Apparently good journalism is not contagious

After praising the Washington Post article in Wednesday’s paper, which provided straight, factual reporting about the fact that John McCain is knowingly spreading lies about Barack Obama, I was hoping that it was a sign of things to come. Not yet, apparently. The New York Times story on Thursday about McCain’s increasingly negative personal attacks on Obama provides a sad example of the ways that campaign coverage often fails us.

The big problem with the Times article is that it focuses almost exclusively on what McCain’s strategy is, and whether people think it will be effective at damaging Obama. The fact that one candidate for president of the United States is smearing another candidate for president of the United States with lies and innuendos is treated as an incidental part of the article, relevant only insofar as it helps or hurts one candidate or another. That is appalling.

As for the more specific problems with the article, the differences in tone and prose between the Post article and the Times article are telling. The Post wrote things like, “For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers…despite no evidence that the charge is true.” And, “Asked repeatedly for the ‘reports,’ [McCain spokesman] Bounds provided three examples, none of which alleged that Obama had wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.” And, “A reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding Obama’s decision not to visit Landstuhl, based on firsthand reporting from the trip, shows that his campaign never contemplated taking the media with him.” This is not biased or subjective writing; in fact, it is notable for simply stating what the writers have learned through their reporting.

Contrast that with these passages from the Times article:

On Wednesday alone, the McCain campaign released a new advertisement suggesting — and not in a good way — that Mr. Obama was a celebrity along the lines of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Republicans tried to portray Mr. Obama as a candidate who believed the race was all about him, relying on what Democrats said was a completely inaccurate quotation.

Here we are given a McCain accusation, then we are told that it relies on “what Democrats said was a completely inaccurate quotation.” So Republicans rely on a quotation, and Democrats say that it is “completely inaccurate.” The reader is left with absolutely no way of judging which side is telling the truth. And amazingly, we are never told what the quotation is which may or may not be “completely inaccurate.” Presumably the Times reporter could have actually checked the accuracy of the quotation, or checked whether it was ripped out of context, and then reported his findings to his readers, but instead, he just passes on the denial from Democrats and leaves the question of which side is telling the truth completely unaddressed. And that probably seemed fine to him, since his article isn’t really about the truth — it’s about strategy, so he didn’t think he needed to get into questions of truth.

Further down, we get this:

The intensity of the recent drive — which has included some assertions from the McCain campaign that have been widely dismissed as misleading — has surprised even some allies of Mr. McCain, who has frequently spoken about the need for civility in politics.

“Some assertions from the McCain campaign that have been widely dismissed as misleading.” Is there a more mealy-mouthed way of saying that McCain is spreading lies about Obama? If you must use the (misleading) term “misleading” for what are in normal discourse known as lies and falsehoods, then can’t you at least say “some assertions from the McCain campaign that are misleading”? Apparently not — that would be a simple declarative statement, and they don’t make simple declarative statements about factual matters at the New York Times. Instead, they construct as murky a locution as possible, and write that the assertions “have been widely dismissed as misleading.” (By whom? By the Obama campaign? By independent, objective, professional reporters? By passersby out on 8th Avenue? Who knows?). And “misleading” is a favorite word of journalists, because it seems to refrain from judgment. After all, everyone says misleading things sometimes without really meaning to, don’t we? “Lies” or “falsehoods” would sound so harsh! If they say that McCain’s assertions have been widely dismissed as lies, people might think they have a liberal bias! Better to stick with the gentler “misleading,” so they can’t be accused of being unfair.

Then near the bottom, we get this:

the [McCain] campaign seized on Mr. Obama’s decision to skip a visit with wounded United States troops in Germany. (The McCain campaign said Mr. Obama canceled because he could not take the news media with him to the hospital, an assertion denied by the Obama campaign and undercut by the accounts of reporters.)

First of all, Mr. Obama decided to cancel a visit with wounded troops. He did not decide to skip it. Kids skip school. Criminals skip town. Presidential candidates cancel. Again the McCain campaign is making an assertion, and the Obama campaign is denying it. This time, at least, we are told that the assertion is “undercut by the accounts of reporters,” but could there be any more wishy-washy way of saying that reporters know that the assertion is false? Did the Times’ Jim Rutenberg, like the Washington Post reporters, ask the McCain campaign for any evidence of their “assertion?” If so, there is no indication of that in the article. More likely, he simply wrote down their accusation, then dutifully wrote down the denial of the Obama campaign, then thought that he had done his due diligence.

And the reason he feels no need to try to independently verify the assertion, or to ask the McCain campaign to do the same, or to offer the reader any real information about the truth of the assertion, is because that wasn’t the point of his article. The article, after all, was just about strategy.

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5 responses to “Apparently good journalism is not contagious

  1. If you haven’t done so yet, I would advise reading Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. It answers many of the questions your post raises.

  2. You seem to be upset about something, but the way you wrote this post, I have no idea what the problem is.
    The article was about strategy, no duh…

  3. The Times is fiddling. Let’s hope Rome doesn’t burn.

  4. By spending so much space repeating McCain’s lies, the Times contributes to the misapprehensions that the McCain campaign wants people to believe. Here we go again.

  5. Yesterday’s column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post was, if anything worse. He questions Obama’s self-assurance, presumption in asking a group of economists to meet with him, etc.
    Just not the way an African-American candidate is supposed to behave?

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