Your mama

Your mama January 27, 2005

An old journalists' maxim states: "If your mama says she loves you, check it out."

Yet in myriad ways the press forgets this time-honored wisdom and operates on a presumption of good faith. Whenever it does so, it becomes vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Take for example the naming of legislation. A state lawmaker dedicated to educational reform introduces a bill and calls it "The Education Reform Act of 1997." That may be an accurate representation of the bill's substance and intent — and your mother may really love you, but you've still got to check it out. By accepting and adopting the name "reform" for a given piece of legislation, journalists give the bill a kind of imprimatur, a value judgment that says "this bill is a Good Thing."

Over the years, lawmakers have gotten savvier about using the names of legislation as Orwellian marketing tools. Any bill regarding education is likely to be called something like "The Better Schools Act" — even if the actual substance of the bill turns out to be a crippling series of budget, staff and program cuts.

The names of pieces of legislation often have little to do with their substance, only with the lawmakers' spin and salesmanship. This makes it ever more important for the press to maintain an adversarial, skeptical stance with regard to using — and therefore implicitly endorsing — such names.

Much has been written about the way journalists naively invoke the principles of "objectivity" or "fairness" to avoid this adversarial responsibility. Objectivity thus gets reduced to accepting everything at face value, and fairness gets reduced to the presumption that all actors are operating in good faith.

Thus, according to the standards of F&O Lite, if your mama says she loves you, print it. And if someone else says she doesn't, print that too. But it's no longer your responsibility to check anything out.

The proximate cause of this little rant is a personal hobby horse of mine — the "Legislative Record" our paper prints daily whenever our state legislature is in session. The examples that follow may seem, or even may be, trivial, but they illustrate the way that contemporary journalism often operates on a presumption of good faith. And the way this presumption makes journalists vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by those who do not deserve such uncritical trust.

The Legislative Record isn't really journalism per se. Its closest kin in the newspaper is probably other matters of public record — things like the lists of property transfers, marriage licenses, fire calls or applications for liquor licenses. Publishing such items is more of a civic function than a journalistic one, but the end result is the same: their publication makes them a matter of public record and the implicit endorsement of the newspaper as truth.

Our paper's Legislative Record is compiled and excerpted directly from the Delaware General Assembly's own records, which can be found here. Repeating and reporting the bill summaries from this record verbatim is therefore regarded as a matter of objectivity.

Therein lies the problem. These bill summaries are not always to be trusted. The Delaware Legislature is nowhere near as talented as the U.S. Congress at this sort of thing, but — due to earnest zeal as well as increasing political savvy — state lawmakers have begun to use the synopsis of the bill as a kind of elevator sales pitch. These sales pitches, little bits of marketing and advocacy, are reprinted in the paper as objective matters of fact. That's not good.

Here are a few examples from yesterday's paper. First, an example of a straightforward bill summary that does what such summaries are supposed to do, i.e., summarize the bill:

S.B. 14 (McBride) – Would reduce from 30 years to 25 years the time state employees require to qualify for full pension benefits. To Finance.

Fair enough. But here's another summary that starts out well, but then veers off into argument and assertion:

H.B. 28 (Spence) – Allows the Colonial School District to convey the King Property to the City of Wilmington. The King Property is not needed for school purposes, and the conveyance will allow the King Property to be used for purposes beneficial to residents of the City of Wilmington. Tabled.

It may be that the assertions Rep. Spence makes in that second sentence are all true, that the reasons he argues here are valid and in the public interest. Yet even so, by including these assertions in the bill summary, he has managed to get his arguments printed in the newspaper and treated not as argument, but as fact.

One can imagine an instance in which a lawmaker and a city official get cozy with a local developer who envies a piece of school district property. If that property were conveyed to the city, it might then be acquired by the developer at a favorable price. This little piece of graft might be sold to the public as "beneficial to the residents" of the city. That's not (as far as I know) what's going on here, but if it were the public and the newspaper would be ill-equipped to respond due to the presumption of good faith and the assumption that something is true simply because a public official said it is.

You might wonder why I'm concerned about such parochial matters in a world in which the furious spin of a blatant prevaricator like Scott McClellan (see No. 48 in this list) is also treated as a matter of public record and embraced, endorsed and repeated as fact.

My point (quixotic, occupational campaigns aside) is that the same journalistic failings made by the deservedly maligned White House Press Corps can be found throughout American journalism.

From top to bottom, a misplaced presumption of good faith is structured into the way the press operates. The aggressive skepticism of "If your mama says she loves you, check it out" and the adversarial stance it demands is now regarded as "biased." A cowed press defends itself from this charge by dutifully repeating what it is told — by your mama, your state representative, your White House spokesperson.

A press that trusts everyone cannot be trusted.


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6 responses to “Your mama”

  1. I graduated only a few years ago with a degree in journalism, and while I agree with most of your points, as well as your underlying theme, I disagree that “a misplaced presumption of good faith is structured into the way the press operates” today.
    I honestly think it’s more fear of losing one’s job, given the consolidation of the press in the hands of the powerful. None of my fellow classmates and certainly none of my treachers were stupid enough to believe that the people they were interviewing always told the truth, or that all bills were labeled correctly and honestly.
    Along with the career risks associated with being an old-time muckraker, I would agree with you that the idea of being too confrontational is seen as somehow ‘biased,’ and that equal time is given to viewpoints that do not deserve equal time, simply to provide a sense of ‘balance.’ It’s a ridiculous farce, but as far as I can tell it’s one of those problems that has and always will be in journalism.
    Also, a journalist is competing in a marketplace that continues to increase in speed, especially considering the internet, and blogs, and how fast one has to be to get the scoop. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for digging, or even fair questioning.
    It doesn’t help serious news reporting that many people (most?) are much more interested in ‘infotainment,’ or at least it seems increasingly like what they’re going to get, and so it sort of makes me laugh when certain reporters got so angry at Jon Stewart – he’s exactly the kind of reporter they created, by dumbing down their own news.
    So yes, I agree with most of your points, but I’d think it was much less a matter of journalists not being able to separate truth from PR, but that the truth just doesn’t pay very well.

  2. “I still can’t believe they named that thing the […] USA PATRIOT ACT. Grown-ups did that. Never forget that.”

  3. Twig,
    Yes, one must make a living. But that doesn’t mean you have to join in the destruction of journalism. If you haven’t read of I.F. Stone, you might do so to understand how at least one journalist addressed these issues.
    As to the use of the word “reform” in legislation, I have been involved with the Internal Revenue Code going back to 1953. Since then, there have been many, many (in fact too many) changes in the Code that have used “reform” in the titles of tax bills. But there hasn’t been real “reform”. In fact, the Code gets more complicated and full of loopholes. But the Orwellian approach serves the needs of our politicians, who are doing their Jack Nicholson imitations as far as the voters are concerned: “Truth? You can’t handle the truth.”

  4. From an AlterNet interview with Christian Parenti, about his appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:
    He said “some people high up at The Newshour are really upset and think your segment was unbalanced.” I was completely surprised because my comments were not that controversial, but he said we needed a right-winger to balance my comments. I said I don’t consider myself particularly left-wing, and simply reported the reality in Iraq.

    It is ridiculous and pathetic how serious they take themselves because I think their show is completely lopsided and mainstream. Unfortunately, they think they represent this independent voice in the media and that is just completely inaccurate.
    That about says it all, I think. When balance is more important than truth, we wind up with the kind of situation we have now in Iraq.

  5. Linking Fool Friday

    Sorry this is so late. It’s been a crazy day. So let’s make it quick. More on Jeff Thomason, the Eagles’ new tight end. Good story. Also out of Philly is a piece on the disservice modern media “objectivity” does…

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