When I started out as a young reporter at the Times-Herald Record in Middletown, N.Y., I had the opportunity to cover a city-wide election. The incumbent mayor was a Democrat, unusual in a part of New York State that was decidedly Republican. After a few weeks of the campaign, the Republican candidate, who was doing most of the campaigning, pulled me aside at an event to lecture me about my practice of not only reporting what he said, but also of correcting his misstatements of the facts.
That’s not your job, he told me. Let my opponent take issue with what I say. Your job is just to report it, not to correct.
Well, excuse me, but I thought it was my job. This was 15 years after Joe McCarthy had used random numbers in his charges that the State Department was infiltrated with Communists. Few reporters pressed for documentation at the time, apparently figuring that their job was to report what was said—period.
McCarthy sent America off on a wild goose chase, and it took more than a decade to repair the damage and get back on course.
Now, at a time when the media environment is enormously more complex, we seem to be back in the McCarthy era in terms of news coverage. Part of the problem, of course, is that some media outlets have made themselves extensions of one party or the other. But that’s only part of the problem. Another part of the problem is either laziness or timidity. A lot of mainstream reporters seem to think that their role is merely to report it, not to correct.
I hear the same complaint frequently from colleagues but it needs to be repeated, drummed in, because the problem isn’t going away.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, administration officials made a number of assertions that we now know turned out to be inaccurate at best or deliberately false at worst. Rare was the news story that sought to probe the evidence behind the assertions. In some instances reporters were complicit in presenting “evidence,” because they had an agenda that complemented the administration’s. Efforts by news organizations like Knight-Ridder, Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker and Walter Pincus in The Washington Post to question the administration’s representations were overwhelmed by the constant drum of the Bush administration’s relentless campaign to promote the war. (The Washington bureau of Knight Ridder, now McClatchy, did dozens of stories questioning whether there were weapons of mass destruction and every other part of the war rationale – but the coverage was almost totally ignored, even by many Knight Ridder papers.)
American reporters like to describe their relationship with government as adversarial, which is to say that the media are there not only to report but to contest and question. Too often, however, the media role is merely stenographic. If Sarah Palin says that the health care bill moving through Congress will establish “death panels,” who challenges her assertion or asks her to point the language in the bill? What we get instead, on television, is a sound bite of her making the charge and then, depending on the political orientation of the news outlet, an approving statement by the commentator or a knowing smirk, as if we’re all too smart and sophisticated to fall for that guff. We’re not, though, at least a lot of us aren’t. If she said it, it must be true, the reasoning goes. And if she says it over and over again, then it definitely must be true.
Barack Obama talks about “clean coal” during the campaign. Is there such a thing, or is clean coal an idea without technology that can make it a reality? It turns out that clean coal is a fiction, a figment of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s imagination.
President Obama’s health care legislation represents the most radical effort at government take-over of health care ever. Obama is a socialist. Really? There’s no government-run health care plan, a la Medicare in it. And if it’s so radical, why does it look so much like a plan presented 17 years ago by moderate Republicans?
If someone says something controversial, by all means report it. Your job, as a reporter, however, doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there. Look beyond the statement. Take a look at what’s being referenced. Has the controversial statement maker represented the subject fairly and accurately? Or has he—or she—misrepresented? Do some reporting; after all, you’re not a stenographer or a mere medium. You’re a reporter. Mistakes deserve to be corrected whenever they occur, every time they occur. Once isn’t enough, because the person making them may well do it over and over again—probably not by accident.
All of the above seems pretty self-evident, doesn’t it? Sadly, what makes it necessary to raise the point at all, and to keep raising it, is that, obvious as it may seem, these practices are too often being ignored by journalists who are too lazy, or too timid, or too biased to do their job properly. Or, maybe, they just don’t know what they ought to be doing.