Spiro Agnew Won

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigative reports were published while I was in my junior and senior years at the University of Missouri, majoring in journalism. That was an interesting place. The “professors” at the J-School were mostly old newspaper guys who had semi-retired into academia. I remember one of them used to tell stories about covering the Capone gang for the Chicago Tribune back in the 1930s. And we learned by putting out a real daily newspaper.

The unfolding Watergate investigation touched off many heady discussions about the role of journalism and the media in keeping politics and government honest. Of course, news coverage of Vietnam also was on our minds, as well as Spiro Agnew’s famous attacks on journalists as “effete snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The Nixon Administration couldn’t defend itself factually, so it tried to discredit journalism. We were amused.

Fast-forward to today. In the New York Times, public editor Arthur Brisbane is whining that people shouldn’t expect reporters to be “truth vigilantes.” The Times, as do many other outlets, puts “fact check” stories about politicians’ misleading statements in separate stories from news coverage, leaving reporters to be mere stenographers of whatever politicians say. A reader wrote,

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

But according to Brisbane, expecting reporters to use their “personal judgment” about what the politicians are saying is a terribly difficult moral question. To which I say, personal judgment my ass. There are times when politicians are just plain pulling “facts” out of their butts, and the reporters know this as well as anyone.

And then when Brisbane apparently was slammed by emails from people saying, “yes, [report the truth] you moron,” he sniffled that these decisions are not slam-dunks.

So, if Mitt Romney is going around saying the President is apologizing for America (one of the examples discussed), expecting the political reporter at least to note in the story that Romney fails to give specific examples of what he meant by “apologizing,” and there are no statements by the President in the pubic record that are unambiguously “apologies,” is going way too far for Brisbane. He’d rather keep “fact checking” in a separate column, where some dweeb can carefully be sure to not call out any one particular party or candidate for particularly egregious lying. Timidity is the new “balance.”

Charles Pierce:

Newspapers today are run by terrified beancounters. The industry is dying. They know it. They are casting about for any strategy to delay the inevitable and, personally, they are casting about for any parachute they can find. The beancounters owe their primary allegiance to “the company,” and not to the reporter in the field. The beancounter editors and sub-editors at many — if not most — major newspapers and broadcast outlets would sell their grandmothers to the Somali pirates for a bigger office and two steps further up the masthead, which will get them closer to where the parachutes are kept. Most newspapers — most especially, the New York Times — have forced upon their reporters what are called “ethics codes,” but which, in reality, are speech codes written to prevent the beancounters and careerists from having to answer angry phone calls from wingnuts. I am not kidding — under some of these abominations, a reporter literally could be disciplined for spouting off about, say, Willard Romney in a bar, if someone heard the reporter, and called the beancounter to complain. The campaign buses are filled now with young reporters who know full well that, given sufficient pressure from either inside or outside “the company,” their bosses do not have their backs.

I always had the impression from the old guys in the J-School that their editors had always “had their backs,” and that in the old days newspaper editors loved nothing better than to blow the cover of some public official, never mind whom, so long as the reporter had enough sourcing to cover his ass. Oh, and used the word “allegedly” a lot. The professors, who were our news desk editors and publishers, were never so happy as when they were getting angry phone calls from big shots, as long as the story was factually defensible. (If it wasn’t … well, at least they couldn’t fire us. We were students, not employees.)

Jay Rosen, Press Think:

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.

But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? 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.

A reporter on deadline may not always be able to fact-check new claims and call them out, but when you’re covering a candidate telling the same damn lies day after day, and saying nothing, what exactly is the point of sending a reporter at all? The newspaper might as well just print up whatever press releases they get from the campaigns.

See also: Adam Clark Estes, Greg Sargent, mistermix.

6 thoughts on “Spiro Agnew Won

  1. Ok then, Mr. Arthur Brisbane, let’s run the NYPD Homicide Department like the NY Times.

    Your wife/daughter/son/sister/brother/mother/father, whoever, has been murdered.

    The police are sent out to “cover” the murder.

    They talk to the suspects. They write down what they say.

    Now, do you want them to print everything, hand it to you, and ask YOU to try to figure out who’s telling the truth, and who’s lying? Or a group of people like you?

    Or, would you rather after they take notes, that they look at the evidence, interrogate the suspect(s), check and cross-check everything, and make a determination as to who did the murder so they can take it to the DA who can then put the murderer of your family member on trial?

    So, which do you prefer?
    In the first example, the police are stenographers, the same as most of your reporters.

    In the second case, they’re detectives, which is what I was taught journalists were supposed to be back when I took journalism in college and worked on the school weekly newspaper, back in the late 70’s – I believe the term once was, “investigative reporter.”

    Conservatives want “journalists” to be defined as the following:
    Cheap stenographers, who are great at fellatio.

    “So, Mr. Brisbane, you got all of this, are you writing this dow… oh, oooh, OOOH!… take it all, BRISBANE, YOU BEYOTCH!
    Good reporter!”

    Get where I’m coming from?
    Any more (stupid) questions, Mr. Brisbane?

  2. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. The dramatic increase in lies our culture became immersed in during the Bush era was by far the most shocking thing I had to get used to during his reign. It was like waking up in a neighborhood that formerly had a few candy wrappers or slurpee cups tossed on the street, but now had been completely, instantly trashed overnight, and was never going to get clean again.

    Of course this has been going on long before GWB arrived. Chris Hedges writes a lot about the triumph of images over print, and that has a lot to do with it. Images that, by careful design, play to our emotions over our intellect, that contain messages that cannot be easily refuted (a picture can be processed a lot more quickly than the time/effort it takes to generate or process a thousand words, and it requires critical thinking skills that have all but atrophied in this culture). And then there’s the relentless assault on the truth, in any form, by the right. They wouldn’t have gotten as far as they have without their skillful use of images, and a dumbed down population to receive them.

    Many years ago, I was something of a Bible student. It talks a great deal about people who cannot discern the truth, and that describes what’s happened in our culture, en masse, and today’s journalism is hugely to blame. Getting to the truth of any situation is paramount, and this culture has lost its way. This is particularly critical in a democracy, which depends on people receiving and evaluating accurate information to participate in running the country.

    Just as only us old timers have a living memory of what real journalism was like (and how it pissed off people like Nixon and Agnew), so has real democracy, instead of this phony, stage managed version of it, passed out of living memory. Democracy has been dying for a long time in this country, and journalism has been going down with it.

    It’s funny how Agnew’s popular image at the time was that of a somewhat arrogant doof, and yet this is the kind of leader people will get, when they lose ability to discern truth, turning themselves into stupid children, looking for any sort of daddy who will lead them.

  3. If there was a newspaper that people could trust to give them the truth, not the spiel, it would probably do well financially.

  4. This is exactly why newspapers are dying. I only read a local paper to keep up on what’s going on in town regarding movies, restaurants, plays, etc. I don’t read it for the political news at all.

  5. Interestingly and not unexpectedly, they cut off comments about #150 or so, since they were getting a good beating of the sort this blog is continuing. The only way I can see for newspapers to succeed is for them to print the news with facts pertinent to each issue recognized and included. Probably is a dead business, though.

  6. From what can still tell, McClatchy owned newspapers are still pretty good. They’re good because their reporters don’t hobnob in DC or NYC. Though for how long, I don’t know.

    And to me, the living examples of how bad ‘journalism’ in this country has gotten, are CNN, which was once terrific and is now UNWATCHABLE, and the WaPo, one of the great papers of all time, and now, with the exception of a few reporters and columnists, is UNREADABLE.
    I guess, after their editor queried people on this issue, I can add the NY Times to the list. The right is having a field day with this, btw. “The Liberal NY Times wants MORE opinion from their reporters!”

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