Real Reporting Is About Revealing Truth; Not Granting 'Equal Weight' To Bogus Arguments
from the nyt-failures dept
Of course, when the NY Times reported on this, it did the "he said/she said" thing, providing no enlightenment whatsoever to the public who was reading it about whose argument actually was legit, and whose was ridiculous. Reporter Alexandra Alter played the false equivalence card:
Mr. Perlstein, 44, suggested that the attack on his book is partly motivated by conservatives’ discomfort with his portrayal of Reagan. Mr. Shirley is president and chief executive of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which represents conservative clients like Citizens United and Ann Coulter.As Rosen notes, this is the "easy" way out for a journalist. Actually figuring out who's right takes work, and hell, you might be wrong. So why take the risk:
But Mr. Shirley and his lawyer contend that Mr. Perlstein paraphrased original research without properly giving credit. “The rephrasing of words without proper attribution is still plagiarism,” Mr. Shirley said in an interview.
You’re safer because you could be wrong if you choose, so why choose? You’re safer because even if you’re not wrong you can be accused of bias, and who needs that? You’re safer because people will always argue about [fill in some bitterly contested narrative here] and you don’t want to be a contestant in that. In the middle is safe. Neither/nor is safe. Not having a view of the matter is safe… Right?But, as Rosen notes, thanks to the internet these days, newspapers are increasingly having trouble with this kind of lazy "safe" journalism. Because the public will call them out when they avoid reporting the truth, favoring a false narrative instead. In this case, the NYT's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, (whose job it is to examine whether or not the NY Times is best serving the public) called the paper out for this weak effort in response to complaints from the public. She directly notes the problem of this he said/she said journalism:
By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.As Rosen further points out in his blog post, the ability of the public to weigh in may be changing the equation here. The "easy" and "lazy" response of just doing he said/she said journalism won't cut it because you'll get called out on it. Journalism should be about reporting what's true, not just what people say is true. The continued use of he said/she said is actually "reckless behavior that may easily blow up in its face." Rosen even points out that the BBC is now specifically retraining its reporters to stop inserting "false balance" into stories where there's an underlying truth and an attempt to distort it. It seems amazing that this even needs to be repeated, but it's been that way for so long in many publications.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.
So I’m with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader. The standard has to be higher.
Hopefully, the ability of the public to call it out will make more lazy journalists and editors recognize what used to be the "safe" move is no longer so safe.