Tag Archives: Journalism

What You Can Say While Being Objective

What would an objective article on waterboarding have looked like during the Bush administration? A history of the practice would have to state that the US government considered it torture for several decades and that this status was essentially unquestioned until after September 11th. It would also record that the US had hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding US POWs, and perhaps that as Governor of Texas, Bush had imprisoned a sheriff for waterboarding a prisoner. It would describe the experience of being waterboarded as essentially like the experience of being drowned, and record that there were often lingering psychological effects. Against that, such an article would have to report that legal memoranda had argued that waterboarding was not torture and was legal. It might also report that some people responded to the September 11th attacks by arguing that even torture should be justified as a response to terrorism.

That article would have been objective in even the restrictive sense that the American media uses. Every claim is not only true, but unambiguous and part of the public record.

And I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the Bush era. Individual claims might appear in an article about the waterboarding debate, but I never remember seeing a single article that would give the  full picture. 

Journalists are sometimes criticized for treating both sides of any disagreement as equally respectable, even if the facts are squarely on one side. But we can see that it’s not just that–the media won’t even collect and report facts that aren’t in dispute, if the net effect would be to undermine the claims of one side.

Fox News’ Media Relations

A New York Times article on Fox News mentions how the station was caught altering photos of reporters who’d posted stories which didn’t give Fox glowing coverage.  In response:

A spokeswoman said the executive in charge of “Fox and Friends” is on vacation and not available for comment but added that altering photos for humorous effect is a common practice on cable news stations.)

I rather suspect that’s not true, since it’s so easy to score points by pointing out the deception, but even if it was, I suspect that the practice just became a lot less common.  (For the initial incident, try this media matters bit).

Another simple and restrained comment on Fox’s tactics came earlier in the article:

Jacques Steinberg, a reporter at The New York Times who covers television, wrote a straight-up-the-middle ratings story about cable news. His article acknowledged that while CNN was using a dynamic election to push Fox News from behind, Fox was still No. 1. Despite repeated calls, the public relations people at Fox News did not return his requests for comment. (In a neat trick, while they were ignoring his calls, they e-mailed his boss asking why they had not heard from him.)

That said, the article has a little bit of deserved outrage:

In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda, [Steinburg’s] ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged

[Bill Carter] was appalled to see what he viewed as an anti-Semitic caricature of Mr. Steinberg

The Washington Independent

I really like The Washington Independent: they do a mixture of political commentary and investigative journalism, and they cover a lot of subjects in depth that I’d never otherwise read about.  They also do live coverage of oversight hearings in a way that’s eminently readable.  But I was really confused by this sentence in a recent article:

TWI is a non-partisan, independent news site dedicated to putting national news in context.

I think the article is actually a press release–I’m not sure about that, but it reads like one.  Anyway, I was really surprised to find out that the organiation referred to itself as non-partisan.  Spencer Ackerman seems like the most prominent name that pops up in the feed I subscribe to, and there’s a lot of material alleging that Bush has hamstrung the EPA and other government agencies.  In general, the publication seems to be substantially left of center.  Perhaps I’ve been reading with rose-colored glasses, or perhaps there’s just an underlying good government focus that predictably creates anti-Bush stories.  I’ll be reading more carefully to try and figure this out from now on.


It’s as if the major news organizations have been listening to criticism. In a New York Times article on McCain’s claims that Obama would be soft on Hamas, we get a clear verdict:

But important nuances appear to have been lost in the partisan salvos, particularly on Mr. McCain’s side. An examination of Mr. Obama’s numerous public statements on the subjects indicates that he has consistently condemned Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” has not sought the group’s support and does not advocate immediate, direct or unconditional negotiations with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

First there was the gas tax, where you had talking heads saying that there was a consensus among economists that it was a bad idea, now this. Bitch PhD notes an even more awesome headline.

I was wondering about how objective (in the good way!) this characterization was, but the article is well-written. Instead of just relying on Obama’s statements, it included a bit of legislative history that I hadn’t known about:

That is not a new position for Mr. Obama. In 2006, he, like Mr. McCain, was a co-sponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which called on “members of the international community to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas” until it met all of the same requirements that Mr. Obama enumerated again on Thursday.

Your Communication Device Rates Me ‘Mostly Honest’

After writing my previous post on how the internet won’t change standards of journalistic objectivity, I thought of one small way it might. I was standing in front of a pile of books for sale, on which John Lott’s Freedomnomics had a prominent place, causing part of my brain to scream “EVIL SOCKPUPPETER!” I don’t think my decision to ignore John Lott is partisan–almost no one would take him seriously given what he did. There is something partisan about the fact that I’m aware of his actions, however. The people I read at crookedtimber really enjoy bringing up his actions whenever it’s relevant. If John Lott had been similarly deceptive but liberal, my favorite authors would have stopped listening to him, but they probably wouldn’t have written headlines about it. And the average person has nothing like the part of my brain that lights up to scream about sockpuppeting, whether they’re liberal or conservative.

I think that in the near future when we’ll all be carrying around super wireless communication devices, those devices might just be able to replace that part of my brain. I’m imagining a web service that takes the name or author of a book, and tells you “that author is an Evil Sockpuppeter.” You can already find that out with Google + Wikipedia, but the evidence is that most readers are unwilling to spend the five or ten minutes that takes. The improvement would be the automatic nature of the service (imagine a barcode scanner that interfaces with your communication device).

The key point is that the information about John Lott isn’t particularly opinionated–he lied about his identity on the web, going so far as to fake reviews of his own teaching. It’s also easily verified and of interest to anyone thinking about buying his book, regardless of their ideological stance.

The services that collect and deliver that type of information could be either run by individuals contributing bits of information or by relevant experts. In the former case, there would be a possibility for the system being gamed, but given that the information is readily verifiable, there’s every reason to believe it would be manageable.