(updated below - Update II - Update III)
In an online chat yesterday, The Washington Post's Lois Romano defended her newspaper's neutral stenographic coverage of the factually false right-wing smear campaign against Barack Obama, a whispering campaign alleging that Obama "is a Muslim, 'a 'Muslim plant' in a conspiracy against America, and that, if elected president, he would take the oath of office using a Koran". Romano's defense:
We are getting many questions of our story on Obama today. I'll try to address this as best I can. These are always very difficult decisions -- how to address something that people are talking about, that has clearly become a factor in the race, without taking a position. Part of our job is to acknowledge that there is a discussion going on and to fact check and lay out the facts. The Internet has complicated this responsibility because there is so much garbage and falsehoods out there.
This discussion has reached a high pitch on the Internet and our editors decided it was in the readers interest to address it. I have heard people say that they won't support Sen. Obama because they read he doesn't put is hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. He has denied this -- so airing some of this and giving him a chance to deny its accuracy could be viewed as setting the record straight.
That is self-evidently absurd. "Setting the record straight" would mean having the reporter report the facts and identify the false statements as false. But the Post did the opposite; it simply passed on each side's "views" without comment -- the factually true side and the factually false side -- as though they merited equal weight.
But Romano defends this practice as "setting the record straight." Here again we see an explicit statement of the corrupt view that so many establishment journalists now have of their role: "we pass on factual falsehoods from one side, note that the other side denies them, and call it a day. Then we've done our job." Greg Sargent, who notes that the Post reporter who wrote the article (Perry Bacon) admitted afterwards, in a statement, that the accusations he passed on against Obama are false, explained the obvious:
[T]he problem here is that WaPo, and not just Obama, should have "denied the accuracy" of the Obama-is-a-Muslim nonsense. The Obama Muslim smear is based on lies, not "rumors." Bacon in his statement above calls the Obama Muslim smears "falsehoods." But they aren't identified as such in the piece. That's what everyone is yelling about.
This is without question one of the most significant problems in how our establishment media functions. They refuse to subject claims -- particularly claims from the GOP power structure and the right-wing noise machine which they fear -- to any critical scrutiny.
For various reasons, they simply will not investigate such claims and, when warranted, identify such claims as false. The most they are willing to do is simply write down each side's claims and treat them equally, even when one side is blatantly lying. GOP operatives know that this is how the press functions and thus know that they can easily get away with spewing lies, and can even recruit the media into helpfully spreading them (using the predominant "he-said/she-said" template). That's the same process that led us into Iraq, kept us there for so long, protected endless presidential lawbreaking and enabled all sorts of fact-free smears.
One can see most vividly just how corrupt this process is whenever there is a news report that exemplifies the proper function of journalism. An article in today's New York Times by Michael Cooper, regarding Rudy Giuliani's campaign claims about his own record, is an excellent such example of good, basic reporting. Headlined "Citing Statistics, Giuliani Misses Time and Again," the article reports:
In almost every appearance as he campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudolph W. Giuliani cites a fusillade of statistics and facts to make his arguments about his successes in running New York City and the merits of his views. . . . .
After identifying numerous standard Giuliani claims regarding his crime and spending accomplishments, Cooper wrote:
All of these statements are incomplete, exaggerated or just plain wrong . . . .An examination of many of his statements by The New York Times, other news organizations and independent groups have turned up a variety of misstatements, virtually all of which cast Mr. Giuliani or his arguments in a better light.
Cooper details multiple false Giuliani statements by comparing what the candidate claims about his record as Mayor to what the facts actually show, and then highlights the gaping disparities. Cooper (as he should) also notes isolated instances of factually dubious or inaccurate statistical claims from other candidates, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but explains that "with Mr. Giuliani running so strongly on his record, statistics have taken on a central role in his campaign."
Had this story been reported in accordance with the prevailing establishment media norms -- the type practiced by Time and defended by Romano -- it would have simply been presented as a mindless recitation of what "each side claims", as in: "Some claim that Giuliani has exaggerated his record of accomplishments as Mayor, while Giuliani campaign aides insist that his statements are accurate." But Cooper took the next step -- the one that distinguishes the basic reporting function from the role of propagandists and stenographers: namely, he investigated the competing claims and identified which ones were factually true and which ones were factually false.
It isn't actually that complicated. When a government official or candidate makes a factually false statement, the role of the reporter is not merely to pass it on, nor is it simply to note that "some" dispute the false statement. The role of the reporter is to state the actual facts, which means stating clearly when someone lies or otherwise makes a false statement.
It's staggering that this most elementary principle of journalism is not merely violated by so many of our establishment journalists, but is explicitly rejected by them. That's the principal reason why our political discourse is so infected with outright falsehoods. The media has largely abdicated their primary responsibility of stating basic facts. One can see how damaging that really is in those all-too-rare instances, such as Cooper's article this morning, when a real reporter fulfills the core function of journalism.
UPDATE: Speaking of good reporting, The Politico's Ben Smith did some of his own with the substantial investigative work required to uncover the suspicious accounting practices involved in Giuliani's trips to visit his then-mistress. I still don't quite understand what the scandalous aspect of the story is. All NYC Mayors have constant security protection -- including when they engage in their secret recreational activities -- and the accounting shenanigans seem designed to conceal his adultery, not any financial improprieties. Still, the matter is clearly of public interest and the reporting done to uncover it was impressive.
By contrast, clear, undeniable corruption is self-evident in yesterday's story of Giuliani's assigning police resources to chauffeur his mistress. Whether illegal or not, it is tantamount to stealing city resources. That is a completely separate issue from the murkier story uncovered by Smith and it's hard to imagine any plausible defense to it.
UPDATE II: Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles mocks his own newspaper's corrupt, stenographic coverage of the Obama smear campaign.
UPDATE III: The Center for Citizen Media's Dan Gillmor weighs in again on the Time/Klein scandal, calling it "a debacle for the publication and company that employs him, because Time itself has compounded the problem, demonstrating contempt for its audience." Gillmor concludes that Time's being forced to respond at all "is a direct result of the growing ability of new media to be heard. There's little to celebrate in this debacle, but we can at least take some satisfaction from that."
Similarly, Robert Niles of USC Annenberg School's Online Journalism Review says that the Time/Klein scandal "illustrates why so many readers are looking for an alternative to the political coverage they find in mainstream news publications." He concludes:
Fairness and balance are appropriate goals for journalists. But being fair to sources and providing balance among them should not outweigh the need to be fair to the readers, and to the facts. And balance should not be reduced to giving various points of view equal time or space in a story. It ought to mean that truth gets treated like truth and lies get treated like lies.
If you're going to lose audience anyway, why not take a stand for something on the way down? Maybe that'll inspire some more readers to stick around, too. Or even to take a fresh look at their local paper again.
Both Gillmor and Niles' pieces on the Time debacle are worth reading, and also directly relate to the general "real reporting" issues highlighted by the Obama/WP and Giuliani/NYT articles discussed here.