Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Picking their spots

I was at a fourth of July party today talking with someone about the MSM's weakness for the false equivalence trap. Blogger's complain about this all the time. They complain that instead of researching the facts, interpreting them rigorously, and then defending or amending them as necessary, a lot of journalists who cover politics simply repeat a talking point and then quote someone they perceive as being in opposition to the party producing the talking point and consider their job done.

Journalists who fail to do more with their reporting then a smattering of he-said, she-said are bad for the nation.

But reporters sometimes do abandon false equivalwilling to represent as fact or consensus understanding what are in truth ill-considered opinions. This was tragic in the case of the Iraq war when television reporters--there is blood on their hands whether they know it or not--didn't bother to have their producers do any research into the quality of evidence vis a vis Saddam Hussein's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. As long as enough people in Washington or New York say something is true, the case, in the minds of these reporters, seems to be closed.

However, there are exceptions to this rule and the one I've most recently encountered is pretty infuriating. Read the passage below from "Clintons Adjust to Her Turn in His Old Role" by Patrick Healy (the article is labeled "A Political Memo") and ask yourself why it was that this report chose to abandon the he-said, she said protocol :

No matter how much he tries to blend in, Mr. Clinton is one Oscar-worthy supporting actor who can sometimes upstage his leading lady simply by breathing. The Clintons’ political stagecraft — and their goal of shifting the spotlight to her — has been a work in progress since her presidential campaign began in January. This week, her husband’s first campaign jaunt on her behalf showed him in stages of adjustment — relaxed and jokey at times, a bit unpolished at others.

Oscar worthy. Actor. Leading Lady.

This language is full of scorn and it's not a good way to talk about politicians. Not because it's necessarily inaccurate and not because they're actually extremely noble people, but because it's an extremely subjective judgment. And even if you grant it, the sort of acting that Bill Clinton does when he's campaigning cannot be distinguished from the kind of acting that all other politicians do when they are campaigning. It is also something that politicians must do.

Therefore, reporters, if they want to do something with their work besides draw a paycheck, should do their best to identify the traits and characteristics that will govern a politician's policies and decision making in whatever office they happen to be seeking.

If Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton is performing more than another politician does that mean that we can't believe what they say? Does the reporter have information that suggests Hillary Clinton would push policy or ideology radically at odds with the policies she's pushing as a campaigner? This is the kind of "acting" by a politician that might be worth a front page (on the internet anyway) article. But that's not what we're getting in this lazy material from Patrick Healy. What we're getting is a record of one journalists gossamer impressions of the Clintons on the campaign trail tied in with some vaguely attributed gossip. And it's not as if they're insightful. Take this passage for instance:

He plays good cop and, deftly, bad cop as he tries to elevate Mrs. Clinton by praising her rivals for the Democratic nomination while at the same time putting some of them down. For instance, he has described second-tier opponents like Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico in more generous terms than her immediate foes like Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

So Clinton criticizes Hillary's chief rivals and praises the presumptive also rans? What a scoop!

These are the insights and judgments that the New York Times sees fit to meet the public eye without the fig leaf of false equivalence. No counter quote from a Clinton admirer who says, "actually he looks me in the eye and I know he cares about what I'm saying."

Why? I can only imagine it's because they are arrogant enough to believe that when the story is about the personal and when they themselves are their sources, they have the expertise (because all humans make shallow judgments about one another) and the authority (because they know they are not deceiving us about their shallow judgments) to tell the story without defending it or qualifying it or justifying it.

They're wrong.

Journalists have a responsibility to write stories that, to the best of their knowledge are true, even when the story is about nonsense like the one quoted above.

They also have a responsibility to prioritize the material they cover.

So I don't know. Maybe Patrick Healy and his editors at the New York Times think this stuff is significant enough to outweigh other news about the Clintons, or the presidential candidates.

If that's the case, my own personal subjective assessment is that their work falls does not deserve the level of prestige that adheres to it based on their paper's illustrious name. It deserves our contempt.

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