some of the print media is that it’s almost all comment, which is always partial and is always partisan," she says. "In that respect, I don’t know if you could call them newspapers anymore — they’re perhaps comment papers."

In fact, if you remove quotations from many news stories you end up with a very short story.  Still some would stand on their own without the quotes.  Read a story sometime and imagine what it would be like without the quotes, which typically are often misleading spin. If reporters were tasked with writing stories of substance that don’t rely on spin from both sides, we’d have a better product.

Preserving Access

Jeff Zucker’s departure from NBC is not a story I would waste much time reading about.  But I’m glad I glanced at this short piece in Crain’s New York Business.  What caught my eye was the teaser on Romenesko’s website:  “Why media didn’t report what they knew about Zucker.”

It seems most reporters knew that Zucker was a dead man walking.  That seems obvious given his much publicized failures.  But he signed a contract extension after Comcast bought NBC Universal, and he insisted he was staying.  Reporters weren’t buying it, but they weren’t reporting their suspicions either.  Greg David’s damning conclusion seems spot on:

Reporters knew all this. Some believed they couldn’t write it unless someone told them it would happen. They also knew that if they did write Mr. Zucker was doomed, he might not be accessible to them and he could even shut the NBC Universal door entirely to reporters who angered him.

The end result, of course, is that readers of the NBC stories wonder why the reporters were so wrong about Mr. Zucker’s future.

I visited an undergraduate journalism class at Baruch last week and was asked how much advertising pressures affected editorial coverage in my years as editor of Crain’s. The answer was hardly at all. Rather, I told the students, reporters self-censor themselves not over concern about advertising but because they want access to companies.

The Zucker story showed that once again that is reporters’ interest in access not advertisers who censor the news.

And writing “he said, she said” stories protects reporters from charges that they are making judgments or calling out obvious false statements.  All is a day’s work to preserve access.

Post Issues GOP Press Release

Despite the rather snarky lede—

Two days after the dramatic arrest of Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, Republicans were engaged in a full-bore effort to rewrite the good-news narrative.

"Yes, we have been lucky," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said Thursday, "but luck is not an effective strategy for fighting terrorism."

Whatever the merits of their argument — and, where terrorism is concerned, it is prudent to keep cockiness at bay — there is a political imperative at work as well. "Democrats are always suspect on national security, and anything that makes them look weak on national security creates an opportunity for Republicans," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster.

–is this really nothing more than issuing the GOP talking points for a non-story?  We know that all the GOP wants is to put into people’s mind that the Dems are weak on terrorism. The Post obliges.

While Republicans praised the FBI and local authorities, they noted that the intelligence agencies have — for the third time since the Fort Hood attack in November — failed to interrupt an individual before the act. "I look at the Christmas deal," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), referring to the attempted airliner bombing over Detroit, "and I look at this deal, and I say, ‘Wow, one of these times they are going to get it right.’ "

Does anyone really believe that we can stop all attempts to detonate a bomb if someone with half a brain wants to?  Yes, we have been lucky.  But someone is going to succeed. 

Instead of acting as a stenographer for the GOP’s talking points, might it been helpful for The Post to examine how other countries have dealt with such random bombings?  Israel, of course, comes to mind.  We might not like the solution.  Or might the reporters have asked the Republicans leadership, “What would you do differently?”  How would you stopped someone—a citizen, with little suspicious behavior, from attempting such an attack?

Alas, that doesn’t fit into the easy narrative that too many journalists buy into—conflict.  No matter how ludicrous the charge, it is conflict and reporters can easily write their “he said, she said” story.