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How journalism helps lunacy become reality

If the US is to return to a ‘fact-based world,’ reporters need to recommit to objective reality

September 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

After the second prime-time Republican presidential debate on Sept. 16, The New York Times published an astonishing editorial. It said the candidates must be “no longer living in a fact-based world” and described what they said as “a collection of assertions so untrue, so bizarre that they form a vision as surreal as the Ronald Reagan jet looming behind the candidates’ lecterns.”

It was about time that someone as authoritative as The New York Times editorial board said it as bluntly as that.

One of the things that made the editorial so striking is that the news coverage of the same events, in the same paper as well as in the rest of the media, treated what the candidates said as almost entirely unremarkable.

That prompts interesting questions. Why was this only an editorial? Why wasn’t it in the news? Shouldn’t it be newsworthy that the leading contenders for the Republican nomination are “no longer living in a fact-based world” and that what they say is “untrue … bizarre … surreal”?

A political problem

It may have been hearing it all in a chorus that so excited the Times editorial board. But no candidates on that stage said anything much different from what they and their colleagues in the Senate, the House and state governments say every day.

Normally the news takes what a person in authority says at face value. Then the media publish or broadcast it, usually without question or challenge. Quoted statements are certainly not described as lunatic assertions, however much they might be.

The news then becomes part of a political and social problem: By reiterating and repeating such assertions, they normalize the surreal. If it happens enough without challenge, lunacy becomes reality.

Consider the false stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction leaked by Vice President Dick Cheney’s associates to New York Times reporter Judith Miller. After she got the misinformation published, Cheney and his team quoted the Times to prove that the falsehoods must be true.

Or consider the example of tax-cut plans described as pro-growth. Anytime tax reform is described as pro-growth, it is proposing tax cuts for the rich. There are several more accurate tags that could be hung on them: greater inequality tax plan, “them that’s got shall get” tax reform and bubble and crash economics.

Is it possible for journalists to move from objective journalism, as practiced, to the more difficult task of reporting objective reality?

Is it hard to make the case for that second set of labels? Bill Clinton raised taxes, and it was pro-growth. George W. Bush cut taxes, income inequality increased, and there was a bubble and a crash. Barack Obama raised taxes, and there was growth. A quick bit of research going back to Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt will demonstrate pretty much the same thing.

Yet news reporters invariably avoid deconstructing the mantra that tax cuts for the rich are pro-growth and tax hikes will strangle the economy.

Chinese-menu journalism

Is there such a thing as a fact-based world? (The New York Times editorial presumes that there is.) Does objective reality exist?

And if there is objective reality — and a politician makes untrue, bizarre, surreal statements — can a journalist report facts that oppose and discredit those assertions?

Stated that way, it sounds as if the answer must be yes. But as American journalism has traditionally been taught and as it is typically practiced, the answer is no. The best that a journalist can do if she thinks that Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, is spouting nonsense, is find someone of authority who says so and then quote that person.

This is called “objective” journalism. It has its virtues. It can guard against media outlets putting their own twist on every story. Going to authorities and experts can protect a journalist from being blamed if the statement of contradiction is wrong or incomplete.

The pejorative name for this is Chinese menu journalism: The reporter orders two quotes, one from column A and one from column B, and there’s a complete news meal. Describing it that way reveals the inherent weakness of the method. 

The Times editorial complained that the candidates in the debate didn’t talk about “child poverty, police and gun violence, racial segregation, educational gaps, competition in a global economy and crumbling infrastructure. On looming disasters (the changing climate)” — issues that the Times considers significant for our nation. But the people on that stage (let alone the debate moderators) don’t think those topics are important and, as it happens, all of them live in the same column. Call it column A.

The system breaks down when there is no one around from column B. Or, presuming there’s more than two ways to view things, from columns C, D and E.

What’s even more troubling is that the truth or verifiability of a statement doesn’t matter. What matters is the stature of the people being quoted and if they have a stake in making the case.

The classic disastrous example was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 speech at the United Nations claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi minister of science denied it. But if Saddam was Hitler, then his minister was Goebbels. He had negative stature and couldn’t be quoted against the noble American military hero.

Hans Blix, the U.N. weapons inspector on the ground, essentially denied the claim. But his stake was in appearing thoughtful, scientific and neutral. So he insisted on saying none had been found so far and he could not swear none would ever be found.

So off America went to war on what would have been, in a fact-based world, a set of assertions that could have been easily disproved. But only if journalists were committed to asserting reality. For its own sake. 

Reporting objective reality

Is it possible for journalists to move from objective journalism, as practiced, to the more difficult task of reporting objective reality?

It is being done, but only in certain narrow circumstances.

Political advertisements are now routinely subjected to independent fact-checking, then rated for their degrees of truth and falsehood. Sometimes campaign statements are also treated that way.

Yet claims made for policies once politicians are in office, even if they are identical to claims labeled false in political commercials, are not subject to such examinations. They should be.

We know that news organizations don’t abide by the rules of objective journalism when they don’t want to. The debates thus far are perfect case in point.

In the first prime-time debate, run by Fox News, the questions the moderators asked had nothing to do with running the country. The goal of the questions was to test the degree to which the candidates were Fox News Republicans. Since all but one of them would not get to run for president, the questions served even better as auditions for becoming Fox News commentators.

Almost all practitioners of straight-up objective journalism are either struggling or dead.

CNN, desperate for ratings, announced and advertised that its goal was to try to provoke confrontations. The network showed no interest in discovering who might best run the country or in fact-checking anything said in those confrontations.

Arguments from authority

Two things have damaged objective journalism.

First, the method of only quoting authoritative sources has inherent weaknesses. People have figured out how to game the system. Now there’s a whole class of people dedicated to doing so and to selling their services to stakeholders with enough money to employ them. They spin, package, focus-group phrases such as “pro-growth,” churn out position papers, muddy the waters and try to destroy ideas that oppose the interests of their clients.

Readers and viewers may not be able to deconstruct and decipher all the interests that have shaped a given news story, but they can certainly feel that the material has been sliced, diced and manufactured. So there’s great distrust, and rightly so, of the mainstream media, from both ends of the political spectrum.

Second, objective journalism is no longer the right method for the times. It grew up in an age when information was difficult to obtain. Simply letting us know who won the battle, what destruction a storm caused and what a presidential candidate said in a distant city was of great service.

Now the problem is reversed. There’s too much information coming to us way too quickly. We need someone to sort it out. What’s important, trivial, true, false, relevant to our lives.

The proof that something is wrong with the method is the market. Almost all practitioners of straight-up objective journalism are either struggling or dead.

In land that once had many great newspapers, there’s only one, The New York Times — maybe a second, The Washington Post — left.

All the network news organizations have cut back. 

Lessons from two successes

There are, however, two great success stories in the news business: Fox News and “The Daily Show.”

On a fundamental level, they offer the same services. They sort through the mountains of chatter and tell us what is important. They also perform the very gratifying function of telling us that everyone else is spouting bullshit. Of this we are certain and happy to cheer.

Admittedly, they do this in two different ways. Fox News does it by adhering to a political agenda in which myth always trumps reality. It is a major contributor to the conditions that prevailed on the stage of the Republican debates that so appalled the Times editorial board. Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” did it by being the only news outlet with a historical memory — pulling the tape on what people said last year and the year before — and by holding claims up not to counterclaims but to the standard of objective reality.

The problem with objective journalism is illustrated perfectly by what was said in the Times editorial and what was not said in the news pages. By the standards of objective journalism, what the editorial said is opinion. If it’s opinion, then there’s your and mine and no way to choose one over the other.

If serious journalism is going to survive and even to thrive, the challenge is to elevate the whole standard of objective journalism to one that is based on the idea that there is objective reality and that it is the job of the journalist to go beyond getting usable quotes and to sort that out for us. It may even be a great economic opportunity. Even without the jokes. 

Larry Beinhart is the author of “Wag the Dog” (originally published as “American Hero”), which was made into a motion picture of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche. He is also the author of “Salvation Boulevard,” also made into a motion picture, and “Foreign Exchange.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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