By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Journalism in the age of “facts optional” politics

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

Three prominent journalists Wednesday criticized traditional “he said/she said” reporting that gives equal weight to truth and falsehood.

Their comments came at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes noted her frustration when interviewing politicians who misstate facts. “It’s not my place to tell them they’re wrong,” she said.

Lee Aitken, who helped direct Thomson Reuters’ coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, expanded on that remark. She criticized the “false equivalence ” of giving equal space to correct and incorrect assertions and taking refuge by saying, “We reported both sides.”

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts said that nowadays, it’s OK to be “facts optional.” As a example, he mentioned Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl’s  false claim in 2011 that well over 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activity was devoted to performing abortions. Soon after being challenged about that assertion, one of his staffers said it was “not intended to be a factual statement.”

Former senator Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican, joined the journalists in deploring the presentation of wild misstatements as truth. He cited the frequent assertion that the United States spends 30 to 40 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, when the real figure is two-thirds of one percent.

He said the media are interested in only three things — conflict, confusion and controversy — and has forgotten the vital need for clarity.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

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  1. Chris Jones

    I’m glad you called Jackie Calmes a correspondent and not a journalist when she stated, “It’s not my place to tell them they’re wrong.” As Mike Wallace said many a time, “Oh, come on!”

  2. Larz Neilson

    Kinda like “wall-dorfs” — throw the pasta against the wall and see if it sticks. They love to throw out lies, because they know so many will just let them get away with it, “just reporting what they said.” Pretty soon, it sticks, and some people believe it.

  3. “He cited the frequent assertion that the United States spends 30 to 40 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid, when the real figure is two-thirds of one percent.”

    Can I get a fact-check here?
    Who in politics or in the media frequently asserts that the US spends 30 to 40 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid? (I know it’s “something that a lot of people believe”, but I’ve never seen it “asserted” in the media.)

  4. Dan Kennedy

    @Steve: The link will take you to poll results to that effect.

  5. Miles Fidelman

    While it might not be a correspondent’s place to tell a politician that they’re wrong. It sure is their responsibility to tell their readers what the facts are, and point out that the politician mis-stated them. Perhaps even to dig into whether that mis-statement was intentional or out of ignorance.

  6. @Dan, I saw the poll results, but Simpson is saying it’s a “frequent assertion”. Who is doing this frequent asserting? Where do people get that idea? I never hear it in the media, except in the context given here (“a lot of people believe this but it’s wrong”).

  7. Laurence Glavin

    Today, (11/15) Matt Bevin announced his candidacy for the US Senate from Kentucky, challenging incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell. Bevin has in the past made the assertion that Barack Obama has never worked at a private-sector job in his life. This is false; he has worked at several law firms, including the one where he met his later wife Michelle, and at the University of Chicago, a private university in that city. Every time Bevin says that, he should be challenged by the nearest journalist.

    • Al Fiantaca

      Agreed, and politicos do that because their average listener is a low information voter and they can get away with it. Even if the statement is debunked, its impact has been felt. The upside to the falsity is worth more than the downside.

  8. Victor DeRubeis

    The AP’s Glen Johnson (now John Kerry’s flack) caught all kinds of flak for merely doing his job back in ’08. Another terrible loss to journalism.

  9. Aaron Read

    I’d like to posit a historical interpretation for the rise of this phenomena. In short, it’s the internet’s fault. 🙂

    The fragmentation of the media landscape has greatly diluted the media’s power as “The Fourth Estate”. With the possible exception of Fox News, there is no news organization that a lying politician (and really, is there any other kind?) has to worry about “crossing” and facing real consequences from their readers/viewers/listeners. What media figure would ever be worthy of the (possibly apocryphal) line “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”?

    The fear that the media could instill was, in large part, what kept people from lying to them. It didn’t always work, of course, but it was the major thing that did.

    That fear is dead and gone.

    Every politician knows that no matter how much they lie to every news outlet, there’s at least one other outlet out there that’ll swallow it and believe it…and that’s all they need to instill doubt in the minds of media consumers everywhere.

    So it’s not enough to any media outlet to simply “report the facts” anymore. If someone’s gonna lie, they must be called on it.

    Unfortunately, since most major media outlets are owned by businesses with equal…or greater…stakes in believing the lie themselves, the reporter faces quite the challenge. Not just in overt censorship, but also more subtle censorship through relentless cost-cutting and denial of necessary resources to catch the lie and expose it with truth.

  10. John Shaw

    At last, someone has the conviction to call out this ridiculous practice of “neutral” reporting. The job of the press in this country should be to call out people who are lying or misleading, like MItt Romney was in 2008 when Glen Johnson called him on it. Even though just about every other reporter knew Romney was lying, they left Johnson out to dry.

    It’s pack journalism, and we can go back to The Boys On The Bus that detailed this problem during the 1972 presidential campaign. Neither reporters nor editors want to publish something different, because the spotlight will be on them.

    And it’s lazy. With all the partisan “news” on the Internet (hello, “Fair and Balanced”), it’s more imperative than ever for the press at every level – even as local as selectmen’s meetings – to point out mistruths whenever they occur.

    I’m not sure that reporters are being censored from above, as Aaron Read believes, but omitting information by self-censoring is just as heinous as knowingly reporting lies.

    Perhaps the horse has really left the barn, and we should consider a return to the days of yellow journalism (hello, “Fair and Balanced”) or replicate the British approach of having liberal and conservative newspapers. At least the public would know from what point of view the news is being presented.

  11. Hard to take serious the outrage and complaint about the inability -or is it unwillingness- to push back against misleading and/or downright erroneous self-serving statements. Sound like it’s their responsibility to follow up and report facts – like NEWS, right? Not easy though. Dan Kennedy wrote an excellent book about the problems of newspapers today and the economic pressure that allows a politician’s statement(s) to be tacitly accepted as fact.

    On a lighter and perhaps a related note, Dr. Eric Berne wrote in his book “Games People Play” a chapter titled “Ain’t it Awful”. You may want to this after you finish Dan’s book.

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