The inevitable mouthpiece

The inevitable mouthpiece August 19, 2004

"We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power," [reporter and former assistant managing editor Karen] DeYoung said. "If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said." And if contrary arguments are put "in the eighth paragraph, where they're not on the front page, a lot of people don't read that far."

The Washington Post hasn't gotten a fraction of the criticism it deserves over this attitude. It is a newspaper's job to tell the truth, not merely to repeat whatever the powerful say without context and without investigating whether or not it is true. There is nothing "inevitable" about a newspaper abdicating its responsibility to practice journalism.

And they're still at it. Covering President Bush's visit Tuesday to the Boeing plant just down the pike from here in Ridley Park, Pa., Post reporters Mary Fitzgerald and Vanessa Williams seem to think their only job is to repeat what Bush had to say in his speech, and perhaps to provide some "balancing" quotes from the Kerry campaign.

Bush's topic, however, was missile defense — a program that may not actually work. A he-said/he-said report offering quotes from both candidates isn't really appropriate here. The dispute is not one between the incumbent and the challenger, but between the incumbent and the laws of physics.

This is rocket science — and I don't expect Fitzgerald and Williams to be any more expert in rocket science than I am or Bush is. But would it have been so hard to find a certifiable rocket scientist — one who isn't working for Boeing as a beneficiary of the billions of dollars being spent on Bush's missile defense system — and ask them about the alleged benefits of this system?

At the very least, F&W could've offered some kind of parenthetical recognition that not everyone who has looked at this system is convinced it makes sense. That's what Bradley Graham does in today's Post, referring to missile defense as a "novel and politically controversial system."

"Controversial" is the all-purpose journalistic qualifier. If a public figure stands up and says that water boils at 75 degrees Fahrenheit, this statement will be characterized by journalists as "controversial." Graham here qualifies the qualifier, describing missile defense as "politically controversial." It is that. But it is also strategically controversial, technologically controversial, scientifically controversial and fiscally controversial.

Slate's Fred Kaplan offers a fine summary of, and takes sides in, these various controversies, arguing that Bush's obsession with an expensive and unworkable missile defense system has resulted in America falling behind in an arms race with one of the poorest countries in the world.

I should add, finally, that I can't really be terribly critical of the Post's coverage of this topic. It's a lot closer to actual journalism than the report from Ridley Park that the inevitable mouthpiece that I work for published. (Dude! The president was, like, right there. And this lady got his autograph! It was awesome!) Sigh.

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  • Davis X. Machina

    The WaPo is a company paper in a company town — always was.
    They made All The President’s Men into a movie precisely because it was an anomaly — no one wants to see a movie entitled Dog Bites Man.

  • Johnny Rev

    The American Physical Society (the most prominent organization of physicists in the US) has been saying for at least two years that the missile defense system the Bush administration proposes will:
    a) be woefully underpowered (10 or so interceptors in the Aleutians),
    b) be fantastically expensive,
    c) not work, and
    d) be deployed in Sept 2004, come Hell or high water (or a certain Tuesday in November).
    Now, I was going to write something about the average American’s distrust of academics and the Republicans’ cultivation of that attitude (especially toward science and scientists), but it makes me too sad to think about it for too long…

  • Glenn Condell

    That puff piece is just awful.
    I need a drink.

  • Legomancer

    Scott Adams, in Dilbert, once wrote “Since when is ignorance a point of view?”
    This administration has gone even further, declaring that a provable lie is actually just an “opinion”. The “controversial” qualifier just buys into that argument. “This guy said something that is factually untrue, but you know, that’s just his point of view!”

  • cjmr

    It’s really frustrating seeing the missile defense about to be deployed. I debated it on my high school debating team (and argued then–1986–that it was unworkable) then watched for years failed test after failed test. And now they’re actually deploying the thing??? It’s record on intercepting is still genuinely lousy and it will do absolutely nothing against the most likely scenario for nuclear attack right now–a dirty bomb smuggled in on a cargo ship…