Why Newspapers Often Don't Call Out Politicians for Lying

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The surprisingly complicated controversy that has divided journalists for years.

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In the New York Times, Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane has reignited a long-running debate in journalism: When, if ever, should newspaper staff writers challenge rather than merely report the "facts" that are asserted by newsmakers? His real world example: "On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches 'apologizing for America,' a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the 'post-truth' stage. As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?"

One school of thought is that reporters ought to try, whenever possible, to independently verify claims, and to report that they are true or false if that can be established. This would, of course, stoke controversy about whether certain claims are in fact false, or merely matters about which there is legitimate disagreement. For that matter, there'd be disagreements about what constitutes legitimate disagreement! It would make the job of reporters much harder, more frequently result in the inadvertent revelation of their biases, and diminish their perceived objectivity, especially among unsophisticated news consumers. Proponents of this style of journalism often underestimate how difficult it would be to implement: lots of journalists are perfectly capable of reporting "Team Red says this, Team Blue says that," but lack the analytic ability, fair-mindedness, and ability to see beyond ideology that adjudicating contested claims requires. These reporters would be prone to declaring matters settled that are in fact contested.

But perhaps the alternative is worse: the status quo is a system that enables folks who manipulate the public. These disingenuous people brazenly feed the press lies knowing that at worst they'll be printed alongside, and given equal billing with, a quotation from "the other side."

"He said the world is flat. She said the world is round."

Should a newspaper leave it at that?

Okay, here's another example: "He said rent control generally helps the poor. She said it more often harms them." And a third. "He said climate change is junk science. She said the vast majority of scientific experts say it is happening." Do you want your newspaper reporter to point out, in each of those cases, that the woman is right? Do the more controversial examples I've chosen help to demonstrate why newspapers aren't thrilled at the idea of doing so?

Priorities Other Than Truth

Press critic Jay Rosen is amused that the Times public editor jumped into this controversy without seeming to realize that it's been debated for a long time.

Here's his take on how we got here:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as "maintaining objectivity," "not imposing a judgment," "refusing to take sides" and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

No one knows exactly how it happened, for it's not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground-more like pros-when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.
Rosen isn't a fan of this change. "How can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news?" he asks. "That's like saying medical doctors no longer put 'saving lives' or 'the health of the patient' ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession." Sympathetic as I am to these arguments, I'd put things a bit differently. The "he said, she said" model doesn't in fact "devastate" journalism as a public service. It puts a severe upper limit on its utility. There is value, after all, in knowing that a public figure has made some claim, whether it is true or false. And newspapers give us that information.

But there is other important information we aren't given. Often we aren't told whether the claim is true or false. It's a tradeoff. In exchange for knowing that the news pages of a newspaper won't lead us astray about what's fact and what's contested, a judgment call that many of its reporters aren't equipped to make even when it is discoverable, we're forced to go elsewhere for the answer.
In Defense of Newspapers

The last time I argued about this subject, I did so in correspondence with my editor. Our conversation was prompted by James Fallows, who was complaining about newspaper stories that he dubbed false equivalence. (He still is.)  His target was the Washington Post. Fallows wanted newspapers to stop writing as if both political parties were equally responsible for the failure of legislation, when in fact one party was effectively blocking it but refusing to fess up to that fact.

I didn't follow the controversy closely enough to know whether I agree with Fallows' characterizations in this instance. Who should be blamed for the failure of the Super-committee? I have no idea.

But I found myself disagreeing with a Washington Post reporter who responded in an online chat with Post readers. "Most reporting on the super-committee -- like most reporting on the deficit -- reflects an acceptance of a basic fallacy. Whenever there is an impasse, there seems to be a desire to blame both sides equally, on the theory that if only Democrats would concede more, Republicans would reciprocate (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding)," one reader wrote.* "Yes, Democrats have drawn lines in the sand, but as Greg Sargent and other commentators have documented, when you compare the specifics, there is no factual basis for blaming both parties equally. So my question is, why does the Post's coverage do so anyway, either explicitly or implicitly?"

Replied Paul Kane:

I think this point is just absurd and ridiculous. This is a big thing among folks calling it "moral equivalence" (Fallows, Ornstein) and others calling it the "cult of balance" (Krugman). It's just stupid. If you want someone to tell you that Republicans stink, read opinion pages. Read blogs. Also, the underlying sentiment on the left is that this is the real reason why things went wrong in 2010: That the mainstream media is to blame. Sorry, I think that's the sorta head-in-sand outlook that leads to longer term problems for a movement.

Greg is a fine writer. He's an opinion writer, in the opinion section of the web site. I encourage you to keep reading him. And I encourage you to keep reading the news coverage, which should always strive to present both sides of the story. If you really don't want to hear anything about the other side of the story, I really do encourage you to stop reading the news section.

Perhaps the online chat format didn't permit him the best opportunity to formulate a considered response, but I had problems with what Kane asserted. He wrote as though every story has two equally valid sides (aren't there sometimes more -- and fewer too?) and as if the news pages have no role to play in mediating among them. In fact, he didn't seem to grasp the core of the issue. Everyone agrees that contested subjects demand, in the news pages, a fair account of the relevant claims made by all sides. But having laid them out, if one side's claims are verifiably false, or if one side is provably right, then what? Should the news pages adjudicate?

Or just report what was said?

Then as now, I was in the "adjudicate, please," camp. As I said to Garance, "The argument for newspapers presenting events as seen by Team R and Team D and then calling it a day is awfully weak, whether the object is being fair or informing readers."

She offered a rebuttal.

"You are mistaking the narrowness of a single beat reporter's specific assignment as an 'of record' reporter documenting what is happening in Congress with the perspective of the entire newspaper industry," she wrote, "and taking ... a single reporter's output for the institution's broader perspective." Other perspectives at The Post, she continued, could be found in "TONS of politics desk stories, national stories, business stories and Style stories.... in Outlook and on the Op-Ed page. ... on dozens of blogs. There's a Fact-Checker column to call bullshit and a Think Tank blog and major investigative and accountability projects underway at all times. But it is the nature of a newspaper that not every story contains every set of sources. What editors do is create a report -- a body of complementary works produced by people taking different approaches and perspectives over time. ... a paper takes an 'album' approach to the news."

This is perhaps part of what Kane was trying to say when he encouraged readers to continue checking in on Greg Sargent, and what Brisbane was alluding to when he noted that Paul Krugman had adjudicated the truth of one claim.Yes, they're saying, the "traditional" approach of the news pages does force you to seek some crucial information elsewhere -- but you don't have to go far, for the "fact-check" features and op-ed columnists and bloggers and news analyses and editorials are a click away.

The Case for Adjudicating in the News Pages Anyway

Newspapers have been assigning some functions to the news pages and others to the opinion pages for a long time. The standard explanation for why there is so much push-back to that approach: as Brisbane puts it, readers are "fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life." The conventional wisdom is that, what with the rise of ideological news outlets and the degradation of public discourse, there are more distortions now than ever.

But a far more important change is this one: almost no one gets their information in a bundle from a single news outlet. The editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post still create "an album" of important information every day. But fewer and fewer people consume it that way. I don't actually know how many people ever thumbed through the newspaper from front to back. Online, however, the data is irrefutable: every day the majority of traffic is generated by a relatively few items, there's a lot of long tail content that is read by far fewer people, and huge amounts of traffic come in via aggregators or social networks and leave as quickly. As Garance put it, extending the album analogy, "the disaggregated news environment in which we live increasingly sees readers finding only random songs and not having a relationship to the broader report over time, as subscribers in a geographically circumscribed area would have historically."

To me, this insight cuts against current newspaper practice. Most folks who read a news story wherein a crucial matter is contested are never going to read complementary commentary about that same subject to figure out what's actually happening. Unless that content is included, or at least linked, it's effectively useless to the vast majority of people who come across it. In this environment, newsmakers have an incentive to lie. Orders of magnitude more people will see a false assertion that is printed, unchallenged, in the New York Times than will read why it is misleading or false, whether the take-down happens on the Op-Ed page or on the Caucus.  

There is, too, the fact that casual newspaper readers (as opposed to news junkies) don't find it valuable to know, for example, that Mitt Romney says President Obama has gone on an apology tour unless it is in fact true. Unlike the average political reporter, the average reader isn't that interested in attacks that fly back and forth in a campaign, save when they reveal facts. What the bulk of readers want isn't all that should guide reporters, but surely it is one factor.

Why Newspaper Editors Will Resist

The problem for newspapers is that verifying the truth isn't their comparative advantage. Reporting facts quickly is what their news pages still do better than anyone else, and there is no reason to think they'd be better than magazines or blogs or fact check sites at testing claims -- cultivating sources, chasing leads, and breaking stories is a different skill-set than parsing logic or fact-checking. The best newspapers, like the Times and the Post, attract some staffers who combine all those talents (they are increasingly asking for and being given the freedom to inject their judgments into stories). But it's hard enough for papers to find and retain the right staffers to report and write high-level new stories. Asking these same people to do something else -- something for which they may lack the judgment and temperament -- may not be wise.

But the status quo is untenable too -- editors must start hiring with a broader skill-set in mind, because the comparative advantage newspapers offer, the fact gathering of their news pages, isn't going to be enough for much longer, for reasons that ought to be obvious by now but apparently aren't. 

People sometimes talk as if the news pages are there to be fair and thorough, whereas the opinion people are there to make judgments, unencumbered by the need to be fair and thorough. A place for everything, and everything in its place. But what the best opinion journalists figured out a long time ago is that while folks in the front section of the newspaper are forbidden from injecting their judgments, however useful, the opinion folks aren't prevented from offering, in addition to their judgments, all the basic facts (often gleaned from newspapers). Take a talented newspaper beat reporter constrained by the conventions of writing straight news, give him space in a magazine to marshal facts and the freedom to render judgment, and 9 times out of 10 he'll be able to deliver more value to the reader in those pages than he can in his own.

At worst, bloggers and magazine writers let their biases hurt the accuracy of their work when they're empowered to inject judgments into their coverage. But at best, they're empowered to tell the whole truth. The traditional model of newspaper writing is, at best, limited in that regard. There are reasons, some good and some bad, for those limits, but they're going to doom newspapers in the end. Why settle for less than the best work when it's all accessible via the Web? It's no accident that papers like the Times and the Post are more like sprawling magazines than ever.

What choice did they have?

Image credit: Reuters

* This quote was originally erroneously attributed to James Fallows.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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