False balance and weasel words

    Tom Wicker, the retired New York Times columnist who died on Friday, frequently assailed the artificial constraints of “objective” journalism. He contended that the press was often too dependent on official sources, too dependent on “balancing” two sides of an issue or a dispute even when the objective facts signaled an imbalance.It was downright spooky that I thought of Wicker early last week when Mitt Romney aired his new anti-Obama TV ad. Wicker, who retired in 1991 and is lamentably little known today, would have hated the news coverage of that Romney ad – because while the ad is clearly based on a bald-faced lie, most of the reports shied away from stating the obvious fact that it was indeed a lie. In the name of objectivity, of course.You’re probably familiar with this ad, which was aimed at the New Hampshire electorate. The marquee moment was a sound bite from Barack Obama – “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose” – which suggested that he’s seeking to distance himself from the recession on the eve of the ’12 festivities. But he wasn’t talking about his re-election campaign at all. The clip was actually from 2008 – and Obama was quoting a John McCain aide who had contended in an interview that McCain should distance himself from the George W. Bush recession.In other words, Romney’s key clip was demonstrably false. But that’s not how it was generally reported.A CNN tweet: “Democrats say new Romney ad distorts Obama’s words.” There it is, the doctrine of false equivalence/balance. Romney makes a charge, “Democrats say” something in rebuttal, and all charges are equal. This is what Wicker used to complain about. He said that, all too often, the press takes refuge in “statements delivered by official spokesmen,” without weighing the facts to determine whether one side is more credible than the other.Wicker’s old paper, The Times, has twice tiptoed toward stating the obvious, that Romney’s ad was false, but has twice pulled back. Their initial story last week waited until the fifth paragraph before suggesting that the key clip “seems to be…taken out of context.” Weasel wording aside (“seems”), the placement of the passage was wrong. Since the ad itself was basically predicated on a lie – by any measure of objective reality – then the lying use of Obama’s words warranted mention at the top of the story.The Times did something similar yesterday, during an overview story about candidates “going negative,” by waiting until the 12th paragraph to mention that Romney has “brushed off criticism” about his ad. The 13th paragraph stated that Romney’s ad was “misleading,” but only after saying that this episode has been one of several recent political “controversies.” But that too is a weasel word. By definition, a controversy is a dispute over a matter of opinion. The demonstrable evidence that Romney lied about Obama’s words is not a matter of opinion.Much of the coverage of the Romney ad was focused on its “negativity.” That was no surprise, because it’s much easier to write about the issue of tactics (is it smart to “go negative” so early?) than the issue of veracity. NBC’s First Read blog, last Tuesday, began its dispatch by saying that “strikingly, Romney’s first as is NEGATIVE. It blames Obama on the economy and then pivots (with soaring string music) to what Romney wants to do.” Much farther down, it says the Obama line was “out of context,” but quickly balances it with Romney’s spin: “The Romney campaign defended its use, saying ‘the tables have turned’ on the president.” (Yep, just two sides of a “controversy.” And, by the way, Obama hasn’t been running away from the bad economy. Every time he stumps for a jobs bill, as he has done dozens of times since September, he reminds voters of the bad economy.) Others in the press have taken refuge in the tactical issue as well. What’s important, apparently, is not whether the ad lied, but whether the ad will work for Romney on the battlefield. Hence, the Politico headline “Who Wins This Round?”Happily, there have been a few exceptions to the press’ general timidity. The Washington Post ran a headline “Romney ad misleads its way to desired result,” and the story supported the header. And Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker did Wicker proud by writing: “This is one of those cases where a candidate has put out something that is demonstrably false. If a journalist or writer quoted someone in such an intellectually dishonest way, you would never trust the person’s writing again. And yet this episode is being reported by some as a clever tactic by the Romney camp to spark a debate about the ad’s accuracy that will serve to highlight its overall message that Obama has been a failure. (See, it worked!)” True that. Many political journalists tend to respect winners more than they deplore liars. They often take refuge in official spokesmen (he said/she said), at the expense of utilizing their own best judgment. As Tom Wicker warned in a prescient book 33 years ago, this is what happens when the press “wraps itself in the paper chains of ‘objective journalism.'” And tactically clever candidates with mendacious TV ads will continue to exploit those journalistic constraints.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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