Sunday, September 16, 2012

Election Season, Part II: Cleaning Up The Messes

For some reason, one of our cats has decided to stop using the litter box.  He pees and craps, well, wherever, whenever the urge strikes him.  My wife, whose equanimity is a thing to admire most of the time, loses her nut about stuff like this, and with good reason, I suppose.  Trying to keep up with the constant flow (no pun intended) is at best daunting.  We do the best we can, keeping our cleaning stuff handy and ready to deploy when the need arises.

It's much the same in politics.  More and more platforms for communicating provide more and more opportunities to communicate crap.  While some folks insist "'twas ever thus", there is something brazen about this fact-free campaign.  When people working for a major party candidate for the office of President of the United States is on record saying that fact-checkers aren't going to control the campaign, we all know the tide has turned.  When Mitt Romney, whose parade of poop is well-documented, tells George Stephanopoulos that the President is going to stand on the stage and "say things that aren't true", how is anyone who pays attention supposed to respond?

Most newspapers have an office, called either "Ombudsman" or "Public Editor", who handles comments and complaints about their news stories.  The New York Times' Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, addresses our post-truth campaign, and gets off to a good start.
Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.
Then, readers notice she starts steering toward the cliff even as they're shouting at her to get back on the road.
 The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts.
Red Alert!
“There’s a temptation to say there are objective facts and there are opinions, and we should only use objective facts,” said David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief. “But there’s a big spectrum. We have to make analytical judgments about the veracity of all kinds of things.”
What’s more, reporters and editors often have to make these calls on tight deadlines, as they did just after Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention last month.That speech carried some assertions that have been shown to be misleading, and other speeches at both political conventions have become flash points for the fact-checking and false-balance discussion. 
Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression — hot topics that may affect the presidential race.
In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements — rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.” 
When the bus exploded in flames, many analysts said it resulted in needless deaths.

Seriously, let's consider the particular example Sullivan uses here.  For a national editor at what is regarded as our national newspaper to say there is "reasonable disagreement" about voter fraud is . . . well, I'm not sure what it is.  There are people, largely Republican legislators in various states, who are quite brazen in their attempts to purge voter rolls, create various legislative barriers to exercising the right to vote, all because, in the words of the Ohio Secretary of State, they don't want minorities voting because they will vote for the Democratic Party. There are studies, including reports of studies carried by Sifton's newspaper, demonstrating there just isn't voter fraud occurring out there.  It isn't "litigating" anything to make clear that the machinations in various state legislatures to restrict voting rights is a brazen attempt to suppress the vote among traditionally Democratic constituencies, because some at least of the Republican politicians involved have been quite up front about what they're doing.  Are the Republicans who are doing this reasonable people?  Are they reasonable?  Are they, in fact, people?

In an age when it is increasingly easy to find pretty much anything, for reporters and editors to pretend fact-checking is some difficult operation is ludicrous.  Political speeches are handed out to reporters before hand. While they sit and watch and listen, following along the prepared text, they can use their phones to go on-line and check and see if a factual claim is accurate.  It's so easy to do.  When Mitt Romney says that Barack Obama says things that aren't true, check it out.  Does the President, in fact, have a history of speaking falsely to the public?  Does Gov. Romney?  Because a person or even a large number of persons insist something is the case - say, that global warming isn't caused by human beings overusing fossil fuels - doesn't mean reporters have some kind of duty to pretend their views have any validity.  So their feelings will get hurt.  Shrug, and move on.

It can be a difficult task keeping up with the volume of crap flooding our homes, the airwaves, and newsprint.  It seems noble, I suppose, to say, "What can I tell you?  One person says one thing, another person says another, who am I to judge?"  Actually, it's a dereliction of the fundamental duty of the press, in my opinion, to take such a position at an historical moment in which one side has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned any pretext of factual campaigning.  To move forward, knowing full well the Republican candidate for President is on record disdaining facts and fact-checking, as if the campaign has any integrity whatsoever, does a disservice to the public for whom the newspaper exists.

Ms. Sullivan puts responsibility for the demand for greater attention to factual accuracy on the internet.  She's correct.  All political sides are, indeed, demanding that the words of the opposition be tested against facts.  I think that's a good thing, as does she; I also think it's an easy thing, which she insists it is not.  With the first Presidential debate just a few weeks off, I think it would be a great thing for reporters covering it to pay attention to Twitter, various news sites, Facebook, and other social media to get a good read on how well and accurate the candidates actually speak.  They can keep the browsers on their phones open, type in anything a candidate says that might sound "off", and check it out in just a few seconds.  It isn't hard, and it takes very little time.

There is a whole lot of nonsense out there.  Sorting what is and is not nonsense, however, has never been easier.  Lazy bloggers like me do it all the time.  I think reporters shouldn't lag behind us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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