Is the Media Ready to Stop Letting Politicians Lie?

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 Trudy 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.

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.

When politicians are allowed to lie to the public and journalists don't bother to correct them, we all know that bad things happen. We remember the run-up to the wars, when major media outlets uncritically reported the Bush administration's assertions as truth. As Greenwald pointed out, “The most damaging sin of this stenographic model isn’t laziness — the failure to subject false statements to critical, investigative scrutiny — although that is part of it. The most damaging sin is that it’s propagandistic: it converts official assertions and claims from the most powerful into Truth, even when those assertions and claims are baseless or false.”

Now, maybe NPR's move toward checking the facts of politicians and others with power won't swing an election or prevent another war. But it is a very important start toward putting the focus of journalism, especially public service journalism, back where it belongs—telling the truth, and calling those in power on their lies.  

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