September 07, 2005

Journalism and Credibility

[UPDATE: The media must be better than nothing, though, or this wouldn't be necessary.]

I have a professional interest in the effect that what people say has on their credibility. I've discussed this before, with reference to our public discourse. If someone says things that are false, they shouldn't be believed in the future.

But, as I said in the previous post, there's a problem with our current polity. The media is simply unwilling to provide accurate information about who's credible and who's not. Only if you follow the news very closely can you tell that certain politicians and public officials have been more than usually willing to tell untruths, and so that their statements should be discounted. Most people don't have time for that; and so most people, understandably, will wind up vulnerable to the worst spinners, or will get the idea that there are just two different perspectives out there.

Two cases in point recently:

The Washington Post and Newsweek printed a claim by an anonymous senior Bush Administration official that Gov. Blanco had not declared a state of emergency as of Saturday, Sept. 3. This was flat-out false; she declared an emergency on Friday, August 26. It was irresponsible of any media source to print a statement that was easily refutable.

But now that the source's lie has been exposed, no one--certainly not the Post, which was victimized by the lie--is willing to say who the source was. So we have no way of knowing who we shouldn't believe in the future. (Well, you and I know not to doubt every Bush Administration official, but the average reader is deprived of the story, "So-and-so lied in attempt to shift blame.")

Larry Johnson was watching MSNBC and saw a man from the Evergreen Foundation claim that Bush had to beg Governor Blanco to take action. (More detailed timeline.) This was false; she declared the state of emergency while Bush was still on vacation. Johnson called the a booker for the station to offer to present the facts; the booker

thanked me for my "opinion" and said "we just have a different perspective". Stunned, I asked her by what standard of journalism that an objective fact was mere opinion? I asked her to simply look at the documents and correct the record. She declined.

MSNBC's viewers are deprived of the facts, they're deprived of information about the Evergreen Foundation's credibility, and they're deprived of information about the credibility of everyone repeating this line. Why? Seemingly because the network is committed to letting everyone present their view, true or false, without explaining whether it conforms to facts. But isn't it the job of news media to report the facts?

[UPDATE: Another one, via Yglesias. "President Bush's agenda for cutting taxes and reducing the deficit"? It is an ironclad fact that Bush doesn't have an agenda for reducing the deficit, if you don't count claiming that the deficit will fall as an agenda. His policies will increase the deficit in the medium term.

OK, I'm taking a break from shrill posting for a while. Bush should resign over his depraved indifference to American lives, but instead we're stuck with his hands on the levers of power for three more years. It'll be ugly.]

This was highlighted for me (again) by the Katrina disaster, the Bush Adminstration's incompetent response (and the mayor of New Orleans and possibly the governor of Louisiana also bear responsibility for negligent disaster planning), and the Bush Adminstration's shameful, buck-passing, finger-pointing, lying PR campaign. But I was already thinking of posting about it because of Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker article about Hugh Hewitt (not online). Lemann doesn't forcefully make the points that all of Hewitt's factual claims--that Kerry misrepresented his Vietnam service, that the Iraq war is going well, that Intelligent Design has scientific support--are false. He hints this--he describes these claims as coming from a different world, and he points out that Hewitt is uncritical of information that confirms his world view. But Lemann doesn't distinguish "outright false" from "reflecting a different point of view."

Indeed, he ends the article with a lecture about how, though Hewitt is practicing overtly political journalism, we still need neutral journalism of the sort Lemann practices, such that he will not reveal who he voted for. But Lemann also lectures liberals that Hewitt isn't just a Republican hack, claiming that he doesn't read RNC e-mails.

But the relevant distinction isn't between journalism that takes a political position and journalism that doesn't. It's between journalism that tells the truth and journalism that doesn't. Hewitt doesn't tell the truth, and it doesn't really matter whether he gets his untruths from RNC e-mails or makes them up out of his own head. David Corn is overtly political but, as far as I can tell, tells the truth.

Neutral reporting is a fine and good thing. But when the neutrality extends to refusing to evaluate the facts at hand, it's not telling the truth either. And it's well obvious that unscrupulous politicians are exploiting the conventions of neutral reporting (as well as the desire to maintain sources) to give lies an equal hearing with truth. Journalists should be letting the public know what the truth is when it's knowable, not presenting it as just one perspective.

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 7, 2005 01:20 PM