Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBJECTIVITY....Mark Kleiman comments on the convention of objectivity in the reporting of straight news:

A news account isn't an editorial. The ideal-type "reporter" is supposed to give "just the facts, ma'am," and not his or her own opinions.

This creates a problem when a reporter has to report false statements, especially by candidates for office. If a candidate says that the Earth is flat....should the reporter "objectively" simply report the statement, or should she add the objective fact that the world is actually round?

Mostly, reporters find it more comfortable either to copy down the b.s. and let the reader sort it out, or to find a source willing to be quoted as saying that the world is round....So the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth.

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

The problem with the convention of objectivity isn't that no one recognizes that it's a problem. Everyone recognizes that it's a problem. Entire tank cars of ink have been spilled discussing it. The real problem is that so far no one has come up with a solution — a practical, functional, real-world solution — that's broadly acceptable. Any ideas?

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, the economist, says the answer is better writers. Matt Yglesias, the writer, says the answer is market competition. How about them apples?

Actually, this kind of response is pretty common. Anyone who's been involved in corporate life knows the drill: sales says the problem is that R&D needs to make better products; R&D says the problem is that marketing needs to do a better job of analyzing customer requirements; marketing says the problem is that sales needs to recruit better resellers. Meanwhile, finance wants to cut everyone's budget.

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (130)

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I'm with the more-beat-reporters approach, and letting them call it as they see it.

Posted by: brooksfoe on August 12, 2007 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

What's wrong with the reporter saying that what he just reported as having been said by some hack is all b.s.?

With the reporter's career at stake, there is a self regulating mechanism here that will minimize the abuses of this way of doing things.

Posted by: gregor on August 12, 2007 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Videos of British, and other European reporters, clearly demonstrate that they have no problem with calling out BS, up to their level of "expertness" or fact awareness. Thus, Mark's 'flat earth' example would instantly be labeled BS, and the interviewee would be challenged.

The real problem occurs when facts or BS are too sophisticated or obscure, thus the reporter would be unsure they were being lied to.

But it's simply not that hard. When Cheney, for example, says "things are improving", it is pretty simple for any competent reporter to ask: "by what measure or standard? None that I have seen, and I report on this everyday".

Few have the guts to do this, however.

Posted by: SteveAudio on August 12, 2007 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Great question.

I think reporters can use bloggers as their guides here. Say things like, "X's assertion appears to conflict with the truth" then give the evidence that indicates this, at least the first time X says it. If X continues, react appropriately, eventually saying, "X repeated his/her central campaign lie today..."

It would help if their bosses rewarded them for trying to keep track of this -- particularly if the rewards were for a good record, with appropriate corrections, and not a perfect record, which would only be achievable if the reporter were overly cautious.

I would personally be very interested to know the track record of various reporters who called people on their inaccuracies -- preferably important ones, not ones about haircuts or makeup. It wouldn't be that hard to keep track of, and might more clearly distinguish the best reporters from the rest. We could have awards for this kind of thing.

Posted by: Brandon Claycomb on August 12, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line?

Yes. As SteveAudio says.

Every article should be considered incomplete unless it is accompanied by empirical data. If they have to turn to experts, those experts' track records should be part of the article.

Empirics, empirics, empirics. Quotations from politicians ain't enough.

Posted by: Elvis Elvisberg on August 12, 2007 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sorry, Kevin, but this just isn't hard:

Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani caused a firestorm last week when he claimed he had been at Ground Zero "as much or more than" most of the clean-up workers in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, he visited the site X number of times in the month after the attack, usually for visits of one hour or less.

In contrast, hundreds of workers spent up to 24-hour shifts for weeks on end at the site.


Naturally, none of the mainstream news articles read like this, instead relying on he said/she said, thus favoring the liar.

Will there be specific times when a reporter on deadline can't possibly know with certainty what the facts are? Sure. But the Knight Ridder crew did a marvelous job of unearthing reality in the run-up to the Iraq War, and that was a wildly murky situation.

Posted by: pdp on August 12, 2007 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

> The problem with the convention of
> objectivity isn't that no one recognizes
> that it's a problem. Everyone recognizes
> that it's a problem.

I don't think that the senior managers (as opposed the publishers and owners) who run the day-to-day operations of the traditional media have acknowledged this, no. The WaPo and the NYT had and continue to have no problem quoting Rove and Addington anonymously on topics (such as the Libby treason trial) where /these sources were and are directly involved/. Much less try to bring any counterbalancing information into the story.

And let's face it - if there is one place that Washington DC reporters ARE supposed to be "experts" it is in the realm of national politics. Yet even there they make zero attempt to flag and balance out lies, much less untruths.

So I reject your basis.


Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 12, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

My solution: Just let Kevin Drum decide what is true for me. Welcome to the Cult of Drum.

Posted by: Me on August 12, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

The media is extremely biased, and the bias is Repukeliscum. They routinely question Democrats when they make a mild incorrect statement. When the Repukeliscum say "the earth is flat," the reporters just let it go.

During 2000, Gore was questioned strongly for a few exaggerations, while the media never questioned the outrageously false statements that Bush makes rountinely.

Posted by: POed Lib on August 12, 2007 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

This really is not a difficult issue at all. When someone lies, you simply counter the lie with the facts. If you're afraid of using your own voice, you don't need to find someone to quote; you go to the encyclopedia or some other acknowledged source.

Posted by: Hollywood Gothique on August 12, 2007 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

why cannot reporters treat sketchy information the way they do with confirming sources? If it cannot be confirmed then do not report the lies/misinformation.

Let the truthful stuff stand, maybe the liars will get the clue (or the reporters will get shut out by them...which is more likely). I would like to see a reporter follow the sketchy information with something like "The administration statement could not be independently verified for veracity"

Posted by: zAmboni on August 12, 2007 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

Until the public demands, or even knows it has a right to expect, reporting with teeth, why on (the round) earth would they get it?

Posted by: Kenji on August 12, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

"The real problem occurs when facts or BS are too sophisticated or obscure, thus the reporter would be unsure they were being lied to."

I agree that is a major problem, but I would inject that an even bigger problem is when the "objective" reporter actually favors propagating the lie, even when they know it is a lie. The evidence for non-objective reporting is too vast to ignore that many reporters are simply gaming the system. We can have this conversation all day and it won't change Fox News "reporting" one iota.

There won't be a single answer to Kevin's question for the honest individual reporter and I think searching for it is a bit of a fool's errand. Honest reporters find a way to tell the truth - the biggest problem is that they are being increasingly superseded by chatter from think-tankers and truly odious partisan pundits.

Posted by: HungChad on August 12, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

There was an example very recently of how to handle this. Steve Benen covered it on his site. Too lazy to find the link. Basically, Bush described Iran as having "stated that they intended to acquire nuclear weapons". The writer immediately followed up with 3-4 sentences explaining that Iran had done no such thing. Seems like the simplest thing in the world, and yet, reading it, it felt like a revolutionary concept.

Thing is, so many of the lies the press dutifully reports are things that you don't need to be a "subject matter expert" to refute. Remember how, a while back, Bush kept saying that Saddam "wouldn't let the inspectors in"? Come on. How do you not follow up any recounting of that quote by simply stating "this is false"? You don't need any particular foreign policy expertise to make that call.

As for more complex lies -- such as when Global Warming Deniers are peddling their wares -- it's enough to rely on the expertise of others, noting, e.g., that 99% of the world's climatologists believe that Global Warming is real and human-caused.

So to answer your question, Kevin, yes, I think reporters should take it upon themselves to immediately point out when someone makes a counter factual claim. I think you'd see an immediate reduction in the amount of BS people try to get away with.

Posted by: Toast on August 12, 2007 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Another thing reporters could do is to nail politicans retroactively. For instance, if Cheney makes some patently false statement in June, but the reporter discovers in September that Cheney was lying, then that is news, and ought to shouted from the ramparts.

Posted by: cosmo on August 12, 2007 at 3:56 PM | PERMALINK

Why is what people say, excluding eyewitness accounts, considered news except on the very rare occasions when it actually is. Wasn't it formerly just a courtesy to allow people affected by a story to comment?

Posted by: Emma Zahn on August 12, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

"The real problem occurs when facts or BS are too sophisticated or obscure, thus the reporter would be unsure they were being lied to."

"The Iraquis are the same people who attacked us on 9-11"

Is that one of those sophisticated or obscure thingies?

Posted by: Mooser on August 12, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

As the folks above have noted:

* ask for the evidence backing up the assertion (when DID your opponent get caught having sexual relations with barnyard animals?)

* If no facts can be cited - note that as well (Neither Sen. Foghorn and the Foghorn for God Campaign were able to cite any facts supporting his claim that the Earth is a giant disk supported on the backs of four elephants standing on a giant space turtle.)

* Do some fact checking (NASA satellites show no pictures of any giant space turtles)

In short: get past the Point/Counterpoint model of covering the debate, and do some fact checking and analysis. (Other than some non-peer-reviewed articles printed in oil and coal industry journals, Senator Foghorn's claim that global warming was caused by methane gas generated by old growth forests has no support in the scientific community.)

Posted by: RepubAnon on August 12, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

what SteveAudio said.

It's really not that hard, if you've got your head in the game.

Another issue is that Corporate News Networks (CNN's) don't want any voice heard but the Status Quo. This essentially silences any reporter on a CNN from approaching an issue from a principled stance.

Posted by: absent observer on August 12, 2007 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Likely a problem with their profit model.

This is why you have an editorial staff. At the same time, yes, you should be able to trust reporters to do this.

The Daily Show does this. Many of the staff writers have said in interviews that they weren't that interested in politics before starting with the show. They do their homework so they can write better jokes.

If a state financed news source (BBC) and a corporate funded fake new source (Daily Show) can do better news than traditional organizations, it means that traditional organizations haven't figured out how to implement a better model. It doesn't mean that a better model doesn't exist.

Likely they can't make the model fit with their profit model.

Posted by: Saam Barrager on August 12, 2007 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, this is actually a lot easier than you think it is, particularly when the facts are not reasonably in dispute.

Moreover, it's simple enough to quote a neutral source. Too often reporters stick to the format "Republicans say X, Democrats say Y" when X is an obvious falsehood. The better way to do is to say "Republicans say X, but Neutral source says Y." It's not ideal, but it's better.

Posted by: A.L. on August 12, 2007 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Sure. The answer is that the remedy lies not with the publisher or writer, it lies with the reader, the consumer.

Just as you are responsible for the food you eat, so you are responsible for the information you consume and how you process it.

If you are not capable, at this late date, of ascertaining that a claim that the earth is flat is fallacious, then you are not a competant or responsible consumer of information.

When the consumers are competant and capable, the idea of "balance" will be seen as the non-issue that it has always been. Journalists should get at facts as best they can. Consumers must parse it all and make sense of it.

To tilt the thing the other way puts the power over information over those with the machinery. Instead, when consumers are capable, the power will rest with them, where it belongs.

Posted by: ThymeZone on August 12, 2007 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Where are the editors? What ever the story is that a reporter writes, it has to go through an editor. They are the ones who need to be jumped on for allowing crap to be published.
With the use of computers and the internet, there is no excuse for any story containing blatant falsehoods/misrepresentations to be published.
The same applies to television and radio. Any story that is aired should immediately be fact-checked and any corrections can be added as updates; even to the extent of pulling the story.
Of course, that can then become the story.

Posted by: Doug on August 12, 2007 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think this proeblem is what you think it is Kevin. Sure, there are always going to be some gray areas where the "truth" can be honestly be disagreed upon. But that sort of stuff is not what pisses people off. What annoys people is Al Gore being accused of things he did not say. What aggravates people is Pollack and Ohalloran being spun over and over as war critics who have been magically convinced that the Surge is working. What really gets under people's skin is stories that suggest that Democrats are being obstructionists when it is the Republicans that are filibustering every single bill. Without much effort, I am sure you yourself can think of a number of situations when the press, in general has just gotten the basic story flat out wrong in a way that is absolutely not about honest disagreement.

Posted by: brent on August 12, 2007 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

I have to say the commenters have it over Kevin this time.

Watch a reporter in the UK. They simply have a different attitude. If a politician says something they know is wrong they challenge specifically, and even if they don't know they follow up skeptically.

The recent example with Rudy is a good one. Reporters can follow up "are you saying that you were onsite at ground zero 80+ hours per week, as were many responders"

Or they can comment "it strains credulity to suggest that the mayor of New York, with his many duties and tight schedule, could have spent as much time at ground zera as the firemen sifting and clearing, the wreckage. Obviously the workers were exposed to far more contaminants because of the nature of their job."

Yes, there are arcnane questions that the reporters are not qulified to judge, or where informed people read the data differently. There is also a lot of low-hanging fruit. Statements that are ridiculous on their face, or that can be illuminated with just a bit of research.

I suspect that a lot of the difference is cultural. Americans respect authority. Vietnam started to erode that attitude, and the cultural backlash put Republicans into power for decades. Now we have another foolish war and a President who makes Nixon look good.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we can stop looking to the president as daddy, and the press can become more challenging. Fundamentally it will only happen when Americans become comfortable with it.

Posted by: tomtom on August 12, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps no comprehensive solution exists for reporters to settle competing claims on the level of say, whether the Higgs boson is the final solution to a Theory of Everything and that string theory is BS.

But when dealing with simpler things, like whether the statistic Rove provides on background comports with reality, I think a start might be to call their bullshit for what it is.

I'm actually somewhat surprised that there aren't at least a few major reporters/publications willing to take a confrontational stance toward serial liars... you'd think the conflict and melodrama would itself be a marketable story.

Posted by: bubba on August 12, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

If a reporter thinks that his job is to function as a tape recorder (i.e., simply write down what someone says) then they are significantly over paid.

Seldom do public figures actually lie. Most of the time they lead you to infer an untruth by using half truths, innuendo, or taking quotes or statistics out of context. The reporter certainly can (and I believe has an obligation to) report the whole truth and give context to what was said.

Posted by: Travis on August 12, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

I's say "Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line" with two restrictions and a requirement -- The contrary evidence has to be based on a solid citation -- an official staistic, a well sourced news story, something clear (often a contradictory statement by the same person will do). The solid evidence has to contradict the claim. A failure to note available proof that the claim is a lie should be censured (as it is by mediamatters but by the journalistic community)

Contrary evidence in the reporters own voice should not be presented if it is relevant but does not contradict the claim of the original source (that would be nit picklering). When there is a legitimate debate (then the reporter should find someone to quote). I think the valid objection to the reporting of Nedra Pickler is that she debated candidates by presenting relevant contrary but not contradictory evidence. The convention is that this is done only to indicate a lie without using the word, thus her reporting was improper.

The restrictions I propose are not too restrictive to mean I am not proposing a major change in journalistic practice. If reporters always noted objective evidence which contradicts false claims, Karl Rove would have been out of business decades ago.

They are not subject to abuse if reporters are considered to have erred if they can not prove claims made in their own voice or can not convincingly argue that they show the public figure lied when they are challenged on that point.

I'd say contradictory evidence not the word lie when one could use the word lie and win a libel suit without claiming that the plaintiff is a public figure. This is very restrictive and would not give reporters the power to present opinions as fact, It would totally destroy the Republican slime machine. They assume that if they are caught in a lie, the costs will be tiny because it might or might not be noted and, if noted, will not be publicized as much as their claim. If it is standard practice to indicate that the claim is a lie by presenting available truth whenever the claim is mentioned, the costs will be high.

Also what about interviews and questions in press conferences. I would say that when someone is caught lying, the press shouldn't let it go until they confess. Two or three press conferences in which all questions address one demonstrated lie in an earlier press conference would change the way Washington works. The principle is that lies are unacceptable. The other principle is that reporters not use the not libel unless known to be false or with reckless disregard for the truth if they accuse someone of lying and don't stop until the person confesses.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on August 12, 2007 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Part of a reporter's job is to recognize a statement that needs verification. The reporter then can either do some research or consult experts or both. Another part of the reporter's job is to recognize when he or she has enough information to either let a statement stand on its own or hedge it with a rebuttal. That's why future reporters need a lot of college courses in thinking and analysis (e.g., political science, literature, philosophy, history, etc.).

Posted by: Katherine on August 12, 2007 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

The very concept of a free press presumes an educated public. The ultimate defense against such obvious lines of BS like "The world is flat" is the common sense of people knowing that the world is indeed round, not the opinions of the reporter or expert witnesses. If the public lacks the education to understand that the world is round, or has been shown proof that the world is round but wants to continue believing that the world is flat anyway, there's not much that the ethics of the press or journalistic convention can do about that.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on August 12, 2007 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Really, this isn't that difficult. If there's a real question whether the supposed lie is truthful, then no one wants the reporter to interject his/her opinion. But, as is frequently the case these days, when clear objective evidence exists to refute the claim, then I think the reporter has a clear obligation to report that and not go to "he said, she said" route. A clear example right now is Bush's repeated lies about al Qaeda in Iraq being the same folks as those who flew the planes on 9/11.

Posted by: walldon on August 12, 2007 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

As others have noted, this is not difficult at all. There's a thing called investigative reporting, right? If a reporter can't be relied upon to investigate a story and *find out* what the facts, or what characterization best fits the known data, they should be fired. The reporter's job should be to use their exclusive access to public figures to ask the questions to which sensible people would want answers, challenge the lies, and call them what they are.

Unfortunately, we no longer have a press in this country. Bush can get away with so much criminality and incompetence in so many different realms, and the press will never tell it like it is and hang him out to dry, not even now, when his approval ratings are at historic lows, they're *still* too afraid of a backlash. It's unbelievable. Or as Garner says in "No End in Sight" when asked why they insisted on patently moronic decisions and refused ever to consult with anyone who was on the ground in Iraq, "It's puzzling." The oversight responsibility of the press has been totally abdicated.

Why are Americans so passive and stultified? One feels that the public ought to be given the tools and education to think for themselves, which they obviously don't currently have. How much is the fault of media and legislature beholden to corporations and religious groups, and how much is it just that Americans get the media and the legislature they deserve?

Posted by: q on August 12, 2007 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

If the public lacks the education to understand that the world is round, or has been shown proof that the world is round but wants to continue believing that the world is flat anyway, there's not much that the ethics of the press or journalistic convention can do about that.

Sure. Except those sorts of claims are not really what we are talking about here. A claim that the world is flat or that it sits on th back of a turtle is contradicted by thousands of years of the basic knowledge of our universe. We learn better at a very young age and this sort of knowledge underscores our basic epistemology.

A claim that Gov. X raised revenue by cutting taxes on the other hand is not the same type of knowledge. Even relatively well educated people might not be aware what a crock of shit this sort of claim is because they know very little about economics or about the specifics of the particular public budget in question. Should they know? Perhaps. But it would be very helpful if the press made a point of calling bullshit on this sort of claim when it comes up. I don't think poor education is really the most serious problem in that sort of circumstance.

Posted by: brent on August 12, 2007 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK
…the track record of various reporters who called people on their inaccuracies … Brandon Claycomb at 3:35 PM
Reporters who seemingly write falsified stories deliberately are more common. For example, search these names at Daily Howler or Media Matters: Ceci Connelly (Washington Post), Katharine Seelye (NYT), Chris Matthews (NBC), Tim Russert (NBC), Anne E. Kornblut (Washington Post), or Elisabeth Bumiller (NYT). When I become aware of inaccurate stories, I email the reporter and the editor. This is of 5-6 emails daily on average.

This just surfaced. Cheney says would be a quagmire. It was not uncoveredby any main stream media researcher.

Posted by: Mike on August 12, 2007 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the dilemma you and Kleiman see is real, but we're not operating at the nut of that dilemma. We're out at the margins where there's barely a conflict.

The reason this is a big issue now is that the Bush administration has taken this gaming of the journalistic conventions of objectivity to new heights. Their lies are outrageously blatant. Given that, there's no hiding behind the fact that reporters are generalists, not specialists. You don't have to be a specialist to know that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; or that the UN authorized inspections, not war; or that Saddam let the inspectors in; or that we ran the inspectors out by starting the war without UN authorization. But every time Bush/Cheney said we're fighting terrorists "like" those that attacked us or that Saddam defied UN mandates on inspections -- the press duly transcribed it, without correction.

Posted by: Kyron Huigens on August 12, 2007 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

What he seems to be missing is the reporter's responsibility to report FACTS and in the flat work case there are 2 facts that need reporting:

1. The politician said the world is flat.
2. The politician is wrong and here's proof.

The reporter has the responsibility to report both of those facts, no questions about it.

Posted by: Fred F on August 12, 2007 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

How can calling BS be wrong?

The problem with those UK reporters is that it's just a emotional stance -- if you said, "The Earth is round," they'll say, "Oh is it, don't others say it's not?" That's not any better.

There's no short cuts here. Reporters just need to be smart. There's no idiot-proof way to do it.

Posted by: chris on August 12, 2007 at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK

"The real problem occurs when facts or BS are too sophisticated or obscure, thus the reporter would be unsure they were being lied to."

I don't think as much of a problem as you think, or rather, it's looking at the problem from the wrong angle. People tell me lots of things that I'm unqualified to discern the truth of. However, if I'm unsure of the truth of such a statement as "all gorms are lame, and lame gorms are a threat to national security", it is my job to take every avenue available to me to first, inform myself on the subject of lame gorms, and second, to use what I've learned to decide if what I was told is true, and act accordingly. Some subjects may be more obscure than others, but what the f***, man, this the twenty-first century. There is n excuse anymore for anyone to write a story saying "Republicans today called Democrats chicken-f***ing Al-Qaeda worshippers who ate babies at their satanic prayer breakfast held yesterday morning. Democrats disputed the portrayal."

Anyone who still does that at this late date should be buried alive under copies of the New York Post and then burned.

Posted by: jonathan on August 12, 2007 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

These comments are good evidence of the effectiveness of Kevin's tecnnique of querying his readers. The above are very illuminating. I'd summarize by saying there isn't a difficulty in principle here; rather there is a range of cases, some of which are easy, but many of which are to different degrees difficult. What's needed is a whole range of responses. When public figure X says P, reporters will sometimes be in a position to say it's false and should say so--with their evidence. Sometimes 'it strains credulity' is in order or 'so far as we have been able to discover there is no reason to believe P', or 'much evidence suggests the contrary'. One things reporters who are doing their jobs should inform us about is the history of the question, e.g., 'when challenged to justify their claim that P, admin officials were (not) able to justify'. If P has been challenged, we should know that and by whom. if X's political opponents are the source, by all means tell us, but if they're not the only people, we should know that. It's infuriating to see 'Democrats deny world flat' when the reporter was in a position to say 'and so do geographers'. When Y contradicts X if something can be established about who is right, e.g., 'so far as we can tell', 'the preponderance of the evidence favors'... Sometimes it would even be helpful to hear something like 'P which X presents as a fact is highly contentious and much disputed..' 'attempts to elicit evidence for P have succeeded/failed/produced such and such a result'. Followup would sometimes be a help 'Last week we reported that X said P; since then we've been able to discover...'
Some questions of fact are easily resolved. Others are harder. Sometimes we can reach conclusions that have to be qualified with a degree of doubt. About other questions we may not be able even to do that . The press does the public a real disservice when it does not make these distinctions but just presents us with an endless undifferentiated flow of assertions, all treated as though they were on a level with each other.

Posted by: J on August 12, 2007 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe I'm being naive, but isn't this exactly what reports -do-? Research questions of fact? They aren't subject matter experts, but they can surely talk to a few, no? If the subject matter experts say, 'Well, opinions -do- differ,' fine. If they say, 'No. That's crap,' then let the reporter say it's crap _without_ referencing the subject matter expert, and creating a 'he said she said' conundrum.

That's basic research.

Posted by: Gussie on August 12, 2007 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

Lies are not facts. It's that simple. Every reporter should fact check the article and give the interviewee the chance to respond and correct his or her error.

Editorials are opinion. Facts are not opinions.

Posted by: Mudge on August 12, 2007 at 5:53 PM | PERMALINK

One of the most useful things editors and producers could do is enforce standards of honesty on their own reporters and pundits. Most of the lies politicians tell are repeated by an echo-chamber of "expert commentators" who are being paid by the networks/newspapers who present them.

The other, and most obvious thing the media outlets can do is not give the lies air time, or, at least, no more air time than they have to, and then make sure someone who is telling the truth gets equal or greater air time.

Posted by: Berken on August 12, 2007 at 5:58 PM | PERMALINK

tweety, dobbs, and o'reilly call people on their bs all the time :)

We're bound to find the bottom of the cesspool at some point. Just keep swimming downward.

The best we can hope for is a couple of outlets that do pretty good most of the time. I'd suggest supporting McClatchly and PBS and holding their feet to the fire. We don't need shrill liberal counterpoints. We just need intelligent people rewarded for detailed and objective work.

Posted by: B on August 12, 2007 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

A claim that Gov. X raised revenue by cutting taxes on the other hand is not the same type of knowledge. Even relatively well educated people might not be aware what a crock of shit this sort of claim is because they know very little about economics or about the specifics of the particular public budget in question.

Except that it cuts both ways. The same lack of economic sophistication provides the opening for the hack propagandist to cut down a sophisticated analysis of the effects of tax policy with a "Yeah, that's just one person's opinion". That's what right-wing talk radio does every day. The public doesn't have the background to weigh these various claims, and so falls back upon personalities - who they think they can trust. You're not going to do much with somebody who believes Rush Limbaugh to be more honest than a slew of economic analysts.

The public isn't much interested in making distinctions between various types of knowledge - to most people, it's either true or it isn't - so in that sense the "world is flat" analogy has some relevance to this discussion.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on August 12, 2007 at 6:00 PM | PERMALINK

P.S. in response to Gussie. I see the worry. I think experts should be cited, but not in a he said/she said way. Journalists have to make judgements and take responsibility for them. How about 'the best experts we can find say..' 'we were persuaded by'. Sifting the evidence, assessing the case for and against are part of the essential equipment of a journalist. The point is not that they have to judge the truth of every claim but they can't be antecedently committed to judging none.

Posted by: J on August 12, 2007 at 6:03 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: orion on August 12, 2007 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

No, most reporters aren't subject-matter experts, and it's unrealistic to expect them to become such, but there's a key distinction to be drawn between (1) misstatements, distortions or lies that only can be detected and outed by a subject-matter expert and (2) statements that are clearly and easily refuted by reference to publicly available records. The best example of the latter is a statement (by someone like Cheney) of the sort: "I never said X".

It may be too much to expect a reporter or editor to fact-check assertions about the degree of scientific consensus on the human contribution to global warming, but we have every right to expect reporters to follow a type-2 misrepresentation with a para. saying, "The record shows, however, that Mr. So-and-So did in act say X..."

Put it this way: If the writers and producers of the Daily Show can do it every single day - show us the lie and then show us the clear refutation, we have every right to expect CNN, MSNBC, and the rest to do the same.

Posted by: DNS on August 12, 2007 at 6:07 PM | PERMALINK

Echoing others' comments comparing US journalists and reporters with others, e.g. in Europe, I agree: American journalism and reporting has become spineless and sycophantic. Journalism schools prepare people to interview belligerent subjects, lying subjects, evasive subjects. You prep like mad and you get scored on how well you pursue them until they tell the truth.

Does anything like this happen in Journalism programs? I know that very little like this happens in law schools -- e.g., taking depositions or cross-examining witnesses.

Posted by: DNS on August 12, 2007 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

I think the worst culprits are people like Hannity & Colmes, Chris Matthews, et al., who have two or more guests on a show making contradictory claims - each claiming that what the other is saying is simply false - and the hosts do nothing about it, either in that show or in any subsequent show. Viewers have no idea who was telling the truth (if anyone was) and they never find out. And the same guests are invited back on some later show.

Posted by: DNS on August 12, 2007 at 6:16 PM | PERMALINK

The best approaches are what the Daily Show does: if it's a lie put out as a talking point, they run clip after clip of different people saying exactly the same words about the same subject. After the 3rd or 4th time, it's obviously a lie. Or, they run clip after clip of the same person saying the same thing over a period of years- i.e. Bush saying "we're making progress" or "we've turned the corner" every year from 2003 through 2007. Better yet, run clips of the same person saying the opposite thing- i.e. Bush saying that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11 coupled with him linking "the folks who attacked us on 9-11" with the need to continue the occupation of Iraq. It's much more telling to use that approach than to try to be an arbiter of truth or to go out and find a truth teller to "balance" the lie.

Posted by: Goose on August 12, 2007 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

A quote from Merv Griffin:

"If the host is sitting there thinking about his next joke, he isn't listening," Griffin reasoned in a recent interview.

Perhaps this applies to reporters as well. If they are sitting around thinking about the next "scoop" or headline, they may not be thinking about what the subject is saying.

Posted by: Shadou on August 12, 2007 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

Get reporters who can know something without being know it alls.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 12, 2007 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

But most reporters aren't subject matter experts.

More should be or at least be as knowledgable as a well-informed citizen.

Posted by: Steve J. on August 12, 2007 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

The solution to the objectivity problem is three pronged and very difficult to achieve:

-longer news broadcasts
-no profit motive, leading to infotainment
-a populace willing to do the hard work of trying to discern the truth

of the the 3, the last is most attainable. As the poets said, 'teach your children well'.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O/F in 08 on August 12, 2007 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

I don't get the problem here. Beat reporters should be able to spot fibs in their area of specialization, and I'm convinced they mostly do, they just shy away from saying so. And in the age of the Internet, basic stuff can be fact-checked quickly, even on deadline. Stuff that can't be fact-checked in time for deadline ought to be so noted, for heaven's sake, and at least a follow-up piece done the next day.

*Opinions* should be balanced by contrary opinions, but statements of fact should be fact-checked and corrected by the reporter without the weasely "critics say" crap.

There's no barrier to doing any of this other than the psychological and cultural. IOW, the problem lies wiht editors who don't or won't require their reporters to include this information.

Posted by: gyrfalcon on August 12, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

I believe that whole premise is wrong. It is the obligation of the reporter to report the truth. The truth by its own nature is not biased. It is neither Republican nor Democrat--it is the truth. If a person believes the lie over the truth, that is his/her problem. This whole false premise has led to the airwaves and newspapers being filled with lies reported as truth. This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Lies should never be presented as equal to the truth. NEVER. The end result is that now the United States is inhabited with a whole bunch of stupid people who cannot tell the truth from a lie.

Posted by: Mazurka on August 12, 2007 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

The answer lies with better writers, better editors, and blog writers who emphasize that basic standards of fairness and a healthy respect for empirical observation beat a diversity of perspectives any day.

Posted by: Measure for Measure on August 12, 2007 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK


That's a fine point, about not using experts in a 'he said she said' fashion. But to my mind, even citing vague experts isn't as good as simply saying, "However, there is no evidence that this is true." Or, "Despite such assertions, a review of the videotape reveals no such thing."

Reporters are terrified of making their own truth claims now, but that's -exactly- what they should be doing. If they get something wrong, fine: that's what a retraction/correction is for. Nobody's perfect. But they -must- make truth claims. That's the very foundation of the job.

They're referees. They might screw up. One side might jeer. But they don't let the players make the call. It's scary, I suppose, but that's what they're paid for: taking responsibility.

Posted by: gussie on August 12, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

It's the easiest thing in the world to do, as the Reuters Sunday story on the mine collapse demonstrates:

"Murray has maintained that seismic activity triggered the collapse, although a National Earthquake Information Center scientist has said preliminary evidence suggest the collapse itself caused the earth movement."

It's concrete, easy to read and not disruptive to the flow of the story at all. It requires one style rule: "Any statement known to conflict with established facts-- or opinion at odds with expert consensus-- must be offset within the paragraph where the statement appears (if possible, within the sentence)."

Kevin, you, Yglesias and Delong are making this issue way too complex. This isn't a "black box" (solution unknown) problem-- it's a "Bell the Cat" problem (solution known, but implementation is the bitch).

The problem is that the solution requires writers able/willing to do it, editors who won't strike the offset as "opinion" and publishers willing to blow off the charges of "bias" when the story sees print.

The Republic Party works the refs-- they foul opponents and then complain that constant free throws don't let players play. The correct response, as Earl Strom used to say, is "If you don't want me to call the foul, don't commit it."

Posted by: Woodrow L. Goode, IV on August 12, 2007 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

The market isn't solving the problem because the average reader isn't informed enough to know better than the reporter. That's the problem and the conundrum of that solution- it's the reporter's job to know more than the reader, and tell him/her what's going on- not the other way around.

Courts of law rely on commonly known facts all the time. It's called "judicial notice." It means that a judge can't be an ass and require a talented lawyer, whose time is valuable, and the litigants, whose time may be no less valuable (pr any lawyer or litigants, for that matter) to have to prove things to a court of law like whether the earth is flat or round. A court would actually be required to take notice of that fact without requiring the parties to prevent evidence on it in the litigation, if for some reason it was important to a particular trial to know whether the earth was round or flat.

People who know the reporters and can put pressure on them, like people in their social circles, have to just do it and not let them get away with being such cowards and jerks by letting these other jerks get away with so much. Keep sending letters and e-mails to your papers if you don't like it. We need public-minded people to take up these fights like they did during the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Real life is more important than TV programs. Get your kids and everyone you can involved.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2007 at 9:07 PM | PERMALINK

pr any lawyer or litigants, for that matter

This should have been "or any lawyer or litigants," of course.

It's so important to live in a world of facts and not a world of lies and its on all our conscience if we don't get the media to fall in line.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2007 at 9:09 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote:

Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line?

Yeah. Just like they report other facts they discover. It's not crossing the bounds of their job at all.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2007 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

Another idea for a solution:

Since the only thing that comes out of Tony Snow's mouth and other administration mouthpieces is nothing but propaganda, I think real serious news peopls should just stop showing up for the press conferences. I would love to see an announcement for a Presidential press conference and no one show up. If the press somehow feels they have to show up despite knowing that all they will hear is propaganda, then, I just wish once some or all of the press would break out into hysterical laughter when a ridiculous statement is made.

P.S. Everyone is pussyfooting around this objectivity thing and failing to call the news we get these days what it really is: PROPAGANDA

Posted by: Mazurka on August 12, 2007 at 9:13 PM | PERMALINK

If a reporter is given information from a source for publication and it appears to be bullshit, then the reporter should verify that fact and say so.

In support of this they should quote the necessary authorities and sources.

My father was in newspapers all his life and the number of stories which were written in just this proper way and then - ahem - "edited" was astronomical.

From outside the USA, the view is generally that the American TV press corps is pretty slick but useless. However, the print journalists are top notch and aggressive. Funnily enough in the UK it's seen as the other way around.

Picking on journalists is pretty easy, you should actually look at what the editors are doing. The editors normally are either brainwashed into thinking like the owner, or zealots of the first water in the first place.

Posted by: Bad Rabbit on August 12, 2007 at 9:29 PM | PERMALINK

You can have your relaxed rationality but I object. Yeah, I listen to Norm Turner and his offense Sunday night, pleased to hear Al Michaels and John Madden...
but I'm pissed.
Is there a vision of citizenship, as surveillance is approached in this administration's self-interest.
I see divergent conclusions, a power concentration, hegemony and way too much free market economic policy. I think I'm pissed.
I lament the problems. I hear absolute buzz words. "Pre-emptive strikes." "war on terror"
"soft on terror"
Pushed by the media.
It is all visualization.
Information concepts from the machine of media.
I object.

Posted by: consider wisely always on August 12, 2007 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

Newspaper editorial boards should have a policy of firing reporters who don't reasonably fact-check statements in their stories and report on what they discover, and should require reporters to sign honor-codes when they are hired, stating that this is exactly what the reporters will do.

You will all recall that there were a couple incidents of reporters doing what I suggested in my last comment recently: a guy on MSN, I think, with an Irish sounding name didn't let either a thinktank neocon or a global warming denier get away with lies (maybe these were two incidents) and a woman TV reporter protested the channel's doing too much Paris Hilton coverage on air. I really think the right knows that this is all there is to it, all that we have to do to stop the problem, and they are laughing at us for lamenting like Kevin does in this post. All we have to do is get the reporters to be ethical. It is certainly ridiculous that the reporters can't be less of an ass than a judge is required to be by law, with regard to commonly known or easily discovered facts.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2007 at 9:35 PM | PERMALINK

no, the answer is editors.

Posted by: s9 on August 12, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

Oh for anyone interested, have a read of "Shooting History" by Jon Snow a very decent TV News Anchor in the UK published by Harper Collins. (ISBN-13: 978-0007171842) it maybe should be used as a primer for all future news journalists.

Posted by: Bad Rabbit on August 12, 2007 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

In the current Forbes we see "[Ed: That’s point about U.S. is not true]"

Sic. I guess they were so nervous about going out on a limb that their grammatical sense fled in fear.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on August 12, 2007 at 9:52 PM | PERMALINK

Remind me again, what the editors and the editorial page is for. If, for example, a candidate makes a statement that the Earth is flat, then report the statement if you wish, but then address the silliness of the idea in the editorial sections. It is not the reporter's job to call the candidate a nut within the story. The readers will be able to see it most of the time, and in those situations where there is doubt about the issue, the editors can address it in the appropriate places.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on August 12, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

As a previous user posted, "Wikipedia". More verbosely, Wikipedia has evolved a workable solution for this. If a bunch of random yokels that includes subject-matter experts, know-nothing ideologues, and everything in between, can actually achieve something close-enough to working consensus to actually produce useful information under the shared values of NPOV, reliable sources, and so on, I'd hope that professional journalists working under the supervision of professional editors could accomplish something reasonably close.

No, a reporter should not knowingly pass on lies as truth. That's not objectivity. That's being used as a tool.

Posted by: John Callender on August 12, 2007 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

How about getting the TEACHERS of journalism a little closer to the PUBLIC to point out lapses of objectivity on the part of journalists (their students)?

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on August 12, 2007 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

The problem is that none of these people have gone to J-school. In fact, I'd say that the total number of bloggers that have gone to J-school is less than one percent. And the number of reporters who have actually obtained a J-degree is declining year-by-year.

A reporters job is not to report what they have been told; a reporters job is to report the truth as they have learned it.

Example: a spokesman for the police reports that a body has been found in a certain part of town. To date, the spokesman says, the body is unidentified -- and that is all they know.

The reporter leaves the press conference and interviews a cop who was at the scene of the crime. The cop says the body is of a politician and that the body was, in fact, found in a brothel.

Does the reporter report what the spokesman says and ignores the cop? or does the reporter report what he has learned?

Simple, huh?

So why do reporters report out-and out lies? Because they lazy? Because it will please their bosses? Because it will please the spokesman? Because they can have more sex with male prostitutes provided by the spokesman?

You figure it out.

But when you criticize reporters remember one thing: no one ever got rich being a good reporter. Woodward and Bernstein made more money selling book and movie rights following Watergate than all their income prior to that time combined.

Plumbers make much more money than beat reporters. (That's one reason White House reporters don't rock the boat: none of them want to return to making $30 -50K a year doing obituaries.)

Posted by: Dicksknee on August 12, 2007 at 10:27 PM | PERMALINK

Yancey Ward: Remind me again, what the editors and the editorial page is for.


If, for example, a candidate makes a statement that the Earth is flat, then report the statement if you wish, but then address the silliness of the idea in the editorial sections.

It isn't just silly, it's factually incorrect and should be reported as such.

The readers will be able to see it most of the time

If it's as obvious as saying "the earth is flat", then you're right. But if Senator X says "I've always supported bill Y", but in fact voted to kill it in committee, then a reporter should say so. Otherwise they're just regurgitating. Whether bill Y is a good idea or not is for the editorial page.

Posted by: alex on August 12, 2007 at 10:38 PM | PERMALINK

In day-to-day reporting on the political beat, I can see how it's problematic to intervene and adjudicate truth.

But there are some clear-cut cases as well, and getting those right would go a long way toward ameliorating the effect of the others. The Pollack/O'Hanlon editorial is a case in point. They were universally described as war critics who had come around to favoring the surge after a trip to Iraq. This was simply, factually wrong. Neither one could fairly be described in this way. Yet that framing was thoughtlessly accepted by every last media outlet they've appeared on, and there is nothing that justifies it. It would not cost anyone their "objectivity" credentials to simply refuse to frame the thing in those terms.

When Cheney says it on a talk show, the proper response is "Actually, sir, that's not the case. Pollack wrote a book subtitled 'the case for invading Iraq'; O'Hanlon was a supporter of the war from the beginning, and both of them spoke in favor of the surge before it took place. How can you call them war critics?"

That's not unfair, that's simply doing some basic, easy research and doing your job. There's nothing abstruse or arcane about it.

There was NO excuse for framing their report as a "conversion" story, and there was and is NO excuse for continuing to present it that way now. It's one thing to say there are hard cases, but why don't they get the EASY ones right? Criminy's sake, if PollHanlon's story had merit, they wouldn't need to fake it would they?

Posted by: DrBB on August 12, 2007 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

Dicksknee: That's one reason White House reporters don't rock the boat: none of them want to return to making $30 -50K a year doing obituaries.

They should be returned to the obituaries for not rocking the boat.

Posted by: alex on August 12, 2007 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

They should be returned to the obituaries for not rocking the boat.

What was the old St. Louis Post-Dispatch byline? IIRC, something like: "to comfort the afflict and to afflict the comfortable." A great starting point.

And as others have said, many more specialist reporters and opiners.

Posted by: snicker-snack on August 12, 2007 at 10:49 PM | PERMALINK

uh, er, that first one would be... afflicted. Some typos are too egregious to go unacknowledged.

Posted by: snicker-snack on August 12, 2007 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

But most reporters aren't subject matter experts.

Thanks to this shibboleth, "objectivity" has come to mean pretending not to know anything about anything. An imperative for mediocrity: learning things, after all, is hard and requires effort and discipline. If that's the reason we have the bad reporting we have (versus, as many above have pointed out, the Brit and European press), it's not a genuine dilemma. It's sheer laziness.

Posted by: DrBB on August 12, 2007 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

Funny how Kevin ignores this little bit from Yglesias:

"One observation is that I think it's simply false that everyone recognizes it's a problem. Everyone pays lip service to the idea of recognizing that there's a problem here, but I think your average major American news organization believes it is doing an excellent job of covering US politics when it is not, in fact, doing an excellent job."

Mr. Drum continues to argue from a false premise, which means he can 'prove' whatever he wants.


Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 12, 2007 at 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking professionally, I will put an "explainer" further down in a news story if someone has made an egregious misstatement.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on August 12, 2007 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

I do not ever, I mean ever, want to cede "truth telling" to today's journalists. If a typical mainstream journalist, particularly a Washington journalist, says "actually, the truth is" I'm going to automatically assume the truth is the opposite of whatever he/she says.

Having said that, the obvious and only answer to the problem that is objectivity is ideological diversity in the newsroom. Get your "news" from a lot of different ideological perspectives, and you can make up your own mind. Objectivity isn't the problem -- it's a given that journalists have opinions that permeate their work. The problem is that in today's media environment, the vast majority of journalists skew only one way, to the left. We are left with the impression that objectivity is the problem, when the real problem is ideological imbalance.

Posted by: dkm on August 12, 2007 at 11:18 PM | PERMALINK

Great point:

"Put it this way: If the writers and producers of the Daily Show can do it every single day - show us the lie and then show us the clear refutation, we have every right to expect CNN, MSNBC, and the rest to do the same."

Yep. This is why people go to Comedy Central for news. The reporting is better. The truth is better respected.

Makes you want to cry.

(No, I'm not saying the MSM should openly mock politicians. But they should use clips and other evidence when a politician tells a full-blown verifiable whopper, like Cheney's "I never said")

Posted by: tomtom on August 12, 2007 at 11:48 PM | PERMALINK

I simply don't think the problem is that reporters don't know how to contradict a lie with facts. Nor do I think it has much to do with knowledge, or lack of it, regarding a given subject matter. Many of the most egregious he-said-she-said articles have dealt with facts understandable by anyone. Nor do I think there are clear heuristics reporters should follow that allow a reporter to contradict a public figure in one case but not in another. I think that such decisions really do typically depend on circumstances so complex that they don't naturally fall into clean categories to which explicit rules clearly apply. There's no real way of getting around the point that these are in case upon case simple judgment calls.

I truly think that implementing a more strict allegiance to fact over assertion is, at base, a matter of will and approach. Reporters have simply been trained not to contradict assertions without having some easy way to deflect blame for such contradictions on someone else. It's fundamentally a different point of view they must adopt, one in which it seems right and authentically objective to acknowledge the known facts of a situation despite what someone powerful may claim. Reporters must force themselves to feel comfortable with that new approach, despite their literally habitual pull in the other direction.

For American reporters, this change is simply a revolution in behavior. But it is a revolution whose time has clearly come. The Bush administration and the Iraq war is all the proof and impetus this revolution requires; they demonstrate the inescapable and inherent fallacy of the previous "theory" of reporting. They are the "anomaly", in Thomas Kuhn's terminology, that the previous set of conventions produced, and only the adoption of a revolutionary approach to reporting can remedy that defect.

Posted by: frankly0 on August 13, 2007 at 12:11 AM | PERMALINK

The example that Kleiman gives in the linked post is an anti-Mormon pamphlet handed out at the Ames straw poll. In that case, the newsworthiness of the item depended on what people were saying. I think it may be possible that reporters lose perspective sometimes, thinking that what people are saying is all that counts, leading to he-said, she-said articles. On matters of fact, reporters should treat the facts as central to what they write; this gives necessary background for interpreting what people are saying, including possible lies and contradictions.

Posted by: RSA on August 13, 2007 at 12:21 AM | PERMALINK

For chrissakes, I don't know why the solution seems to be so hard to figure out. How about finding some people who are actually well-educated, and more important, have the desire and drive to actually, you know, INFORM themselves about what they're covering.

Just as a fr'instance: on NPR's Friday news, WaPo reporter/columnist Dan Balz was on to talk about the GOP contenders in the context of the upcoming Iowa straw poll. In the course of his comments he talked about Fred Thompson naming a new experienced campaign manager, and how his proto-campaign is coming along nicely, with a formal announcement coming in September. If all you knew about Thompson's campaign was what Balz said, then you'd have to conclude, yep, that Fred Thompson is a machine.

There was no mention whatsoever of the fact that this is Thompson's THIRD campaign manager in a campaign that isn't even formal yet, nor of the discontent swirling around it due to the involvement of Thompson's wife as the de facto manager. There was no mention that Thompson's campaign people had announced that their fundraising goal for June was $5 million, but they only raised $3 million, or 40% less. And there was no mention of the fact that even among Thompson supporters there has been widespread consternation over why he's taken so long to get into the race.

And then there were Balz's comments about Giuliani. The NPR host (I can't recall who) raised the issue of whether Rudy's pro-choice stance and less-than-hostile (for the GOP) attitudes towards gay rights was causing problems with the Christian GOP base. Balz responded that the fact that Giuliani is the front-runner is evidence that the base isn't holding it against him.

There was no mention of the fact that very recent polls show that a high percentage of Republicans have no idea that Giuliani is pro-choice, and that a substantial percentage of professed Giuliani supporters also don't know this. These facts call into serious question Balz's assertion that the evangelicals will support Giuliani. Did Balz mention this? Did the NPR host bring it up? No and no. WTF?

NEITHER Balz or the NPR host seemed remotely aware of all this information about Thompson and Giuliani, even though both have been widely discussed on the much-mocked blogs, which is where I learned about them. I didn't have to do any digging; both stories were reported on in depth on blogs that are far from fringe, some-guy-in-his-mom's-basement websites. In other words, Balz's comments were essentially fact- and context-free blatherings that could have been written by the Thompson and Giuliani campaigns themselves. There was absolutely no news value in them.

I think NPR deserves special criticism here, given its reputation for allegedly penetrating news analysis. The host's performance was pathetic; she added nothing to the broadcast that someone from the Home Shopping Channel couldn't add.

This is yet another reason why I'm absolutely convinced that the vast majority of so-called mainstream media "journalists" are amazingly lazy and ill-informed, considering how easy it is to get all this information. For my money, the large majority (yes, with some exceptions) of the hardest-working investigative journalists/reporters/writers out there are working for blogs and websites. Josh Marshall and his colleages at TPM, for example, get more done in a week than your average lazy newspaper or radio journalist does in two months. They are useless.

Posted by: bluestatedon on August 13, 2007 at 12:25 AM | PERMALINK

The answer is for people to get off their ass and do the necessary and hard work to get informed by researchig multiple sources, comparing different storylines, and finding out what is coherent.

Of course, most people don't want to do that. They want someone else to do this for them. It's the same with everything in life. If everyone exercised every day, ate right, abstained from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, then health insurance would be much lower, because less people would be getting sick. But people are too lazy to do that; they would rather sacrifice their freedom by giving the government control of all healthcare. If people saved more than they spent, and invested some of that money they saved, then all the bitching about the middle class being under fire would disappear, because the middle class wouldn't have problems. If people decided to either get a vasectomy or use a condom when they had sex, you'd have a lot less teenage parents on welfare. And if parents disciplined their kids to spend more time doing school work than playing video games and getting high, there would be no need for a Department of Education.

Now, I don't judge people for doing all these things, being lazy, using drugs, fucking without a condom, etc, as long as it affects only them. But because they now expect the government to do everything for them that they are too lazy to do, it does affect me. My taxes go up and my meager lower-middle class wealth goes down because of the inflation budget deficits cause.

So, everyone, instead of expecting government to do every fucking thing you're too lazy to do, get off your ass and stop infringing on my freedom.

And yes, I know there some people who get sick and its not their fault, some people who have kids cuz the condom's faulty. I know this shit. But the vast majority of the problems the middle class now faces were brought on by their own personal failings, and they should not expect government to pick them up.

Posted by: brian on August 13, 2007 at 12:25 AM | PERMALINK

damn, that should be "Josh Marshall and his colleagues..."

Posted by: bluestatedon on August 13, 2007 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

I doubt that's the real brian. Even he's not that daft. Enjoyed the rant though... and let's get rid of truth in advertising laws while we're at it. What kind of lazy consumers expect others to pick out hype and lies for them?

Posted by: snicker-snack on August 13, 2007 at 12:48 AM | PERMALINK

Obviously, one can hardly expect a reporter interviewing a Nobel laureate in physics to presume to fact check his/her latest theorizing on Quantum physics.

But that's hardly the case. What is the day to day reality is a bunch of chuckleheads with great teeth and Communications degrees who apparently don't bother to read their own newspapers or watch their own news broadcasts. And I'm not just talking about the cable news twinkies.

Take the likes of Steve Inskeep on NPR for example. While brimming with confidence, I have yet to hear him ask an informed question of anyone he interviews (although he does a great job of asking what the guy on the barstool next to you at the VFW might come up with). He's content to remain silent as his guests spew the most patently false mythologies unmolested. And there's plenty more where he came from.

When I know far more than the idiot doing the writing or reading the teleprompter, something is rotten in Denmark. I certainly can't claim to be some erudite scholar on any aspect of the modern world.

I just read one or two fucking newspapers a day and watch the occasional news show.

Is that so much to ask of our extremely well paid media elite?

Really, can't they at least pick off the low-hanging fruit?

How hard can that be Kevin? And how unreasonable to demand is that? Why are you defending this confederacy of dunces?

Posted by: Amur on August 13, 2007 at 12:53 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin is making a mountain out of mole hill. A reporter doesn't need to inject his opinion to assert facts and the truth.

And speaking of asserting facts:

I would like the press to give a discription of exactly what "our vital national security interests" in Iraq actually is?

I already know that it a big spin name for oil but I am sick and tired of the press helping our elected officals lie about what this war is all about? The war in Iraq is about oil - and we are killing people for it. That is a fact in issue. And undeniable truth.

In political terms, their strategies are a balancing act. In her public appearances, Mrs. Clinton often says, “If this president does not end this war before he leaves office, when I am president, I will.” But she has affirmed in recent months remarks she made to The New York Times in March, when she said that there were “remaining vital national security interests in Iraq” that would require a continuing deployment of American troops. The United States’ security, she said then, would be undermined if part of Iraq turned into a failed state” that serves as a Petri dish for insurgents and Al Qaeda.”

Gee sounds alot like she has no intention of leaving Iraq at all.

There is nothing fair about ExxonMobil taking 70% of the profits to drill iraqi oil. We, Americans had better deals at the gas pump and more humanity in Iraq when Saddam was in power before Bush went off to invade it. The Iraqis had stablity and more security, drinking water and electricy.

We are being lied too about this war and the reasons for exaclty what this war is really all about from BOTH Dems and Repugs.

I don't think Hillary is entitled to lie to me any more than Bush is entitled too it do.

This war in Iraq was NEVER about WMD and both Bill Clinton and George Bush have known this from the very beginning. Hillary just drove that point home with her comments about "our vital interest". There will NOT be any way to protect "our vital national security interests" with a small amount of troops left in the region with a growing anti-occupation felt by all the people of the Mideast. And the FACT is that this oil in IRAQ is NOT "ours" and act of war does not make it ours - the oil in the Mideast belongs to the people of the Mideast.

This is why the Iran needs it's own nuclear weapons and why Bush is so upset at the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons - I don't think it is terrorist that worry him -it is the prosepect of true Mideast democracry and because of so many private security firms that skrit to laws, and can anything they want to people of Mideast that makes this war so horrible. So much US hostility, killing Mideast people for unfair buisness deals. I guess this is why Hillary isn't going to take nuclear weapons off the table. But I am not willing to use nukes in the Mideast over oil resources, and I don't care if US Western oil contractors lose every single contact in the region.

This is why they flew those planes into the TWC, not that I think American deserve it, hell no, but that our congress is collectively lying to and American are basically letting our congress lie to us.

When Hillary says "our vital national security interests" she means oil, thus this war is about oil and thus she is being dishonest about reason for war just the same as Bush lies about it too. It doesn't matter if you vote Dem or Repug - they are both lying about this war in Iraq. If Hillary had said we are going to war for control of Iraqi oil - that we, the American people would NEVER have gone to war in Iraq.

I am tired or being lied too AND I will NOT be voting for Hillary. A vote for Hillary is just like tell Hillary it's okay lie about the matters of war. American troops are dying for democracy - they are dying to hold the people of the Mideast bound to unfair Western oil contracts.

Posted by: Me-again on August 13, 2007 at 1:22 AM | PERMALINK

"I was Chairman Mao's dog. What he said to bite, I bit.”

Posted by: Jiang Qing on August 13, 2007 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

Let's not forget the editors.

A writer might write, but it is the editor who decides what gets printed or broadcast.

Think what would have happened to the Washington Post coverage of the Watergate break-in if Ben Bradlee and Mrs. Graham had been raving Nixonites, just like the Faux News people are raving Bushites.

Woodward and Bernstein would never have been assigned to dig into the Watergate burglars' backgrounds. They would never have "followed the money" and helped in exposing the widespread criminal activities of the Nixon Republicans.

The Washington Post would have pulled a Washington Times on the Watergate coverage.

And the same goes for the New York Times, if the editors there had been rabidly ardent supporters of Nixon.

This is why, I believe, the post-Watergate Republicans decided to buy up as much of the national media as possible so they could plant editors to their ideological liking in key positions, scattered throughout the main stream news media, but especially in Washington D.C. and New York.

We are seeing the bitter fruit of this neo-con bush today. A bitter fruit that has poisoned the well of our nation's Fourth Estate.

And yet, the internet (especially the liberal blogosphere) has arisen as an anti-toxin to the blatant lies and deceits of the conservative "talking points" machine. And there are still some honorable news outlets who have editors (and owners) with integrity who also have helped counter the lies and deceits of the Republican "talking points" machine.

Thank God for the internet. Thank God for the liberal blogosphere. Thank God for the patriotic editors and publishers who still honor their commitment to the truth and aren't partisan hacks.

Posted by: The Oracle on August 13, 2007 at 2:37 AM | PERMALINK

For an object lesson in how reporters can "objectively" separate fact from noise-machine clutter, check out bloggingheads.tv's 8/12 "Science Saturday" diavlog with Andrew Revkin, science writer of The New York Times. Covering developments in the hot-button field of climate change, Revkin seeks reaction on scientific data from scientists whose work is regularly peer-reviewed. He calls "advocacy science" types for comments on policy debates. It's as good a way as I've seen to draw a line between informed discussion of hard data and ideological spin.

If every reporter did it this way, we might read or hear fewer pithy one-liners, but we would be better informed.

Posted by: allbetsareoff on August 13, 2007 at 4:50 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry, that's the 8/11 bloggingheads.tv "Science Saturday."

Posted by: allbetsareoff on August 13, 2007 at 5:00 AM | PERMALINK

If the reporter knows enough that they think a quote might be wrong, they should ask the quoted person about it and quote the response. In the article they should site any sources they used to contradict the quote.

Kevin seems to think it's a danger that we allow the judgement of reporters to enter into questions of truth, but that's a danger the moment we let humans do the reporting.

Posted by: Boronx on August 13, 2007 at 5:22 AM | PERMALINK

On a completely unrelated note:

Bye-bye Karl you little piece of crud!

Posted by: Bad Rabbit on August 13, 2007 at 5:30 AM | PERMALINK

Karl Rove, prince of divisive politics, feels he can leave now that his buddies can spy on their political opponents free of legal challenges

Posted by: consider wisely always on August 13, 2007 at 5:52 AM | PERMALINK

Why not write the article with the BS and include a sidebar explaining why it is BS. Better yet, every time they see a politician lying, write an article alongside it reporting that the politician is a lying shitbag. After the first few such secondary articles most politicians will give up on the BS. The reporting of the BS is just as good if not better story than the original subject. Which is more interesting Senator A earmarks $B to build a bridge to nowhere or Senator A takes a bung of $C from bridge constructor D? The latter without a doubt.

BTW the link to the AFP article that calls out Bush.

Posted by: blowback on August 13, 2007 at 6:03 AM | PERMALINK

The problem isn't so much that lies are allowed to be published, although that is a problem. The real problem is when the truth isn't allowed to appear. Media loses its credibility when, for whatever reason, it refuses to speak the truth. There may be political pressure from the top that insists the truth be spun, but there may also be pressure from the audience to not speak the truth. It is when media gives in to this pressure and refuses to allow the truth to be spoken that media credibility is lost.

Posted by: Bill on August 13, 2007 at 6:34 AM | PERMALINK

"But most reporters aren't subject matter experts."

In the forties, fifties and sixties this is exactly what reporters were. Juan Coles is exactly that, and that is why his blog has prospered. If reporters bring no expertise to their job, what the heck are they? Why not let Aunt Millie report? Or have them all be slick, handsome, empty suits?

Posted by: Ward on August 13, 2007 at 7:02 AM | PERMALINK

"Who gets to decide?" A truly strange, thus un-Drumlike, question.

To state the obvious, everyone gets to decide. You decided what to include (and leave out) in your dinner-table conversation with your uncle this weekend, for example. Every person "decides" what is relevant every time he or she speaks.

In the case of a newspaper, the reporter and editors "get to decide." As a matter of fact, they have to decide (and have done so forever). Nobody else is present. Who else is going to "decide?"

Posted by: bob somerby on August 13, 2007 at 8:09 AM | PERMALINK

Before elections some newspapers analyze candidates' TV ads and point out whether the facts they state are correct - so why can't they do it in their everyday reporting?

Posted by: Andrea on August 13, 2007 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

A lot of "news" reporting... isn't. Nobody wants to be the reporter covering a different narrative than the settled theme.

The abuse of language to make those themes work is simply amazing. Consider "immigrant", as in "immigration reform." Virtually EVERY story about "immigration" uses the word "immigrant" as if it refers to any foreigner living in the United States -- legal, illegal, permanent, temporary. The consensus term "undocumented immigrant" refers to people who, whatever else we know, have LOTS of documents. Why words that mean literally the opposite of what they're used FOR?

EB White nailed it long ago: "The critic rises at curtain call/and finds, in starting to review it/that he never saw the play at all/for watching his reaction to it."

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 13, 2007 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with Brad DeLong on this one. From what I've soon, the mark of a good reporter is to be persistent and hard working, to write rapidly and well under pressure, and to be good enough at personal relations to cultivate good sources. Knowing your subject in depth is secondary. Classic examples are the reporting on who got what from the Bush tax cuts, on the WMD scam during the selling of the Iraq War to the public, and on the strength of the insurrection in Iraq in late summer of 2003.

Posted by: Stan Jacobs on August 13, 2007 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

Objectivity isn't the problem -- it's a given that journalists have opinions that permeate their work

The problem is actually that the journalists' opinion is that they should uncritically repeat whatever a politician says as truth.

I'm curious: did you read Kevin's post before commenting on it?

It's funny how the people that crow the loudest about "getting news from lots of different sources" are consistently the least well informed.

Posted by: Constantine on August 13, 2007 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Attribute and qualify their BS. For example instead of,

"The earth is flat."

Make it:

"Joe Source also made the questionable assertion that the earth is flat."

That removes it from the realm of "Fact" and puts it in the realm of their "Assertion"

Posted by: Shivas on August 13, 2007 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

The solution is to simply recognize that reporters, for are their flaws and biases, are actually sentient, and ought to use their brains, rather than mindlessly adhereing to some objective formula that can be exploited. They know the Earth is round. The liar knows the Earth is round. The only people meant to believe that nonsense is the public.

Culturally, reporters value objectivity, and the profession has long stressed gathering facts and removing their biases, and responsible, honest reporters will do a better job of informing us than unyielding ideaological constraints.

When you are talking about a solution, you are not talking about some policy that comes down from on high, but a re-evaluation by those in the profession of what their job description is. After all, the tit-for-tat quotes and passing on of what they believe to be falsehoods became practice, not because of any workable solution, but by internalizing the complaints of "liberal bias" that peeked in the Republican revolution, in recognition of the political sea change. The Iraq War has caused another re-evaluation, and if corporations can not respond to the demand, people like Josh Marshall will fill in the void.

Posted by: memekiller on August 13, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

If we were anywhere close to the line on this, then I'd say that this is a difficult problem. But we're not. Reporters don't even gainsay obvious, baldfaced lies.

It's not that we have to worry about Karl Rove not really resigning to spend more time with his family.

But when Bush says "We are making progress," it's not unreasonable to cite the other times that he has said that, and then note facts about casualty rates and electricity availability.

We're not even at a point where O'Hanlon and Pollack are accurately labeled as proponents of the occupation, and of the surge.

This is not a tricky question, at the moment.

Posted by: jayackroyd on August 13, 2007 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution.

what the hell do you mean, "everyone agrees" it's a problem? For dishonest Republicans -- but I repeat myself -- incompetent journalists giving advantage to liars is a feature, not a bug.


Posted by: Gregory on August 13, 2007 at 9:43 AM | PERMALINK

Probably no major figure in the Bush WH will resign in more universal and indisputable disgrace than Karl Rove.

He had one basic mission: win elections for the Republican Party and keep their popularity numbers up.

Look at Nov 2006, and today's poll numbers. Who can argue that he has not brought about electoral disaster for the Republicans?

A fitting end, if we can't have him frogmarched.

Posted by: frankly0 on August 13, 2007 at 10:02 AM | PERMALINK

Did not know that Fred Thompson was part of Rove's family. May the dirt and slime commence.

bluestatedon, the reason that the public does not know much about Rudy and Mitt, is that the majority of cable viewers watch FAUX.

And then there was this mighty seeker of truth, David Schuster, who came on with Curveball following the Democratic debates - Chris asked him for his Truth Squad comments - One of them was that the Democratic candidates had said the Bush Administration did not care about the victims of Katrina - Schuster said this was simply not true. Mystery solved at last. Hey, Schuster, meet Harry Schearer or, at least, read him over at HuffPo some time.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on August 13, 2007 at 10:29 AM | PERMALINK

Who gives a fuck what Matt Yglesia's says?

The boy can't write for shit.

Posted by: fourlegsgood on August 13, 2007 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

My expecatation is that history -- even that of Conservatives themselves -- will hold Rove as the major policy figure responsible for the demise of the contemporary Conservative movement in America.

Nothing, of course, could run more contrary to his actual goals.

He will be despised both by his enemies and his erstwhile friends.

Posted by: frankly0 on August 13, 2007 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

[Do not respond to the troll]

Posted by: mhr on August 13, 2007 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, yes, mhr, CBS - You mean that bastion of liberal thought where management went to Merv Griffen and complained that he had placed 49 different anti-Viet Nam war people on his show and only John Wayne to rebut? Loved Merv's response to them - "Find me a major star as big as Wayne who supports the war, and I'll put 'em on." Thanks to the person who placed this on HuffPo.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on August 13, 2007 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

I'm posting first, then reading the thread, which is rude, so apologies if this has already been said upthread:

"The problem with the convention of objectivity isn't that no one recognizes that it's a problem. Everyone recognizes that it's a problem."

Bull. Glenn Greenwald's blog (now at salon.com) makes it very clear, with first-person quotes and other solid evidence, that the perps in the new biz don't recognize the problem at all.

That's the second biggest part of the problem... the first being the concentrated corporate ownership of the media (5 conglomerates all of which depend on right-wing governments spending big on armaments and tilting the tax code, trade regulations, immigration "reform," and every other aspect of policy and operations to favor the super-rich and the corporatocracy at the expense of everyone else).

"The real problem is that so far no one has come up with a solution — a practical, functional, real-world solution — that's broadly acceptable. Any ideas?"

The media as currently owned and run do not just work for the enemy, they are the enemy. When alleged Democrat Sumner Redstone is willing to say on the record that Viacom will do better if they support Republicans, there's no "reform" of the existing media that can work. The Repukes spent decades taking complete control of the media, both from the outside, with pressure groups, and from the inside, with ownership -- but it's the latter that has had all the impact. It's not about the ratings -- they cancelled Donohue when his ratings were better than those of most of the right's faves. It's about staying on message.

We need our own media. Nothing less will do.

Posted by: smartalek on August 13, 2007 at 12:11 PM | PERMALINK

I think it is one thing if a reporter covering an unfamiliar beat is successfully bamboozled. A bridge collapses, and there are no reporters who are experts in bridge engineering? Understandable. Do the best you can, report what the experts say, keep your ears open for political ass-covering, state the facts, and call any lies that you catch.

But where many of the complaints come from is when reporters *are*, or *should be* subject matter experts. There is little excuse for a reporter assigned to a capitol beat to not recognize and call out bullshit when they see it.

Posted by: Raskolnikov on August 13, 2007 at 12:28 PM | PERMALINK

... the first being the concentrated corporate ownership of the media...

Agreed. We need a big "trust-bust" here on the scale of the AT&T breakup of the 80's.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on August 13, 2007 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

The answer is better...education. But then a lot of folks currently running things would be out of jobs, right?

Posted by: parrot on August 13, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that better education is *an* answer. Actually, teaching people to be *critical thinkers* might be more specific. However, there is an ocean of people out there that believe what they hear without question, always has been always will be. As long as you have media concentration and infotainment Shout News you are going to have a huge audience of people that are going to attract the worst politicians. Journalists have a much higher responsibility than they could ever imagine.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on August 13, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

Solution -- stop pretending that reporters and newspapers are objective and stop accepting their santimoniuous vows of objectivity. If nothing else, the Rather/National Guard flap was a great demonstration of the falsity of objectivity, especially with respect to the producer Maples. No one who paid attention to the story or heard Maples talk would even think she was objective. But the same bias is repeated every day in all types of stories.

So, the journalists should reveal their political preferences to the consumer and then earn the trust of the consumer through their work. That is why I respect guys like George Will and even Bob Novak, who at times provide information harmful to Republicans, notwitstanding their declared conservative views. Kevin actually sometimes always distinguishes himself in disclosing information harmful to democrats notwithstaning his liberal views.

Yglesius, as usual, is hard to follow, but his basic answer of market competition is correct, as long as full disclosure is added.

Posted by: brian on August 13, 2007 at 1:05 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting point from one of Yglesius' commenters:

"If you want facts and interpretation of facts, go to the people who collect them as a scientific profession - not the people who "report" them.

To people who are experts in a field, there is no measurable difference between Fox News and CNN, or the National Enquirer and the New York Times."

Posted by: brian on August 13, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

what you want is a press that reflects your views rather than challenges them. it's just so simple — cheney says it's getting better in iraq. all you do is challenge him by asking by what measure, and he'll simply breakdown and confess that iraq is a real mess. get real. most reporters and editors tilt right? not really. al gore did get gored in 2000, but a lot of it was his own fault. things other than political bias can tinge coverage — it's human nature. reporters can — and should — put statements in context. the world flat, says politician x, but most scientists say the world is round. that doesn't solve the problem. you put both statements on an equal footing. the reporter probably believes the world is round, but that's his opinion and it ain't his job to expound his own beliefs? do you want an atheist reporter spinning his views while covering the pope — or a reporter who is an evangelical christian spouting his views while covering say a debate on evolution in school text books? most issues don't tend to be black and white but rather a shades of gray subject to interpretation. and as for iraq's role in 9/11, sorry, 95 percent of the coverage, if not higher, pointed out the lack of a link.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on August 13, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

I've done a fair amount of research into the history of journalism (more British than American), and I think I see a pattern that might illuminate the current state of journalism a bit, including the puzzle of how modern politicians who can't do anything else competently still manipulate and spin journalists so easily.

Journalists like to think that "journalism" has always had the same function--the transparent reporting of important contemporary events and facts--and has therefore always been one kind of discourse following one set of professional/ethical rules. Historically, however, journalism has had lots of different discourses and sets of rules in different periods in different countries, and has taken lots of different genre forms. The pattern I am starting to think I see in my research (I'm an academic--if that isn't already obvious) is that journalism seems to become most effective/powerful at precisely the historical moments when it _changes_ its rules and forms. In Britain, for example, journalism's political power spiked in the 1820s, mid-1850s, and 1880s, all also periods when the ways journalism was written changed markedly (usually for technological or economic reasons).

In each case, however--though this is provisional, and I'm still working on it--the great success of the new writing-forms or genres seems to have caused them to ossify, so that journalists spent the next 20-30 years or so just copying and reusing the breakthrough genre that gave them their last big success. But they gradually lost power during that time, because the genres that competed with journalism--political discourse, economic discourse, commercial discourse--used that time productively to figure out how journalism's discourse worked, and to come up with good workarounds and counter-attacks to beat it. They always eventually succeeded at this, partly because journalism is always under such big built-in disadvantages. Not only are opposing discourses almost always better financed, but whatever genre form a journalism takes has to be easily learnable and usable by 20-year-olds, readable by 15-year-olds, and producible in bulk within 24 hours. So it's always pretty weak stuff, on average at least; the only advantage it ever has over other discourses is when it changes quickly enough to keep the other discourses at least a bit off balance.

This suggests that all the old journalists who tell us that modern news reporters just need to rededicate themselves to the old verities of journalism have got it precisely wrong. The old verities are the old playbook--and the other team has _memorized_ the old playbook. What journalists will have to do to start actually effecting events again is to invent or adapt new ways of telling their stories--to change the rules again, invent new genres.

The real obstacle to that kind of change today is a kind of "media bias," to be sure, but not a political one--modern journalism is a very large industry which trains tens of thousands of j-school students each year to write and genuinely believe in outdated and ineffective genres of journalism.

In this light, the Daily Show's success isn't an anomaly at all: changing genres or adapting other genres (like stage comedy) is precisely what journalism always has to do to successfully outmaneuver competing genres and interests. The real surprise is that more journalists haven't realized that the forms and genres they learned to write in j-school have been completely outclassed and penetrated by their antagonist genres.

Posted by: Casaubon on August 13, 2007 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

Follow-up questions. Oh My God some damn follow up questions. If someone claims a position, the reporter should ask, "What is your evidence and where did you get it from?" Then look up that person's source, and run it by a third-party expert or something. Bam! You just fact-checked him and can report that he's right or wrong in your article.

Some things just aren't that difficult.

Posted by: Eric on August 13, 2007 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

Actually Kevin you hit the answer on the head by presenting the question in corporate terms.

The whole problem with news reporting isn't objectivity at all it's the corporate structure of the industry.

Your analogy is exactly correct and it demonstrates everything wrong with the modern US corporation.

While the genius of the corporation is it's ability to earn money for it's backers while protecting their liability, it doesn't do such a good job of providing the actual services that are required by actual people to continue living.

We're about to enter into a presidential race whose second largest issue will be fixing the problems in a disastrous corporate run health care and insurance system. The irony of this corporate system is that even those earning the big bucks through ownership are losing because they ultimately have to use alternative systems to get to the goods that their corporate services are not offering. They just have more money to do it than the rest of us.

Consider news. If the cost of reporting hadn't fallen to near zero, thanks to some programming guys with a side interest in news, (Dave Winer and friends), there would be no blogging, there would be no blogsphere discourse, and the world and the US would be a far worse place. The internet itself was the outgrowth of a research project that seemed to have no application and required heavy government funding for years and years, before it was let loose.

You answered your own question Kevin about objectivity. Fix the corporate structure of news reporting, by letting reporters say what they want when they want, while being directly held accountable by their readership ala a universally available medium like the web.

This of course leads to the problem of what to do with those guys who have made their vast fortunes by creating and backing corporations whose job is to make money from the news (cough cough Murdoch), rather than say report it to the public in a useful fashion (as you, Kevin, and so many others do so well). But their problems are really not the same problems as ours, and they have vastly more resources with which to solve them.

BTW: Your republishing of the Stephen Spears Fed Note was a hit on Reddit.

Posted by: smacfarl on August 14, 2007 at 12:37 AM | PERMALINK

I have collected info on the subject of objectivity in journalism/media at the following website:


Posted by: Aesthete8 on August 14, 2007 at 2:23 AM | PERMALINK

Newsweek's Evan Thomas, DEFENDING the magazine's coverage of the Duke rape case: "The narrative was right but the facts were wrong."

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 14, 2007 at 8:06 AM | PERMALINK

The thread is played, but for the ephemeral record it's worth noting an example of a bad habit among journalists: not ACTUALLY checking facts.

TNR published a defense of their handling of the Beauchamp fiasco which claimed that they had checked out his stories... including a call to the manufacturer of the vehicle that Beauchamp said had been used to play a lethal sort of tag with a dog.

Curiously, they didn't quote the guy by name, and merely noted that he had backed up Beauchamp somehow.

The Weekly Standard (which is having waaay too much fun with this story) found the spokesman, and SHOWED HIM THE ARTICLE, which TNR had not done. The guy proceeded to tear holes in it -- despite what TNR had used him to affirm, he said the vehicle could not do what Beauchamp said it did (tear a dog in half: the tracks would have simply crushed it), and the kind of zooming around that Beauchamp described, the guy pointed out, would have damaged the vehicle so that NO commander would have allowed it. (Damage to the vehicle under combat conditions, the kind of thing a representative of the manufacturer would be sensitive to.)

I'm not arguing Beauchamp again (though Kevin really ought to revisit his prediction), I'm just pointing to a bad habit of many journalists: consulting experts only to REINFORCE the narrative, not for a reality check.

I've done dozens of interviews where reporters want a quote or an example of a story they've already decided on, or been assigned -- and literally nothing, no matter how factual or significant, can be used that doesn't reinforce the narrative.

Science is the opposite, of course: good science will always stop on a dime when a single fact contradicts a theory. Journalism will simply ignore ALL the facts, if they don't fit the narrative.

Posted by: theAmericanist on August 14, 2007 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK



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