Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Should Advocacy Replace Journalism?

Watching the premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom” on HBO prompted some questions I’m still pondering.  The title of this post is one of them.  Jeff Daniels’ character is an irascible cable news anchor, prone to fits of pique and ready to issue a blistering rant at any moment.  During one of the rants, excoriating the current state of the news profession, Daniels’ character asserts that TV news has everything to do with entertainment and diversion, and not with facts, because today people chose their own set of facts.

The online publication “Gawker” asked Dan Rather – certainly one of my least favorite anchormen of all time – to watch the HBO show and comment.  Among other things, Dumb Dan said this of Sorkin’s portrayal of a TV newsroom, with the push and pull of whether or not what they’re doing matters: “It's a fight that matters, not just for journalists but for the country. It centers on whether news reporting is to be considered and practiced — to any significant degree, even a little — as a public service, in the public interest, or is to exist solely as just another money-making operation for owners of news outlets.”

Well-said, Dan.

There are plenty of reporters – national and local – who ferret out good stories and report them with little bias.  I’m referring to the straightforward stuff where facts are facts, and they’re not in dispute: somebody shot somebody, somebody wrecked their car and got hurt, the city council passed a new ordinance, a family needs financial help for an expensive operation for a child, a local company is expanding operations – those sort of stories that comprise the warp and woof of daily journalism.

But when it comes to getting at the truth of statements made by public officials, private business owners/managers, and certainly political candidates, I think Journalism has been falling down on the job for quite a while.  There’s a tendency to report anything an official, a spokesman, or a candidate says, as “fact”.  (The fact is, of course, they said it; I think we can trust nearly every reporter to get that part right.)  I have often used the lighthearted poke at Journalism that goes “Candidate X says the earth is flat; the story is headlined ‘Opinions on the shape of the earth vary’”.

No matter how stupid, inaccurate, or wrong the statement is, it’s reported – and repeated – unchallenged.  Many reporters will say it’s merely their job to report the news accurately, not to try and interpret it – that’s somebody else’s job.  And that’s where I begin to have some questions about that model.

Take the case of Tea Party darling Tommy Thompson, who is doing his best to remake his image as a cordial consensus-builder (and a HUGE tax-and-spender) into a tea party conservative.  Because he’s actually spent most of his time the past few years as a lobbyist for huge health care corporations, he’s doing his best to distance himself from the (accurate) image of being a “Washington insider” to being a regular fellow, just like you and me, who has knowledge about how the health care system works, and wants to reform it.

Here’s the image for Tommy’s online manifesto about health care – but note that whenever he talks about it, he refers to his position as “repealing Obama-Care”.  (He’ll do that all by himself, Tommy will, without the help of 99 other Senators or 435 Members of the House of Representatives.)

The first sentence of the second paragraph of Tommy’s health care reform plan contains a Republican Party position-line cooked up a few years ago by party operative Frank Luntz, that refers to the President’s plan as a “government takeover of health care”.  (Politfact calls that statement the biggest lie of 2010.)  Tommy parrots that line constantly in his TV ads and his stump speech.  To characterize President Obama’s health care reforms as a government takeover is complete horsepoop, because it’s no such thing by ANY definition.  The government will not take over hospitals and health care institutions, and doctors and nurses and health care professionals will not suddenly cease to be independent and become employees of the state.  It doesn’t even work that way in the “European Socialism Model” we’re constantly being warned about: doctors contract with health care providing organizations, but remain independent.

Tommy’s “market-based solution” is just as much hogwash.  The market doesn’t work, because insurers can turn you down for damn near any reason, and once one of them does, the others won’t touch you.  It’s not free-market, even if you take away the pre-existing condition argument.  It’s not like any other good or service that operates in a free market, where if one vendor turns you down, you can buy the item or service somewhere else.  So the health insurance racket is NOT a “free market” by any definition.  And, of course, Tommy prattles on about tort reform and not lining the pockets of the malpractice lawyers with millions of dollars in huge verdicts.  Suffice it to say Tommy’s plan is Paul Ryan dogma.

Back to the Journalism/advocacy question.

Shouldn’t a good reporter stop Tommy in his tracks when he starts talking about Obama-care being a government takeover of the health care industry, and say “wait, wait, that’s a bunch of crap and you know it”?  Shouldn’t the “Journalists” who conduct the candidate “debates” (and anyone who’s ever actually been on a debate team knows that those joint appearances by the candidates are certainly not “debates”) do the same?  Shouldn’t they call them on their falsehoods, no matter which party they belong to?

Or should they leave every statement unchallenged, and let the opposing candidate call an assertion into question?

I don’t know.  I’m sure this line of questioning is being repeated in college classrooms across America, and I have no idea if the “model” is changing or not.  The media certainly have changed, and the way we consume media certainly has changed.   I think we have to ask the question, though, so that we start thinking about an answer, and perhaps a different model.

Perhaps Sorkin’s new show will cast more light on this in future episodes.


  1. One of the wiser things I've ever read about journalism was---I want to say it was by Paul Waldman, but it was years ago and I'm not sure anymore. He said something like, "The media's ideal of objectivity falls apart in the face of official mendacity." A baldface lie can't be questioned, because to ask a question that probes at whether the official/candidate/dude is in fact lying through is teeth, no matter how carefully phrased, is taken as a partisan attack. Denials and evasions are given equal weight, even when they're refuted by evidence we---and presumably, the reporter---can see with our own two eyes.

    In a complicated world, it's not enough to indiscriminately dump information on people and leave it up to them to decide what's true. Seems to me journalism used to want to make things clear. The way it's practiced now often does pretty much the opposite.

    1. Jim, your concluding paragraph really says a lot; I worry about Sorkin's truism that "people today select their own facts".

  2. Tim: When you reduce the number of professional news gatherers by what, oh 50 percent, over a ten-year period, the effect is exactly what you are writing about. Fewer questions, fewer smart experienced people to ask the questions, fewer people allowed to spend time digging into the issues, ignorance accepted as knowledge, logic tossed out in favor of expedience. I could go on, but sometimes I can't.

    1. Sigh. Alas, what you say is true - in spades.

  3. Unfortunately Tommy's tax and spend days were not reported then and they are being reported today

    1. Things have changed, eh? Before, when it was a bipartisan world, state budgets and new state programs were worked out jointly, and more than once when a state budget was signed back in Tommy's day, members of BOTH parties would be present at the signing ceremony. Imagine that today.....

  4. dp: Having covered the Capital during Gov. Thompson's days, I can say his budgets, spending, taxing and other projects were well-covered. You could easily look this up.