Why You Don't Trust Reporters, & What They Could Do About It

If you've ever dealt with the press, the following scenario may sound bitterly familiar: Reporter X calls to interview you for a story about yourself or your involvement in some newsworthy event. If, like most people, you've never been directly contacted by a reporter before, you probably find it kind of exciting. X sounds civil and professional, perhaps even downright friendly. S/he assures you that the story will portray you in a fair and positive light. Perhaps a few questions make you a little uncomfortable, but X seems to accept your clumsy, unprepared explanations at face value. New to this whole fame thing, you ask if you can read what's going to be written about you before it's published."Well," Reporter X replies guardedly, "I'm afraid there won't be time for that. I just never seem to get ahead of my deadlines, heh heh. And besides," X adds sternly, "that sort of thing just isn't done in journalism."Oh, okay -- you didn't know. It's not clear to you why that sort of thing isn't done, but X is a seasoned journalist who surely knows the ropes better than you, a mere citizen of the republic. So you forget about it, looking forward to seeing your name in print and your unique story shared with the dwindling number of people who still read. But on the big day the article appears, you get a call from a friend who worriedly asks, "Have you seen those awful things the paper is saying about you?"Now a sick feeling wells up within, and for good reason. For the story about you by Reporter X turns out to be a character assassination, full of either outright misquotes or things you really said placed in a vile and twisted context. The total effect is to make you look like a crook, a hypocrite, or a complete fool. Stunned and embittered, you swear to yourself never to be taken in by a reporter again.If you've never been interviewed by the press, this scenario may sound extreme or unlikely. Consider, then, the true and unfortunate case of Kevin S. An enthusiastic customer-relations rep working in the Seattle headquarters of the Starbucks coffeehouse empire, 25-year-old Kevin received a call a few months ago from a San Francisco citizen who said he'd been wondering why Starbucks had not yet opened a store in his neighborhood, the Lower Haight. Kevin revealed that there would soon be a new Starbucks outlet on Market Street, but the caller lamented that was too far away. Would it help the cause if he circulated a petition for a new Starbucks? the caller asked. Sure, said Kevin.But the anonymous caller pressed further, wanting to know if Starbucks might be induced to replace one of the independent coffeehouses already in the neighborhood. Kevin confirmed that Starbucks' real estate department might bid on a viable property if a lease came up for grabs. When the caller asked if it was "weird" for a caffeine fan like himself to be petitioning Starbucks directly for a new shop, Kevin answered, "No, not at all. We appreciate your enthusiasm."Poor Kevin. Little did he know that his anonymous caller was actually Jack Boulware, an SF Weekly reporter who would recount the conversation in the most unflattering light imaginable for an edition of his column "Slap Shots." Pretending to be a Starbucks fan in order to set up his source as a public relations "puppet," Boulware also characterized Kevin in his "Coffee Achievers" story as a "goon," "stooge," "drone," "slave," "twit," and -- in a crowning burst of invective -- as a "soul-less, ball-less little fuck, definitely in league with the devil."Pretty funny, huh? Unless you happen to be Kevin S., a young fellow simply trying to do his job of answering the queries and complaints of real Starbucks customers calling in from around the nation. "The caller sounded friendly and interested in Starbucks," Kevin told me recently. "If I'd thought that anything else was going on, I'd have immediately switched the call to media relations." Which is arguably where the call belonged -- if the disguised call of a reporter who was "cringing at my own lie" (as Boulware admitted in print) really deserved to be taken by anyone.A lot is revealed about the mindset of modern journalism in this story: not only that a reporter would deliberately misrepresent himself and openly malign a source in this way, but also that the editor of his paper would print the results and subsequently offer no apologies. Indeed, it appears that Boulware is hearing applause from his journalistic peers for his approach. The column demeaning Kevin S. was recently published in the nationwide coffeehouse magazine Cups as one of the editors' "favorite reprints."But the editorial indiscretions of an alternative weekly and a javahouse journal can't be said to represent the ethics of American journalism as a whole, the reader may protest. Surely such antagonism and betrayal of sources doesn't go on at prestigious publications like, say, the New Yorker. If that's what you're thinking, let's briefly review the case of staff writer Janet Malcolm.It was Malcolm who was sued for libel by her source Jeffrey Masson, the renegade Freudian analyst and author who charged her with misquoting him and irreparably damaging his reputation in a lengthy profile she wrote for the New Yorker in 1982. The case got oodles of anxious press attention during its journey through the courts; an initial 1993 decision went Masson's way, but the jury deadlocked on damages and the entire case was retried. In late 1994 the U.S. District Court in San Francisco heard the case, and this time Malcolm was acquitted. Masson's appeal of this decision was denied on June 5 of this year, apparently ending the lengthy litigation.Some observers concluded that Malcolm and Masson were simply two unpleasant characters who deserved the misery they inflicted upon each other. But one part of the story was incontestable: Malcolm had deliberately befriended Masson and then used his unguarded personal revelations to portray him in a savagely critical light.Perhaps the sole benefit of the Malcolm-Masson dust-up was that it seemed to stir the dark waters of journalism's collective unconscious -- enough so that lately some prominent reporters and media are actually engaging in a little self-examination. Not surprisingly, what they're seeing when they look in the mirror is not a pretty sight.The Columbia Journalism Review set the tone for the New Guilt of reporters with a cover story one year ago entitled "Generation of Vipers," wherein National Journal reporter Paul Starobin observed that "the current of casual disdain running through today's journalism is rooted in a deep and abiding cynicism, a reflexive suspicion of face-value explanations, [and] an inclination to ascribe ignoble motives."More recently, Atlantic Monthly's Washington editor James Fallows came out with his recent press critique Breaking the News, a book which is receiving some grudging, maybe-he's-got-a- point reviews from his peers. "If 'investigation' was the word for journalism in the Woodward and Bernstein era," says Fallows, "attitude and snarl are the words now. The 'toughness' of today's media is mainly a toughness of demeanor rather than real toughness of reporting, investigation, or substantive change."Here at home, the tough-guy niche at the East Bay Express in Berkeley is filled by Paul Rauber in his political gossip column "Sticks and Stones." The title alone should serve as fair warning to Rauber's subjects and sources. But over the eight years of his column's run some people have nonetheless been shocked by what they perceive as his hostile or cavalier handling of their quotes, stories, and reputations.Local attorney and recent judicial candidate Anna DeLeon complained in a 1994 letter to the Express about being victimized by Rauber's cynicism. In 1993 Berkeley city councilwoman Dona Spring got into a running print battle with Rauber in which she complained that his coverage of her stance on an anti-panhandling ordinance was "completely twisted." A raft of subsequent letters from Spring supporters charged Rauber with carrying on a "personal vendetta" and making "shrill, distorted, and vindictive attacks." More recently, the Express twice ran a retraction of some statements that Rauber had made about a local music club owner.As an independent reporter investigating journalistic ethics, I have no interest in presenting evidence for either side of these controversies. When I contacted Paul Rauber recently, I was chiefly curious to learn why he apparently revels in his aggressive adversarial stance. While he doesn't pull Boulware-style stunts, Rauber nonetheless comes across to many observers as an antagonistic and cynical writer."I don't think anyone who knows me personally would say I'm a tough guy," counters Rauber. "I have my opinions, and I lay them out. I see myself as someone ready to engage in political dialogue." The purpose of "Sticks and Stones," he reveals, is to be "instructive and entertaining. I hope to show people that local politics can be interesting, and I do that by the type of items I run. They're often pointed, taking some party to task for a deceit or fault."Obviously Rauber's critics regard this fault-finding as anything but entertaining, and in fact his column engenders an almost regular flow of vehement opposition. Rauber characterizes all this response as "the hurly-burly of political discourse. When people are characterized negatively, especially in a small community like Berkeley, they will take offense. I'm sorry if they do but it's not my business to worry about their personal pleasure."In fact, Rauber asserts that journalism and public discourse need more adversarial hurly-burly. "American journalism actually shies away from conflict," he says. "It doesn't want to draw the real political lines between opposing interests, especially between the haves and the have-nots. The fact is that politics is adversarial. There are different and competing interests, and it would be nice if everybody could be happy. But it ain't gonna happen."Of course, some would say that while politics may indeed be adversarial in daily practice, its only route to success is through compromise and reconciliation of differing interests. Rauber concedes that there may be some truth in that view, but that reconciliation is simply "not my job." When I ask how effective his adversarial style has proven, Rauber sounds subdued. "I don't know," he admits. "I think on occasions it's had some effect, but I can't really tell."At any rate, Rauber's view of his job is simply to tell the facts as he sees them and let the chips fall where they may. "I think I'm fair. I believe myself to be ethical in my dealings with people. I take great care to see that the material I present is factually correct. And I'm ready to take my lumps if I'm wrong."But does he ever admit that he's wrong? Rauber allows that he has independently issued a few retractions in his time, but says that we'd have to get into particular cases for a more thorough discussion of his fairness and accuracy. When I suggest the Dona Spring controversy as an example, Rauber's summary is succinct: "I'm right and she's wrong. The facts were on my side." Without reprising the whole controversy here, it's safe to say that Dona Spring still sees the facts differently (as she confirmed to me recently).Even Rauber admits that controversy often arises from different perceptions of established facts. When I suggest to him that it might be the job of a political journalist to present the range of views on an issue in a balanced manner, he gives one of his most passionate responses, using an issue close to his heart for an example."I have a concern about landlords taking advantage of tenants. People know where I'm coming from on that. I don't think it's my business to present the landlords' point of view -- why it's important for them to get lots of money because they have large alimony payments or because they want to send their darling daughter to Harvard. I don't want to know, that's not my business! I'm not going into all that."Little wonder then that Rauber doesn't extend to landlords -- or anyone else he writes about -- the courtesy of reading back quotes or previewing what he's written about them before publication. While these practices have been traditionally frowned upon in professional journalism, they have gained adherents in recent years (including this writer).As the American Journalism Review reports, prominent practitioners of read-back and/or manuscript preview include Washington Post business reporter Jay Mathews and Rosemary Armao, executive director of the professional society of Investigative Reporters and Editors. At the University of Missouri School of Journalism, read-backs are part of a standard procedure for student reporters called Accuracy Check.Another adherent of checking out stories with sources is Ken Metzler, a retired University of Oregon professor who authored Creative Interviewing, the first textbook written on the subject and a standard reference in many journalism schools. "All interviewers are inherently biased," observes Metzler, and "we're all a hell of a long way from objectivity." That's why he thinks it's a good idea for a reporter to let sources read and comment on what's being written about them -- it may help the reporter moderate his or her inevitable bias.The most common objection to read-backs and previews -- that sources can't be trusted to read about themselves without wanting to "pretty up" their quotes, dictate a revision of the story, or even threaten to sue -- is readily dismissed by Metzler. "Reporters would be a lot closer to the truth if they trusted everyone until individuals prove themselves not to be trustworthy. There's far too much of a 'me against the world' mindset in journalism, rooted in the tradition of adversarial reporting. It gets to be like a game these guys are playing. I think borderline paranoia is a good diagnosis for a few of them."Nonsense, says Paul Rauber. He has never read back quotes because he's "confident of my note-taking skills," and he's philosophically opposed to the idea of manuscript preview. "My perception of journalism, and I believe it's widely shared, is that the point of the enterprise is not to make everybody happy. It's to let the community know what's happening in their community as mediated through the perspective of a particular person, namely the journalist. That's why we have bylines."As a magazine journalist who has consistently previewed manuscripts with my sources over the last decade, I've always preserved my particular perspective, and my byline, on the stories I cover. When I let sources read and comment on my work, I'm not trying to make them happy. I am trying to catch my inevitable errors and check my inherent bias against the input of my sources. My experience suggests that discussing my first drafts with my sources (as I did with Paul Rauber for this article) results in reportage that is more fair, accurate, and constructive than it would be otherwise. (By the way, Rauber confirmed his quotes appearing in this story, but he's certainly not happy about it.)According to opinion polls reporters have a pretty bad reputation these days, and they deserve a lot of it. One reason is surely the chronic cynicism resulting from an adversarial outlook. To rehabilitate their reputation, I believe, journalists at every level need to adopt a new, more demanding vision of fairness. It's not just a matter of getting the facts straight and presenting them from your particular point of view. As I suggested to Paul Rauber, real fairness requires making a reasonable effort to survey and respectfully present differing perceptions of the facts."You're welcome to that view," Rauber responded, "but I would challenge you to try writing about local politics and see how far it gets you." While I'm as susceptible to a challenge of my journalistic machismo as the next reporter, I think I'll decline this dare. For I've already staked out a pretty mean territory in which to test my stuff. I interview journalists.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.