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Monday, June 30, 2008

"Democrats argue..."

One of the most harmful methods of the uncritical press these last few years (decades?) is the propensity for framing stories as "he said/she said" and thus relieving the "journalist" of his or her obligation to examine the veracity of either sides claims. I believe that this aspect of modern political journalism, this artificial objectivity, has been a crucial component of the success of George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Today via Google News Alerts I found this piece from the Boston Globe that is an examplethat struck close to home with my interest in energy policy.

The article is regarding McCain's new ad about energy and that he has compared his assorted gimmicks and give-aways to Big Oil to Kennedy's moon program. It doesn't start off too badly, and the author deserves credit for this line:
At the same time, he has been deriding Democrat Barack Obama as "Dr. No" - opposed to his proposals for energy independence, though Obama is pushing a plan to invest $150 billion over 10 years on alternative energy.
That one aspect of Obama's comprehensive plan is actually comparable to the Apollo program.

Unfortunately, the siren call of he said/she said was too much to resist.
"Democrats called the ad misleading, arguing that offshore oil drilling would provide no relief at the pump anytime soon and that McCain has a long record of voting against renewable energy."
That this was a "Campaign Notebook" story makes this almost excusable. The story was about the competing claims of the two parties. However, it is still important to point out that this isn't just something that "Democrats argue." Any honest Republican, maybe even McCain if pressed, would admit that those "arguments" are objectively true. Everybody admits that new offshore drilling would provide a small amount of new supply, and not even any appreciable amount for at least a decade. Furthermore, McCain objectively does have a record of opposing incentives for renewables. Even as recently as last June he couldn't be bothered to show up to vote for the CLEAN Energy Act of 2007.

I credit Paul Krugman as one of the loudest and most credible voices opposing such journalistic laziness, particularly with regard to innumercy and the claims of the Bush administration. In a classic bit of prose, Krugman summarized the problem thusly.
Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, "Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth."
Regarding the Bush administrations plainly dishonest innumercy Krugman wrote back in 2002:
The strategy used to sell the Bush tax cut was simply to deny the facts -- and to lash out at anyone who tried to point them out. And it's a strategy that, having worked there, is now being applied across the board.
If journalists are going to spend the next four months simply reporting the competing claims of Obama and McCain without illuminating whether one side is, you know, lying or wrong, then we're in for a rough election.

I'm not asking that journalists "take sides." Pushing an agenda and reporting objectively on the merits of claims are two very different things. Of course, reality has a well known liberal bias.

Click "There's more..." for the full post about he said/she/said journalism.