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June 4, 2004

He Said, She Said, We Said

That's what's being urged upon the press this year by some. But this is a different system of authority in political reporting, and it has consequences. If the press is now re-voicing itself for the Net era, that means a major shift. Once there was protection in he said, she said. Such refuge may be gone.

There is a world of difference between an article ten days ago by Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, “Campaign Ads Are Under Fire for Inaccuracy,” and a second article four days ago (on the same subject) by Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei in the Washington Post, “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity.”

This is a post about that world. The difference I’m talking about is in these passages. First, from Rutenberg of the Times:

A record year for political advertising has brought with it a hail of televised exaggerations, omissions and mischaracterizations that pollsters say seem to be leaving voters with mistaken impressions of Senator John Kerry and President Bush. The degree to which the advertisements push the facts, or go beyond them, varies by commercial. While Mr. Bush’s campaign has been singled out as going particularly far with some of its claims, Mr. Kerry’s campaign has also been criticized as frequently going beyond the bounds of truth.

Which clearly asserts: both sides do it. This makes Rutenberg a chronicler of the will to deceive in politics, presented as part of the reality of politics— and as a bigger factor this year. Some say bigger than ever. Now here’s Milbank and VandeHei, agreeing up to a point:

Kerry, too, has made his own misleading statements and exaggerations. For example, he said in a speech last week about Iraq: “They have gone it alone when they should have assembled a whole team.” That is not true. There are about 25,000 allied troops from several nations, particularly Britain, in Iraq. Likewise, Kerry said several times last week that Bush has spent $80 million on negative and misleading ads — a significant overstatement. Kerry also suggested several times last week that Bush opposed increasing spending on several homeland defense programs; in fact, Bush has proposed big increases in homeland security but opposed some Democratic attempts to increase spending even more in some areas.

Got that? Kerry does it too, and not on trivial issues, but on important issues. “Kerry’s rhetoric at rallies is also often much harsher and more personal than Bush’s,” they add.

But Bush has outdone Kerry in the number of untruths, in part because Bush has leveled so many specific charges (and Kerry has such a lengthy voting record), but also because Kerry has learned from the troubles caused by Al Gore’s misstatements in 2000. “The balance of misleading claims tips to Bush,” Jamieson said, “in part because the Kerry team has been more careful.”

Which clearly asserts that while both sides do it, the Bush campaign is more likely to engage in distortion of the factual record by projecting “untruths” about Kerry. In taking that step, Milbank and VandeHei become chroniclers of a particular politician’s greater will to deceive and destroy, which is a very different message from: nasty campaign, both sides are playing loose with the truth, voters are affected. Thus the Post’s grabby headline: “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity.”

What I called the “world of difference” begins with similarities. Both articles are about the increased volume of negative attacks and worrisome levels of distortion in 2004, especially in paid ads. Both quote academics who study political campaigns and media tactics. Both talk about and to a degree rely on outside monitoring groups like They also focus on some of the same disputes— for instance, the Bush’s campaign’s claim that John Kerry’s plans would raise taxes by at least $900 billion during his first 100 days in office.

“Mr. Kerry has no such plan,” wrote Rutenberg. “Kerry has said no such thing,” wrote Milbank and VandeHei. Telling essentially the same story, the two pieces diverge in the practices they permit to news reporters, and in the press think behind those practices. At stake going forward is what kind of truthteller a political reporter is permitted to be in the mainstream press, a different question from: is that reporter telling the truth?

In the case at hand, Times to Post, the difference is not only the stronger conclusion in the Post (Bush misleads more) but a willingness to openly draw conclusions when participants in a conflict hotly contest each other’s claims. Reporters in the maintream press generally don’t do that. They do not openly conclude in a news account that one side is being more truthful than the other, especially in the heat of an election year struggle.

Part of the reason to avoid conclusions like that is to avoid appearing biased, of course. The ritual called “he said, she said” is like an advertisement with that theme: both sides had their say, no bias here, trust the news you get from us. But it’s slowly dawning on some in the press that it almost works the opposite way today.

When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report “what happened.” From this angle, avoiding summary judgment doesn’t necessarily build confidence in your reporting; it may encourage them to attack you for tilting the boards, for denying you have a perpsective on things, for bias.

“The traditional sources of news in America are losing influence and have not yet recognized it,” wrote Vaughn Ververs of the National Journal, just today. This loss of influence is concealed because it involves a gravitational shift to the Internet, where every news organization has a website that appears to say: our own shift is underway. It’s an illusion.

The projection is: “See, we’re on the cutting edge. We can do the Net.” But a glance at the content of those Web sites reveals that they rarely go beyond wire-type updates of major news and chats with their own reporters.

The same forces driving the press to the Web have radically altered the flow of information. “Because the mainstream media have lost the gatekeeper role, their position of importance has fallen.” But they can re-gain some of that lost standing by building up greater authority as truthtellers, which might replace their diminished power as gatekeepers. (Gone and not coming back.) For decision-makers in the mainstream press, this is a puzzle that

goes far beyond their current Web sites, beyond color pictures in the paper, beyond embedded reporters in the field or fancy redesigns. These organizations need to take a bigger step forward and establish themselves as the places that validate the news. Don’t just report the “news”; define the accuracy of it.

“Define the accuracy of it” means, I think, drawing conclusions about truthfulness, like the Post did: “The [Bush] charges were all tough, serious — and wrong, or at least highly misleading.” Ververs argues for this kind of journalism as Big Media’s niche, and he suggests a new mantra: “Find the truth, report the truth, and explain why your organization believes it’s the truth.”

He said, she said is nowhere near enough, and every time things are left that way the press loses influence. Advertising that you’re unbiased is also not enough. The press should go further. It should draw defensible conclusions, and make its way forward by defending, explaining—publicly justifying—those conclusions. “A great many pros may find themselves surprised at how warmly that approach would be received,” Ververs wrote, ending with that thought.

The National Journal is a weekly read by the political class. Ververs is a columnist there and also editor of Hotline, an insider’s tipsheet followed by political journalists. He’s obviously talking to them. A similar line of argument has been advanced this year by Campaign Desk, a project of Columbia Journalism Review, which is itself a project of Columbia University.

“Given the amount of spin this election year, the old rules don’t apply any more,” wrote Susan Q. Stranahan on May 27. “Campaign Desk herewith proposes a new ground rule: ‘He said/she said/we said.’” There’s no excuse for avoiding “we said,” Stranahan said. “With a variety of Internet research tools readily at hand, it has never been easier for reporters to draw an independent assessment on any given day of who is right, who is wrong, and in what way.”

Doing that should be a basic task, says the Desk. But sadly it isn’t the norm, “at a time when so many reporters just regurgitate talking points from both the Republican and Democratic camps.” Those are the words of Steve Lovelady, managing editor of the operation, and formerly an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Wall Street Journal and Time, among other stops.

In its commentary on the Times article, written by Zachary Roth (May 25), the Desk gives Rutenberg extra points for “exposing some of the most glaring distortions being pushed by both sides.” But this only highlights how rarely it’s done in day-to-day reporting. And so there is day-to-day lying by the campaigns, or what amounts to such:

The only way to stop the campaigns from continuing to grossly distort the truth is for the entire press corps — not just the Times and the Washington Post, but USA Today, the Associated Press, and the TV networks, which are the source of news for many more voters—to point out these distortions, immediately and unequivocatingly, using their own reportorial (as opposed to editorial) voice.

Their own reportorial voice… what’s involved in that? Here we are closer to the heart of it. For this is ultimately not a question of reporting technique, or a writer’s boldness in stating conclusions. It’s bigger: what authority ultimately grounds those conclusions, and gives weight to the reportorial voice?

“From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity” sounds like the Post coming to its own judgment. But look at the subhead: “Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks.” There’s the Post stating flatly, “Bush has outdone Kerry in the number of untruths.” But right after it the words of Penn professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the most relied-upon experts around on the subject of political advertising. “The balance of misleading claims tips to Bush, in part because the Kerry team has been more careful.”

Jamieson is also Director of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and oversees the research at Fact checking is an editorial step in journalism. Officially, is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit, ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” It may be intended for voters, but Jamieson, who understands the press very well, knew that a really good fact-checking site launched during campaign 2004 would have some of its biggest effects in journalism.

Reporters seeking independent authority (safe harbor) for statements about who’s wrong and who’s right can rely on studies from Jamieson’s shop. That’s what the Post reporters did. In many ways, the site is a journalism operation located outside the press, on the Internet, and at a university. Authority—also called reputational capital— comes from two different sources: professional standards in journalism, social science research at an Ivy League university.

“Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding,” says FactCheck at an about us page. The operation is headed by Brooks Jackson, a journalist who covered national politics for 32 years at the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and CNN, where he helped create the “adwatch” and “factcheck” features for the network.

Campaign Desk is built on similar reputational ground. It’s watchdog reporting, from a top-ranked school of journalism at a world class university, run by a career journalist, Steve Lovelady, overseen by Nick Lemann, press writer for the New Yorker and dean of the J-school. Vaughn Ververs said the traditional press is losing influence because journalism isn’t confined to just journalists anymore. The gates are open. It’s also true that “the press” (including the campaign press) isn’t confined within news organizations. Universities (Columbia, Penn, USC) have a piece of it, as they have for a long time in book publishing.

Cable Newser, a weblog, is part of the press. With 3,500 readers a day, many from within the industry, and with insiders e-mailing its author tips and quotes, it’s become rather like Hotline for the cable news biz. Except that it’s free and written by Brian Stelter, an 18 year-old sophomore at Towson State University in Maryland. It costs him $11 a month to run, he says. (See this from the Baltimore Sun: “Writing beyond his years.”)

Authority in journalism is up grabs today; credentials matter less, but they still matter. Reputational capital still counts too. That’s why Campaign Desk is parked at Columbia. That’s why Dana Milbank went from the New Republic to the Washington Post. But having good information matters more, relative to an “established” reputation, because people will find what’s good—on the Internet, they can find what’s good—even if it’s not in the Washington Post, even if it’s the editorial product of a sophomore at Towson State.

When the gates swing open, the gatekeepers may have to find other work.

Now check this out… The Baltimore Sun article on Brian Stelter contained not a single link to his weblog, even though it was entirely about his weblog. Instead, there are two links to unrelated Sun articles on Towson State. This is a disservice to Web readers. It is also company policy (keep ‘em in the domain.) And it’s an example of why, though there is a lot of mainstream journalism on the Web, so little of it is of the Web.

The reason can’t be ignorance of how the Web works, for any 18 year-old can tell the Baltimore Sun why its policy is lame and nonsensical. That you link to Cable Newser when you are writing about Cable Newser is self-evident to any competent user of the Web. On this point—linking policy—your typical newspaper site is actually an incompetent use of the Internet platform. For how long can a situation like that endure?

Today there are many clashing authority systems in mainstream journalism; and the Web, though not the source of all of them, is the place where they all play out. Wanna see?

American journalists underwent a de-voicing when they professionalized themselves in the twentieth century. If they are now to begin re-voicing themselves, that would be a change of major consequence. Reputational capital had been necessary to play in the news game. If you can be a player with almost no capital, that too is a major change, even if, like Brian Stelter, you are a small player on whom bigger players rely. Conclusion-avoiding and offloading judgment to experts and partisans became a craft norm in political journalism— the gods of credibility had decreed it. If there is now more credibility in coming to judgment (when you have the goods) that is a big change, as well. It means new gods are rumbling under the press room.

There is a world of difference between the journalism of the mid-70s, when Watergate entered the imaginary of the press, and the predicament of the professional journalist today. Part of that predicament is how to re-ground journalism after its gravitational shift. This involves the kind of truthtelling authority you decide to seek. Every day another journalist recognizes it. Last week, it was Dan Froomis: “The Internet demands voice.” Today it was Vaughn Ververs, who said his colleagues in the press have not recognized how different the world is for them, and how little they have actually changed.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Hmmm. PressCourt bills itself as the people’s voice in news coverage. It takes on cases:

Structured like a moderated discussion board with limited posting ability, PressCourt offers those who view, listen or read the news [a chance] to report those who publish for having slanted, twisted or otherwise corrupted the news.

It does not matter if the slant is left, right or backwards. Slanting news stories at all is opinion and opinion has no place in news reporting.

PressCourt will not process complaints for opinion programming. Op-Ed pieces,
opinion shows, debate programs or those that offer opinion are not approved.

News stories that are not intended to be opinion will be processed.

A court…. certainly a new stage in the bias wars. “Freedom of The Press Requires Responsibility. Either Report The News And Not Your Own Agenda, Or You Will Wind Up In Press Court: Where The People Judge.”

Nick Confessore @ the American Prospect’s Tapped comments on this post: “Rosen and Stranahan say—and I agree—that journalism should drop value-neutral ‘he said, she said’ journalism, and actually explain to the reader what is true and not true…. The results will look biased only to those who lie, spin, and deceive the most, and the public will be better served by a press that informs as much as it reports.”

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, evaluates Milbank and VadeHei’s “From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity.” He has no problems with the article, didn’t like the headline. Here are the thoughts of a Post reader, quoted at length by the ombudsman:

“One of the reasons the administration has been able, for example, to convince the American public of a causal link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, while maintaining that they did not lie, has been the press’s tendency to try and always present two sides to each issue, regardless of how false one of the two points of view is. The press often adopts a credulous ‘he said, she said’ approach rather than investigating the truth of assertions and placing them in context when they present them in print.

“This is not fairness,” this reader continued, “but rather an abdication of the responsibility to make an honest assessment of the facts. Journalism should strive to be unbiased, but it should not simply parrot what it hears, and it should not be afraid to delineate between what it believes to be the truth and what it is told. The tendency to do this has led to the expectation among both readers and journalists that articles critical of one side or another will always have statements that provide balance.”


Steve Lovelady, managing editor of Campaign Desk, was bothered by the headline too: “There are no new stories; only new reporters.”

Atlantic Monthly: “There’s another reason campaigns are so quick to employ, and often abuse, negative ads. Unlike Bud Light, which seeks to maximize its public appeal, political campaigns can afford to alienate the more sensitive members of the electorate and are perfectly happy to drive down turnout—as long as they win votes from a plurality of those who do show up.”

Seth Godkin: “So, we come to the moment of truth. Now that anyone who wants to be a journalist CAN be a journalist, are the ethics going to get better… or worse?”

“But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about ‘listening to customers.’ They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.” From a famous document, the ClueTrain Manifesto. Go here for more…

On the Media interview with Dana Milbank from 2002: “I have covered the Clinton administration, I covered the Gore campaign, and in each of those times I would get a certain amount of criticism for being unfair to the guy and each of them assumed that I had a bias. Then they assumed I had a conservative bias. Now they assume I have a liberal bias. I mean my bias is in terms of being a watchdog, of trying to point out what the facts are. The truth is the president has thousands of people to go out there and say he’s a great guy and he’s doing everything terrific. I feel that our job is not to amplify that but to take a critical look at things.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 4, 2004 5:49 PM