Real Reporting Is About Revealing Truth; Not Granting 'Equal Weight' To Bogus Arguments

from the nyt-failures dept

Journalism Professor Jay Rosen has long been the leading advocate in condemning the prominence of "he said/she said" journalism in the mainstream media. This kind of journalism is driven by a complete distortion of what it means to be an "objective" journalist. Bad journalists seem to think that if someone is making a claim, you present that claim, then you present an opposing claim, and you're done. They think this is objective because they're not "picking sides." But what if one side is batshit crazy and the other is actually making legitimate claims? Shouldn't the job of true journalists be to ferret out the truth and reveal the crazy arguments as crazy? Rosen's latest calls out the NY Times for falling into the bogus "he said/she said" trap yet again. This time it's on an article about plagiarism and copyright infringement charges being leveled from one biographer of Ronald Reagan against another. We wrote about this story as well, and we looked at the arguments of both sides, and then noted that author Craig Shirley's arguments made no sense at all, as he was trying to claim ownership of facts (something you can't do). Furthermore, his claims of plagiarism were undermined by the very fact that he admitted that competing biographer Rick Perlstein's quotes were different. Shirley claimed that "difference" in the quotes showed that Perlstein was trying to cover up the plagiarism, but... that makes no sense.

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.

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.
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:
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.

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.
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.

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.

Filed Under: alexandra alter, craig shirley, false equivalency, he said she said, jay rosen, journalism, margaret sullivan, reporting, rick perlstein, ronald reagan, truth
Companies: ny times


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2014 @ 9:43am

    Didn't read, because the title is absolutely right. There was talk not long ago on cbc radio (which itself is sometimes guilty of doing it) about giving "equal weight" to opinions that one journalist know are factually wrong but almost in a sadomasochist way will interview the lunatic (like the example used on CBC, William Kristol, whom they had interviewed a week earlier) and treat them like what they say and their opinions are of equal value.

    2 people on either side of a "debate" with the journalist[scratch that out, the questionnaire] in the middle is all these people being equal human beings as in they all have the inalienable rights of the constitution and bill of rights, but they have zero equality when it comes to their opinions which the most ridiculous ones are getting a bit too old to have any opinion time on news media.

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