Media Criticism

Report the Facts: What A Concept!

Well, maybe we’re getting some consensus here.  After all, the country’s foremost media critic (he said with little attempt to hide his sarcasm) has stumbled upon a novel concept for today’s journalists:  Point out, gently I presume, that a politician, or anyone who has the ear of the almighty reporters, doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s talking about.

Gently, of course.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, there is a point where the media should say a politician is wrong, and this is the point. There may or may not be a legitimate discussion about the end-of-life counseling in the Obama health plan (which is voluntary, by the way) and whether it is intrusive. It’s a long way from that to "death panels," even by the loose rhetorical standards of modern politics. I was surprised that the ex-governor’s Facebook comments didn’t get much pickup at first, though that is starting to change in the last couple of days. As I noted in this morning’s column, wasn’t it Sarah Palin who demanded that journalists "quick making things up"?

Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are decried for calling the town hall protests “un-American.”  (Let’s forget that those same charges were frequently leveled by Republicans at those protesting the Iraq War.)  And Steve Pearlstein has been taken to task for calling Republicans “political terrorists.” 

But if we are to look for someone to blame for the level of discourse in this country, I think we know who to blame.

For after all, it’s still true that if a tree falls in the woods and no one can hear it, it doesn’t make a noise.  It may make a sound but noise is something you can’t avoid.  And today, you can’t avoid the shouting masses at meetings who aren’t just airing their grievances, they are preventing others from hearing anyone but them.

Because the media has decided we need to hear it, whether it makes sense or has any connection to reality.

You and I can raise all the hell we want about the state of journalism today, but it mostly falls on deaf ears.  What’s needed is someone with cojones who is the subject of media coverage to call reporters out on it.

Conventional wisdom says you never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.   But conventional wisdom, not so long ago, would also dictate that you don’t report the sky is yellow just because someone made the claim.

Whether it’s President Obama or anyone else in public life, they need to start holding journalists accountable for their coverage, which is to a large degree the result of laziness and lack of editorial leadership. 

It’s easy to write about a boisterous town hall.  All your evidence is in one place.  You can easily get quotes from both sides and generally give both sides equal weight, and boom, you’re out the door and into your favorite journalists’ barroom where everyone complains about the shrinking market for their increasingly marginal skills.

If just once, someone would say when asked a question about the meaning of the loudmouths at town hall meetings, “ Mr. Gregory, that’s the wrong question.  It’s the easy to question ask, because it absolves you from doing some work.  Instead of reading the health care bill and trying to help the public understand what’s being proposed, what the pros and cons are, you react to a mob.  You allow over-the-top behavior save you from doing work.  It’s a stupid question and I won’t entertain it.  Next question.”

The powers that be need to challenge a lazy, inept press.  If they won’t do the job their supposed to do – inform the public about the the pertinent issues of the day – then the hell with them.  Stop doing press conferences, stop doing press briefings, stop taking any questions.  Communicate directly to the public. 

Let newspapers die.  They deserve to.

Stifling Free Speech

CNN is refusing to air an ad by supporters of healthcare reform.   

Here’s the reason:

“This ad does not comply with our clearance guidelines because it unnecessarily singles out an individual company and person.”

Gee, does that mean they will no longer run ads that single out individual politicians?  Or is that “necessary”?

Isn’t it ironic that an organization protected by free speech denies it to others.

This is happening frequently.  CNN also refused to air an ad by Media Matters about Lou Dobbs.

Milbank and Cillizza Apologize

Washington Post reporters Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza have apologized for their latest Mouthpiece Theater, the one where they called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “bitch.”

And The Post has canceled the experiment that Mouthpiece was.

I have nothing against either one of them.  When Milbank sticks to skewering the righteous and puffed egos of the political elite he can be fun, though not necessarily required reading.  Cillizza is not offensive as an analyst, but I rarely read him.

But they deserved the video response below.  (The original, which was not only offensive to women but not even remotely funny, is below it.)

After this, the salon snafu and some editorial decisions – like this morning’s Governor story – you’ve got to ask yourself, “Whose minding the ship over at WaPo?


It’s OK If You’re a Republican

A comment on a story about the latest in the Ensign affairs sums up the press’s reaction to sexual indiscretions.

It’s important to remember that when a Democrat has a sex scandal (Clinton, Spitzer, Edwards, etc.), a hypocritical, immoral adulterer has been exposed for what he is.

When a Republican is involved (Ensign, Sanford, Vitter, etc.), a decent, God-fearing Christian only showed he is human, and this uncharacteristic lapse in judgment should not overshadow his strong moral character and dedication to his constituents.

Any questions? Remember IOKIYAR (It’s Okay If You’re A Republican).

No Proof, But Post Story Makes Front Page

Here’s all you need to know about Sandhya Somashekhar’s front page story about the Virginia governor’s race.

There is no empirical evidence [emphasis added] at this point in Virginia’s race for governor showing that huge numbers of voters think like Cleland and will respond by sending a message to Washington.

But that didn’t stop the Post reporter from fashioning an entire argument about the dynamics of the governor’s race based on the opinions of two individuals, one of whom was clearly ambivalent.  More likely, the reporter decided the slant she wanted and found two people who confirmed it, even though there is “no empirical evidence.”

This is another example of the lazy journalism increasingly practiced by The Washington Post, especially when it comes to the Virginia governor’s race.  We had another example Monday, when Roz Helderman wasted newsprint on a story that Democrats are still running against Bush.  The story was written for the political insiders but offered no help to general Post readers in deciding who to vote for.  Instead of writing stories about the issues, they write about the political dynamics, much of which they make up.

Regarding today’s story, there is mention that 52 percent of Americans support Obama, but it’s described as “the lowest number of his tenure.”  Indeed, it is also twice the number of his predecessor.  Ah, but that’s not the story she wanted to write.

According to a late July poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 78% of Americans think it is at least somewhat likely that “Obama will bring real change in the direction of the country.”  A month after his election that figure was at 81%.  The margin of error is 3.1%.  Which is to say, it’s about the same.  Meanwhile, you have 61% of Americans saying they have an unfavorable position of Republicans in Congress.

So why would someone vote Republican in the Virginia’s governor’s race.  I don’t know, but one can argue it has nothing to do with the Obama administration. 

That Time of Year

The front page photo on Monday’s Washington Post shows a smiling Redskins coach Jim Zorn throwing a blocking dummy at a back-up quarterback.  After describing the picture, the cutline concludes, “Complete coverage of the fourth day of training camp in Sports.”

Do we really need complete coverage of the fourth day of training camp?  Really?  There’s no better use of newsprint?

No New Taxes!?

This is astounding.

One of the bigger, but more under-reported, sea changes in American politics is how any kind of tax increase — whether in war or peace, good economic times or bad ones — has become absolutely unacceptable. After all, Ronald Reagan raised taxes. So did every modern American president involved in war, until George W. Bush. But not anymore. Indeed, as one of us pointed out on Nightly News last night, only 29% (or 157) of the 535 and House members and senators serving in Congress were around the last time — 1993! — the federal government raised taxes, and that was on gasoline. Think about that for a moment: Congress hasn’t really had a TOUGH vote in 16 years, if one defines a "TOUGH" vote as the government asking for a financial sacrifice from the American people. This is the political climate that President Obama faces in trying to pay for health reform. Republicans and some Democrats are opposed to a tax on the wealthy, and unions and Obama’s political strategists are against taxing health benefits.

What is astounding about it is not that taxes haven’t been raised in such a long while.  It’s not that so few Congressmen have ever had to raise taxes.  It’s not even that Republicans have so cowed Democrats on this issue.

What’s astounding is that it is “under-reported.”  Did it just occur to NBC reporters that this was happening?  If it’s under-reported it’s because journalists haven’t been doing their jobs.  A look back and putting the tax issue in historical context is something they should have done long ago.

Characterizing Poll Numbers

I’m thinking that if newspapers are to survive, they need a better way of delivering information.  It’s not only a paper vs. web dichotomy.  A lot of folks, me included, cannot envision a world without a paper to hold in one’s hands and the ability to have a story catch your eye while reading another.  That’s harder to do on the web.

One way to improve delivery is to re-think the need for every story to be a narrative.  But I’ll leave the larger question for a future post.

But certainly, a story that doesn’t lend itself to a narrative is reporting a poll.  Sure, some analysis is necessary for some readers.  But too often the interpretation inherent in a narrative is worthless.  Today’s poll story in The Washington Post is one example,  It would have been a better use of newsprint to simply present a chart with the key questions (if the entire poll results are too space consuming).

The problem comes with the headline and adjectives and adverbs that inevitably accompany poll stories.  The Post’s headline is “Poll Shows Obama Slipping on Key Issues.”  That’s the most many readers will see.  It’s accurate, but polls need to be taken in their entirety.  And the picture is more mixed.

At the same time, there is no slackening in public desire for Obama to keep pressing for action on the major issues of the economy, health care and the deficit. Majorities think he is either doing the right amount or should put greater emphasis on each of these issues.

So whatever his slackening of support about his specific policies, folks want him to continue fighting to change things.  And in many ways, politics is an either or proposition. 

Obama’s handling of the economy, the deficit and health care reform outpaces the Republicans by about 20 points.

So if his handling of things is 20 points better that GOPers, and folks want him to continue fighting, a stalemate is not what they’re looking for, much less the GOP solutions (if any).

And while, 49 percent approves of his handling of the healthcare issue,

On health care, the poll, conducted by telephone Wednesday through Saturday, found that a majority of Americans (54 percent) approve of the outlines of the legislation now heading toward floor action. The measure would institute new individual and employer insurance mandates and create a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. Its costs would be paid in part through new taxes on high-income earners.

What that “legislation” is, is questionable as there are several plans now working their way through Congress.

But the problem I have with many of the poll stories is that the reporters feel compelled to interpret them for us.  The tenor of this report is that Obama is slipping and people are losing confidence in him, despite the findings that most people still consider him a strong leader.

Obama’s leadership attributes remain highly rated, despite some slippage. Seven in 10 call him a strong leader, two in three say he cares about the problems of people like themselves, and just over six in 10 say he fulfilled a central campaign pledge and has brought needed change to Washington.

As an example of perhaps misplaced adverbs,

More than three-quarters of all Americans say they are worried about the direction of the economy over the next few years, down only marginally since Obama’s inauguration. Concerns about personal finances have also abated only moderately since January. [emphasis added]

That “moderate” abatement in concern about their personal finances is seven percent, from 70 percent in January who were worried to 63 percent today.

Yet the key figures that support the thrust of the story – he’s slipping significantly — are reflected in eight to nine point drops:

Approval of Obama’s handing the economy dropped from 60 percent in February, the earliest date available in the poll, to 52 percent, an eight point drop.

Approval of Obama’s handing the economy dropped from 57 percent in April, the earliest date available in the poll, to 49 percent, an eight point drop.

Approval of Obama’s handing the deficit dropped from 52 percent in March, the earliest date available in the poll, to 43 percent, a nine point drop.

So what makes an eight to nine point drop significant enough to support the thrust of the story but a seven percent drop is only “moderate.”

The answer is simply:  If the story was “Obama drop in support for policies is only moderate,” well, it might not make the front page.

The Post would have been better of simply printing a chart of the results, and let us interpret them.

Reporting Lies

"People have been allowed to get away with . . . making statements that they knew weren’t factual….Washington games are still being played with the truth."

–Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary

Politicians and political advocates (or adversaries) will speak lies.  Often, it’s not just bending the truth to fit an agenda, but flat out making things up.  That, alas, we’ve come to expect.

But what responsibility do journalists have when they know someone is misstating the facts?  I think they need to – at the very least – challenge liars or even folks who unintentionally state the wrong facts. 

We see a prime example of that with The Washington Post’s Mike Shear and Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Canto.  Shear is a good reporter, and I don’t think he has a bias, at least not one that regularly comes through in his reporting.  But I can’t understand why he – and he is not alone on this; he’s just a recent example –allows Cantor to make a knowingly false statement in a story last Sunday.

"Remember the promises? They promised you that if you paid for their stimulus, jobs would be created immediately," Cantor said. "In fact, they said that unemployment would stay under 8 percent. Yet just months later, they are telling us to brace for unemployment to climb over 10 percent. They promised jobs created. Now they scramble to find a way to play games with government numbers by claiming jobs saved."

When I read this, I knew Cantor was not truthful.  The administration hadn’t said it would stay below 8 percent; it was 8.5 percent.  Is that a relatively small difference?  You be the judge.  But it was clearly inaccurate and Shear knew it. 

Why do I know he knew it?  Here is Shear writing today.

Obama’s team had predicted that the stimulus package would keep unemployment to a peak of about 8.5 percent, but the rate soared to 9.5 percent last month….

If Shear know Cantor was misstating the fact, why did he use the lie in his Sunday story?

I have objections to journalists reporting some positions that are not clearly defensible.  One is the myth that “small businesses” create most of the jobs in this country.  The other myth is that higher tax rates on incomes of more than $250,000 impact small business people the most because their profits are  reported to the IRS on their individual tax returns, when in fact less that two percent of small business owners make over $250,000. Moreover, of the 600,000+ small business making over $250,000 (which includes companies as large as 500 employees) many of them are sole proprietorships that have no employees (lawyers, accountants, consultants, etc.); hence a greater tax on them doesn’t cost jobs.

But when a politician misstates a fact of who said what when, the role of a reporter is to say “that’s not true,” and either point that out in the article or refuse to report the misstatement.

Gibbs is right, but that probably won’t change anything.