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,
â€œMy question is what role the paperâ€™s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements â€“ by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaperâ€™s overarching goal is truth, oughtnâ€™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), shouldnâ€™t the Timesâ€™s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?â€
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.”
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 â€” if not most â€” 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 â€” most especially, the New York Times â€” 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 â€” 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.)
No one knows exactly how it happened, for itâ€™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 groundâ€“more like prosâ€“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? Thatâ€™s like saying medical doctors no longer put â€œsaving livesâ€ or â€œthe health of the patientâ€ 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.