Objective jouralism and systematic lying

Mark Halperin encourages reporters to insist on the difference between truth and falsehood. Red Blogistan disapproves.

“Tell the truth, or trump: but take the trick.”

— Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

Since the truth clearly won’t do the job, the Bush/Rove team has obviously decided to trump its way to re-election. As Joe McCarthy demonstrated half a century ago, the conventions that define “even-handed” or “objective” journalism favor systematic political lying, because the liar and his victim are presented to the reader as equals, suggesting that the truth probaby lies somewhere between them.

So a major question facing jounalists and their organizations over the next month is whether to pretend that moral equivalence holds between the Bush and Kerry camps — which will require exaggerating Kerry’s misstatements and minimizing Bush’s to preserve the appearance of even-handedness — or to call them as they see them.

Consider three of today’s newspapers: the LA Times, as Kevin Drum points out, has a fact-checking piece that shows Bush as much more mendacious, but a headline that’s so even-handed as to distort the story. It’s hard to blame the headline-writer, though: the head is written from the lead, and the lead, too, seems to spread the blame around more evenly than the story it’s supposed to summarize.

The Washington Post story follows the same pattern: most of the story consists of laying out Bush’s systematic misstatements, but the headline, which fairly summarizes the lead, is “Plenty of Flaws Among the Facts,” not distinguishing which campaign had most of the flaws.

That’s not the problem with the NY Times story, where the head, the lead, and the text are also even-handed to the point of meaninglessness. The reporter completely misses the point of the “timber” exchange, and dismisses a case where the President covered one falsehood with another as a “squabble.”

None of the three catches the outrageously false Bush budget claims that Kevin nails this morning.

That’s the situation addressed in the remarkable Mark Halperin memo posted by Drudge today, and which is attracting so much simulated outrage from Right Blogistan.

The full text is worth reading:

It goes without saying that the stakes are getting very high for the country and the campaigns – and our responsibilities become quite grave.

I do not want to set off an endless colloquy that none of us have time for today – nor do I want to stifle one. Please respond if you feel you can advance the discussion.

The New York Times (Nagourney/Stevenson) and Howard Fineman on the web both make the same point today: the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.

Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win.

We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides “equally” accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.

I’m sure many of you have this week felt the stepped up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions.

It’s up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest. Now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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