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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