A friend sent me the link to a post from the left-leaning Alternet (click here), about a brouhaha over whether the New York Times should be “fact checking” the presidential candidates. The dust-up started because, among other things, the Times reporters never called out GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for falsely claiming in stump speeches that President Obama gives speeches “apologizing for America.” (One of the Times columnists did.)
So Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (AKA ombudsman), put it to his readers: Should Times reporters engage is fact checking the candidates’ claims in their stories? You can probably guess what readers said–loudly. (One sample: “Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”) His responses to the criticisms attracted even more scorn.
To be fair, I wonder how Brisbane was defining “fact checking.” He may have in mind a PolitiFact model of publishing “scorecards” and rating the “truthiness” of specific statements. The Times is NOT set up for that kind of blow-by-blow tracking, nor are many news organizations. Even when NPR pointed out Romney’s error on Jan. 10, its report cited Politifact.com as a source.
That’s not to let them off the hook, especially since there’s some uncomfortable prior history of the Times not being thorough in fact checking. (See: Judith Miller and the case for invading Iraq in 2003.) More profoundly, the news media are supposed to be the “Fourth Estate,” the so-called watchdog of those in authority (and those who would be in authority). A healthy, working democracy needs a vibrant, vigilant media: That’s Poli Sci 101. (Exhibit A: The tagline on the Columbia Journalism Review: “Strong Press, Strong Democracy.”)
So this is a matter of priorities and focus. What’s the goal of the Times’ campaign coverage? If I had to guess, I’d say they see their main job as telling people what happened or what was said on the campaign trail, day by day. Cleaning up the statements of candidates is secondary, something to do when or if possible or when there’s such an obvious howler that it can’t be ignored (or maybe if it’s just so easy to catch).
This isn’t the best way to cover a presidential campaign–what with the future of the country at stake and all–and I doubt anyone in the Times newsroom would say it was. I don’t believe many reporters want to give Romney or “the establishment” or even Obama a free pass. Most journalists have more professional integrity than that. (If you can’t believe that, maybe you can believe they’d just love to win a Pulitzer by uncovering the next Watergate.) I think the lapse in “fact checking” is more a matter of microeconomics than macroeconomics or ideology.
This problem is a result of ever-shrinking newsrooms being overwhelmed by an ever-expanding amounts of information and PR, especially coming from well-funded campaigns like Romney’s (and when the time comes, Obama’s). If the Times’ newsroom is like most others in the U.S., as well endowed as it is, it has likely cut its research staff to the bone, if not eliminated it altogether. At the same time, thanks to the handheld technology of iPhones and tablets and the glories of the Internet and 24/7 cable TV news, reporters must file multiple stories or updates each day, sometimes dozens. That simply leaves too much information for too few workers with too little time to sort, analyze and explain. I’m sure campaign managers have figured out that they can avoid a lot of close, timely scrutiny if they simply swamp the newsrooms.
Why is this happening, if it’s damaging the ability of reporters to actually do their jobs? The newsroom is not the boardroom. Corporations that own media outlets have been cutting newsroom staff and resources for more than a decade to increase their bottom lines. (Just a handful of multinational corporations own thousands of newspapers and other news outlets in the U.S.) The financial interests of company stockholders can trump the political interests of citizen stakeholders. Ironically, I’m convinced, this is penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saying goes: As news owners milk short-term profits by slashing reporting resources, they’re damaging their outlets’ long-term value in the process. Why would anyone pay for thin reporting or PR pass-alongs?
There’s one more log to throw on this fire: Thanks to the Citizens United decision, all corporations–including those that own media–can boot up their donations to political campaigns. (Tangential question: If corporations have First Amendment rights like individuals–and therefore can give money to political campaigns–shouldn’t they be allowed to vote? I’m confused. If “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” then the Supreme Court is inconsistent and ignoring reality.) The net effect: Corporate support for journalism (i.e., the public interest) is down. Corporate support for partisan politics (i.e., personal and company benefits) is up.
This isn’t a conspiracy. It’s just one of the results of a social and political culture that has more and more organized itself around self-interest and profit. So we don’t only get the government we deserve. We also get the government watchdogs we deserve.
Postscript, Jan. 18: This pot continues to boil. Go here for a thoughtful discussion of the New York Times’ fact-checking controversy, courtesy of Lucas Graves and the Nieman Journalism Lab.
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