Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 7:20 pm

How utterly debased New York Times reporting is in two simple blog posts and why that matters to people who don’t read the Times


First, a key paragraph from the offending Times article:

Few issues ignite such passion among the base of both parties. Democrats argue that the laws are intended to keep poor voters away from the polls because they often have difficulty obtaining identification. Republicans contend cheating is rife in today’s elections.

Now, an analysis of that paragraph by Felix Salmon, formerly with Reuters and now a senior editor at Fusion. Here’s the money quote:

I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a member of the Republican party who believes that cheating is rife in today’s elections. Hell, you could probably even find a member of the Democratic party who believes the same thing. But in general, I don’t think that Republicans believe — or even contend — that cheating is rife.

It’s certainly true that a lot of Republicans support voter ID laws. But you don’t need to think that cheating is rife in order to support such measures. In fact, you don’t even need to think that cheating exists in order to support such measures. It’s entirely rational to support a voter ID law even if cheating is rare or nonexistent, on the grounds that cheating is just too easy right now and that you want to make it harder.

In other words, Peters’s formulation actually does Republicans few favors. If you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, you know that (2) is true and (4) is false. Which means that if you know anything at all about the voter ID debate, and you read Peters’s article, you’ll come away thinking two things:

A) In order to support voter ID laws, you first need to believe that cheating is rife.

B) In general, Republicans are liars.

After all, if you contend that cheating is rife, as Peters says Republicans generally do, you are lying.

And, finally, Jay Rosen at PressThink, with the larger context. Money quote:

So what is that exceedingly crappy paragraph doing there on the newspaper-of-record’s front page? Salmon says it’s laziness. (“He-said-she-said is so easy, for a journalist on deadline, that both journalists and editors tend not to really thinking about exactly what they’re saying.”) Certainly ease-of-use is part of the device’s fading delights.

Here’s how I described the appeal of he said, she said in 2009. It makes the story writable on deadline when you don’t know enough to sort things out. In a “he said, she said” classic:

* No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)

* The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.

* The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter [and the user] in the middle between polarized extremes.

I question whether that between-two-extremes territory, the “you figure it out/for us partisan polarization rules” space is valuable turf in the news business. I doubt that it’s “safe,” either, if you mean by safe: won’t do the brand harm. I think it’s likely to corrode trust over time. A conventional explanation for he said, she said says: it may be lazy or incomplete, but it is also a safe middle ground place to land so you can get the damn paper out!

But it’s not that safe. Democrats argue/Republicans contend/We have No Idea… increasingly won’t cut it for the Times, or its competitors like the FT, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Bloomberg. The upscale, high-information readers the Times wants to charge more money to, the core loyalists who are being asked to finance more of the operation— these users are increasingly likely to know about various preponderance-of-evidence callsindependent of whether the Times knows enough to include that review in its reporting. When this kind of reader comes upon he said, she said reporting on a big story where it’s CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE, as with the right to vote: bad moment for the Times brand.

On the surface, this example appears to favor Republicans. Salmon argues that upon closer inspection, it favors Democrats by demonstrating that Republicans are liars on this issue. My big picture is that any one example isn’t the issue; the phenomenon is the problem. Some days I want to grab every publisher, executive editor, and executive producer in the country, slap them across the face and say what Jonathan Stewart famously said to then-“Crossfire” co-host Tucker Carlson: Stop it. You’re hurting the country.

Several different things can cause this kind of false-balance, he-said/she-said reporting to be published. Time pressure and byline-count requirements can tempt reporters to slap it down and file it without taking the trouble to see whether there is, in fact, a preponderance of the evidence (or preponderance of LACK of evidence) that would allow a reasonable conclusion to be drawn. Editors and publishers, in an era of dwindling circulation and readership and viewership and, correspondingly, ad revenue, don’t want to risk alienating a large segment of the public, even if that segment has been aboard an accelerating handbasket toward intellectual hell for the past half-century.

But you know what? Those are only excuses. If enough consumers of news demand it, news outlets that genuinely want to stay in business — not all do, but that’s a subject for another day — will respond accordingly. That said, those consumers need to target publishers, executive editors and managing editors, not the reporters who write this stuff or their assigning editors. Reporters write this stuff, and assigning editors send it on through to the copy desk, because they believe they can and/or must. If publishers, executive editors and managing editors — and, yes, I’m talking about my friends at the News & Record, among others — send the strong message that this kind of fake-ass reporting cannot and must not be published, then it won’t be. It’s that simple. So apply pressure in the right place; if nothing changes, then you know whom to blame.

Facts matter. Facts have consequences. And, dammit to hell, in the lives of real people, policy trumps politics. Journalists need to be committing journalism like they understand these things. Too many aren’t, and that crap must stop.

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1 Comment »

  1. Well said, even if it’s an old song.

    Comment by Roch — Wednesday, May 14, 2014 10:22 pm @ 10:22 pm | Reply


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