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Is the Media Ready to Stop Letting Politicians Lie?

In a new revision of the news organization's 2003 code of ethics, NPR commits itself not just to finding “balance” in its stories, but to prioritizing truth.
 
 
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In a recent story on Mitt Romney and the auto bailouts, a National Public Radio reporter did something unusual—she called out the candidate's blatant lie. Reporter Tracy Samilton, from Michigan Radio, followed up a soundbite of Romney's stump speech, characterizing the bailout of GM as a handout to the United Auto Workers, with this corrective:

MITT ROMNEY: Instead of going through the normal managed bankruptcy process, he made sure the bankruptcy process ended up with the UAW taking the lion's share of the equity in the business.

SAMILTON: Actually, the U.S. Treasury got most of GM's equity.

That might not seem like much, but it was a change for NPR, noted Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and media critic who has consistently called out the tendency of media outlets to rely on “he-said, she-said” journalism. It was a step away from allowing politicians and others who regularly appear on the public airwaves to lie with impunity, a step away from a model that considers a lie worth exposing only if someone else with power challenges it. It was a step toward being “fair to the truth.”

In a new revision of the news organization's 2003 code of ethics, NPR commits itself not just to finding “balance” in its stories, but to prioritizing truth, making sure to actually inform listeners when one “side” of a story is upheld by the facts. “Among the central principles is that the new guidelines focus on standards of fairness and impartiality, as opposed to balance and objectivity,” wrote NPR's ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos.

Rosen said of the move, “What is legitimate, and what is not, has shifted ground” and commented, “Bravo, NPR.” And T rudy Lieberman at Columbia Journalism Review wrote that she was “delighted” by the decision.

“Balance” is usually represented in a news story by quoting sources who represent both sides of an issue. Which might be fine, if most complex issues actually had two equal sides. But when two sides dispute a story, one of them is often actually wrong. Take Romney's claim—it's not simply a statement that President Obama favors the UAW over non-union workers. It's a statement of (false) fact: that the UAW profited from the bailout of GM. Had NPR not pointed out the truth and instead perhaps quoted a UAW representative saying they didn't get much from the bailout, the listener would be left wondering who to believe. Because the reporter stepped in and pointed out Romney's lie, the listener is better informed than if the issue had been presented of one as warring sides.

In 2009, Rosen explained why false balance is so popular among reporters : “Besides being easy to operate, and requiring the fewest imports of knowledge, it’s a way of reporting the news that advertises the producer’s even handedness. The ad counts as much as the info. We report, you decide.”

Objectivity is the ideal that many in the mainstream press cling to, even while often acknowledging that true objectivity is impossible. False balance, he-said / she-said reporting provided perfect cover for reporters claiming objectivity—hey, we gave you both sides, what are you complaining about?

But Glenn Greenwald, Salon blogger and fierce press critic, pointed out recently that this sort of coverage isn't extended to everyone. “This stenographic treatment by journalists — of simply amplifying what someone claims without any skepticism or examination — is not available to everyone. Only those who wield power within America’s political and financial systems are entitled to receive this treatment.”

Media theorists have long pointed out that one of the problems with such false balance is that the powerful are only challenged in the media when someone equally powerful challenges them. In the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, for instance, when no prominent Democrats questioned the need to bomb, the media simply accepted the premise without question. On the way into Iraq, there were a few politicians who opposed the invasion, but the millions around the world who protested it were rarely invited to give their thoughts to the nightly news. And even now, no one goes down to Occupy Wall Street to get a protester's counterpoint to the claims of Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase) or Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs). No one asks Jatiek Reed to rebut New York police commissioner Ray Kelly's statements.

 
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