If the truth is partisan, print the truth

Brad Delong and Kevin Drum have both commented on this passage by Michael Kinsley (the new editorial and opinion editor of the LA Times):

“The biggest problem is — and I don’t know what the solution is, so it’s not a criticism, as much as it is a puzzle — is that the conventions of objectivity make it very difficult to say that something is a lie. And they require balance, which is often just not justified by reality. The classic thing is the Swift Boats. If you follow what all the papers say, they inch close to saying what they really think by saying, “it’s controversial,” or “many have challenged it,” euphemisms like that. And then they always need to pair it with something else. “Candidate X murdered three people at a rally yesterday, and candidate Y sneezed without using a Kleenex. This is why many people are saying this is the roughest campaign ever.”

Why won’t reporters call a lie a lie? Or at least (without using the l-word), why won’t reporters say so whenever anyone says something that is known to be false?

I don’t think that anyone is getting this right. The explanations I’ve seen over the years include: generalists writing about specialized topics; lack of intelligence and training; both professionalism and lack of professionalism; the herd mentality of the gaggle; and the commercialization of infotainment.

These all play some role, but the role of management and ownership is being allowed to slip by. The reason we have bad reporting is either because management doesn’t care, or because management wants bad reporting. (Before you call this a conspiracy theory, by the way, you have to explain to me what’s wrong with the idea that managers control the businesses that they’re managing).

A pathology of professionalism is clearly at work here. Political reporters are expected to report the facts in a neutral, non-partisan way. So what does a reporter do if the facts are partisan – i.e., if one side is lying? The current rule is to continue to be non-partisan – just report the fact that one side says, for example, that the economy is growing, whereas the other side denies it. This satisfies both sides of the professional rule — factuality and non-partisanship — but unfortunately it fails to deal with the question of whether the economy is growing or not. Reporters systematically refuse to say that their sources are saying things that are not true, and they call their failure “professionalism”.

It seems that there’s really a simple answer to this: just invert the heierarchy of professional rules. “If the truth is partisan, report the truth”.* So I’ve solved the problem, right?

No. For decades reporters have been learning that reporting the truth can be a career-ending move. Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry are probably the two most illustrious examples, but there are dozens of them. (The 2002 book Into the Buzzsaw is a mixed bag of first-person stories). By contrast, media liars like Judith “I Was Fucking Right” Miller, William Safire, etc., etc., have moved always upward and onward.

By watching the patterns of hirings, firings, and promotions, new reporters quickly learn what’s expected of them. Since most of them have already picked up a big dose of cynicism by the time they show up for work, professionalism comes to be defined entirely in careerist terms. The professional’s goal is to be as rich and famous as possible, and Hersh and Parry and their kind are pitiful losers who failed to understand which side their bread was buttered on.

Successful major-media reporters are paid pretty well, so they can easily manage that special arrogance that comes from driving a really nice car. Furthermore, while journalistic standards have been gutted, reporters still can claim to be professionals, and every profession believes that outsiders aren’t qualified to judge their work. So reporters can always say to themselves that their neutrality is really a noble thing, even though ignorant people outside the business fail to understand what it is that they’re doing.

In the media the highest management level thinks entirely in bottom-line terms, rather than ideologically. This might mean dumbing things down to get a greater audience. It might mean suppressing negative stories about the ownership’s various other enterprises. It might mean trading political support for lower taxes, more favorable regulations, or new intellectual property laws.

Except at Fox, direct orders to lie or to slant the news are rare, but somehow or another big embarrassing stories end up on page sixteen with headlines that contradict the sense of the piece. The stubborn reporters eventually get fired, and the smart reporters learn to read management’s lips.

So Kinsley is baffled. The simple solution to his dilemma is what I said: “If the truth is partisan, print the truth” — but Kinsley can’t do that. He thinks that this is because of professional standards, but it’s not. It’s because Kinsley is hired help.

In practice, Kinsley (like most of Peretz’s former lackeys) is exquisitely aware of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. But “what’s allowed” is not something that he’s allowed to write about.

* I’ve also proposed a supplementary rule, “Try not to be dumber than a bag of rocks”, but I think that that is too avant-garde for the world of today.

Into the Buzzsaw