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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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Reporters, though, are in a unique position to challenge the statements of those they cover. And perhaps now, we'll see more of them doing just that.

NPR's decision to change policy is being painted by the network as an evolution of its previous system, not a wholesale change, but Schumacher-Matos admitted to Lieberman that they were aware that false balance was a problem. Telling Lieberman that the new handbook provided guidelines instead of rules, he noted that it was possible to produce problematic journalism while adhering to a set of rules. “[S]o long as you didn’t violate the rules it was okay. You got it down, right. It was accurate but not fair. He said/she said is a perfect example.”

If we're lucky, NPR's move could spark a shift in thinking not just among public radio workers, but in all parts of the media that trade in “objectivity” as a selling point. It wasn't that long ago that the public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, unwittingly drew down the rage of his readers by asking if the Times should be a “ truth vigilante,” writing, “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

The response from readers and press critics alike was fast and furious—of course the Times should fact-check statements made in its pages, right? Clay Shirky responded “[Brisbane] is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective.”

And Rosen pointed out:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

The long tradition of the Right's “working the refs”--screaming about nonexistent bias—has in part led to a system where reporters are afraid of the slightest hint of bias. After all, as media theorist Robert McChesney pointed out in his book The Political Economy of Media, the Right has long had a goal of dismantling NPR and PBS. “The Right is obsessed with what it regards as the liberal bias of U.S. journalism and it believes this liberal bias is most apparent on PBS and NPR,” he wrote.

If NPR becomes the leader in restoring truth-telling to the priority-number-one spot it should have, will other media outlets follow suit? Or, because NPR is public media with a specific mandate to provide journalism in the public good, will it remain somewhat marginalized in the media landscape? Given right-wingers' tendency to play fast and loose with the truth, will it wind up the object of even more attacks from the Right?

NPR's decision comes in the wake of scandals where several high-profile officials resigned, one over comments about conservatives. Are they losing their fear—or perhaps realizing that no matter what they do, Right-wingers will squawk?

We can't be sure. But as campaign season wears on, candidates make ever-more-ridiculous assertions on the campaign trail, and there's more and more need for journalists to fact-check them. Witness a report in the Wall Street Journal this week, which dedicated nearly 900 words discussing Mitt Romney's claims that Obama is responsible for high gas prices and government regulations that he says would've “stopped the work of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers”—and none of them pointing out that they're false.

 
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