Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Goodbye to Journalism 101 stenography

I interrupt my usual format to bring you this brief riff on the journalism trade. It's my general policy never to respond to the comments posted on this blog, because my basic feeling is that, after I have my say, readers should have theirs without any blowback from me. But today I want to make a rare exception.

Yesterday, after I poked at the Associated Press for failing to fact-check Dick Cheney and thereby allow him to utter a demonstrably false remark, somebody named Anonymous complained that "the AP article was a straight news story. Straight news stories are supposed to report facts and what was said. Separate analysis or commentary articles would then debate the merits of what Cheney said. That's journalism 101."

I disagree. Anonymous tell us that "straight news are supposed to report facts and what was said," but, under that outmoded definition, journalists are mere stenographers, copying down whatever a politician wants to say, and passing it along to readers who often lack the time to determine whether the remarks were true. Under that so-called "objectivity" standard, a politician is free to dissemble without being challenged.

I don't feel that we should be content with passing along misinformation in "straight" stories. The reader deserves a full context, and that means politicians should be fact-checked -- a job that's relatively quick and easy to do, in the Google era. Providing accurate factual context is not "commentary." It's what "straight" reporting should be about.

It always helps to remember the lesson of Senator Joe McCarthy. The 1950s demagogue, whose inaccurate red-baiting wrecked careers and drove people to suicide, was enabled at every step of the way by journalists who believed their job was to only report "what was said." McCarthy was a senator, therefore, if he said something (true or not), it was deemed news. When he made wild charges about 60 or 80 or 100 communists in the State Department, it was reported as news. The "fact" that he was making such charges was considered sufficient; as the New York Times wrote back then, after reviewing their own McCarthy coverage, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore charges by Senator McCarthy just because they are usually proved false. The remedy lies with the reader."

Washington reporter Richard Rovere, in a book he wrote two years after the senator's death, complained about "the system that required (reporters) to publish 'news' they knew to be fraudulent but prohibited them from reporting their knowledge of its fradulence."

In today's world, given the credibility problems that have plagued administrations of both parties, that "system" is not an adequate. Nor was it then.

Yesterday, Tom Ricks of The Washington Post demonstrated how fact-checking is crucial in a "straight" story. He dealt with Cheney this way, in three grafs:

"Despite Cheney's assertion that no one foresaw how difficult the post-invasion phase would be, defense and Middle East experts have said that administration officials during the run-up to the war ignored their warnings about potential obstacles ahead.

"For example, a group of specialists who met at the Army War College in December 2002, three months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, warned: 'The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious.' Iraq had been strained by decades of misrule, wars and sanctions, they observed, noting that 'if the United States assumes control of Iraq, it will therefore assume control of a badly battered economy.' The writers of the Army report emphasized that Iraq was going to be tougher than the administration was acknowledging publicly. 'Successful occupation will not occur unless the special circumstances of this unusual country' are heeded, they warned.

"Likewise, 70 national security experts and Middle East scholars met about the same time for two days at the National Defense University and then issued a report concluding that occupying Iraq 'will be the most daunting and complex task the U.S. and the international community will have undertaken since the end of World War II.' One participant, Army Col. Paul Hughes, sent a copy of the conference report to the office of Douglas J. Feith, then the undersecretary of defense for policy, but 'never heard back from him or anyone else' over there, he said."

Well, I had the Army War College example, but not those 70 experts. Wish I had thought of that. All told, the Ricks piece was textbook Journalism 101, as it should be taught.