Politicians Aren’t Entitled To Their Own Facts, But Neither Is The Media

An independent political press corps with the knowledge and authority to call the shots and confidently call out lies when politicians tell them – rather than giving equal credence to two diametrically opposed crazy positions – is a great idea. If only our media was sufficiently trustworthy and capable of performing such a nuanced, sensitive role

Something funny seems to have happened to the New York Times.

For the past week or so, the newspaper which once twisted itself into a risible-looking pretzel trying to justify calling the practice of waterboarding “torture” when inflicted by America’s enemies but “enhanced interrogation” when conducted by American forces has discovered a new passion for clarity and bold truth-telling.

Peter Beinart explains, over at The Atlantic:

Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it.

On its front page, top right—the most precious space in American print journalism—the Times wrote about Friday’s press conference in which Donald Trump declared that a) he now believed Barack Obama was a US citizen, b) he deserved credit for having established that fact despite rumors to the contrary and c) Hillary Clinton was to blame for the rumors. Traditionally, when a political candidate assembles facts so as to aggrandize himself and belittle his opponent, “objective” journalists like those at the Times respond with a “he said, she said” story.

Such stories, according to the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, follow this formula: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story … The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”

[..] But the Times, once a champion practitioner of the “he said, she said” campaign story, discarded it with astonishing bluntness. The Times responded to Trump’s press conference by running a “News Analysis,” a genre that gives reporters more freedom to explain a story’s significance. But “News Analysis” pieces generally supplement traditional news stories. On Saturday, by contrast, the Times ran its “News Analysis” atop Page One while relegating its news story on Trump’s press conference to page A10. Moreover, “News Analysis” stories generally offer context. They don’t offer thundering condemnation.

Yet thundering condemnation is exactly what the Times story provided. Its headline read, “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.” Not “falsehood,” which leaves open the possibility that Trump was merely mistaken, but “lie,” which suggests, accurately, that Trump had every reason to know that what he was saying about Obama’s citizenship was false.

In other words, the New York Times has sporadically started to report objective facts and truth, rather than doing what has long been traditional among the political press corps – walking a neutral tightrope between two partisan positions of staggeringly obvious falsehood or stupidity.

Despite his protestations and evasions, Donald Trump has been one of the key players in the birther movement from the beginning – picking up from the memorably loopy Orly Taitz – and has certainly been the conspiracy movement’s most public face. I remember blogging about it over four years ago, back in 2012.

Given the context of a presidential election and the extra scrutiny on media bias, it is surprising and rather heartening to see the Times displaying the courage to report fact rather than controversy; the same headline a month ago might easily have read “Trump Withdraws Birther Allegation”, with no reference to the established facts and outcome of the story.

Jon Stewart (formerly of The Daily Show) must be smiling. Since 2004 and even earlier, Stewart railed against political coverage which ginned up conflict in pursuit of ratings and incessantly reported issues through the prism of Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican without ever seeking to either restrict coverage to facts or move beyond partisan talking points to get to the truth. The video at the top of this article shows Stewart’s memorable appearance on CNN’s Crossfire show, in which he castigated the hosts for “hurting America” by injecting partisanship and sucking nuance out of the political discourse.

Obviously the New York Times does not inhabit quite the same infotainment space as Crossfire, but the basic operating principle has been very much the same of late – present two or more strongly opposing partisan viewpoints, let the talking heads (or journalistic sources) slug it out in defence of their respective positions, and then move on without ever really applying any kind of judgment as to the respective merits of the contrasting positions.

Nowhere is this approach better summed up than the slogan of the Fox News Channel – “we report, you decide”. It is a relativist worldview which suggests there is no truth in even quite straightforward binary debates, and that we are free to pick our own facts and construct our own reality in accordance with our personal biases and interests.

Now, there is yet more evidence that the New York Times is moving away from this risk-averse and rather cowardly stance – yesterday the newspaper described as “false” Donald Trump’s claims that Hillary Clinton has sinister plan to destroy the Second Amendment:

In justifying his remarks, Mr. Trump falsely claimed that Mrs. Clinton wants to “destroy your Second Amendment,” apparently a reference to her gun control policies.

My emphasis in bold.

At face value this is a good development – the “he said she said” approach to political coverage is what has enabled so much of the spineless print journalism and sensationalist, conflict-stoking television news reporting in Britain and America. Seeing a “respectable” institution finally buck that trend and push back against the toxic idea that reality is malleable and truth exists only in the eye of the super-partisan beholder is, in theory, a very good thing.

Peter Beinart certainly seems to think so:

A certain etiquette has long governed the relationship between presidential candidates and the elite media. Candidates stretch the truth, but try not to be too blatant about it. Candidates appeal to bigotry, but subtly. In turn, journalists respond with a delicacy of their own. They quote partisans rather than saying things in their own words. They use euphemisms like “polarizing” and “incendiary,” instead of “racist” and “demagogic.”

Previous politicians have exploited this system. But Trump has done something unprecedented. He has so brazenly lied, so nakedly appealed to bigotry, and so frontally challenged the rule of law that he has made the elite media’s decorum absurd. He’s turned highbrow journalists into referees in a World Wrestling Entertainment match.

Last Saturday, the Times answered Trump’s challenge. He’s changed the rules, so it did, too.

But this analysis only holds if one has reasonable grounds to trust the journalistic institution or media outlet doing the reporting; will they reserve their merciless news analysis features for instances when there really is a right and wrong binary perspective, or will editorial judgment and personal bias cloud the picture?

Remember, the New York Times was happy to characterise the EU referendum and the Brexit campaign as being motivated not out of concerns for democracy and sovereignty but primarily by xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. And while there were highly visible elements of the latter, under the “News Analysis” model what would prevent the Times deciding that the entire Leave campaign was based on racism and then reporting this skewed perspective to their readers as simple, self-evident “truth”?

While the “he said, she said” ra-ra approach may be divisive and unseemly, it at least offers a right of reply to those whose views are misinterpreted or deliberately slandered by shameless opponents. And while conventional wisdom might hold that it is more often conservative voices who live in a sealed bubble of their own facts, in reality we would all be vulnerable to a style of news reporting in which reporters and editors are given sweeping new authority to pass what often amount to value judgments on behalf of readers. At some point in the future, any one of us could find our unpopular, minority opinion almost entirely  frozen out of the public discourse.

So this blog will cautiously cheer along with Peter Beinart at the New York Times’ sudden willingness to call out lies – provided that this is to be genuinely bipartisan new scrutiny rather than merely a one-sided club with which to bash the Trump campaign.

But we should be aware that we are at the top of a slippery slope here. Smacking down candidates and their statements is a positively good thing when we are dealing with easily proven questions of who said what, and when. But the temptation to apply this swashbucklingly assertive style of journalism to more subjective debates (like economic policy, immigration or foreign affairs) may prove to be irresistible for journalists with human biases and editorial boards with agendas.

In case they hadn’t noticed, the mainstream media doesn’t presently enjoy a particularly enviable trustworthiness rating among the general public. Abuse “news analysis” by using it as a blatantly partisan cudgel and they will drive that rock-bottom rating still lower.



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