BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

BREAKING NEWS: AP, Media Fumble News Story

 

by Walter Brasch

 

On the Sunday before the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney and some of his senior staffers played a flag football game with members of the Press Corps on Delray Beach, Fla.

Ashley Parker of the Associated Press, apparently mistaking fashion reporting for news, reported that Mitt Romney was “wearing black shorts, a black Adidas T-shirt and gray sneakers.” Romney’s team, composed of senior campaign staff whom Parker identified, was “clad in red T-shirts.” She didn’t report what the members of the press wore, their names, or how many were on a team, but did acknowledge she “also played, winning the coin toss for her team, but doing little else by way of yardage accrual.” Yardage accrual? If this was Newswriting 101, and she put that phrase into a news story, there wouldn’t be one college prof anywhere in the country who wouldn’t have red-marked it, and suggested she stop trying to be cute.

Romney was a starter—we don’t know which position he played—made a “brief beach appearance” and left when “the game was in full swing,” possibly not wanting to get too mussed up by having to interact with commoners. There is so much a reporter could have done with Romney’s failure to finish the game, but didn’t. Parker, however, did tell readers breathlessly awaiting the next “factoid” that Ann Romney “made a brief appearance . . . after cheerleading from the sidelines.” She was protected by the Secret Service who served as the offensive line, undeniably allowing her to take enough time to do her nails, brush her hair, put on another coat of makeup for the AP camera, and then throw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 7–7. At 14–14, the game was called because, reported Parker, “Mr. Romney’s aides needed to get to debate prep, and the reporters had stories to file.” Obviously, stories about a beach flag football game on a Sunday afternoon was critical enough breaking news to stop the game and breathlessly inform the nation.


Amidst the sand, Parker reported, “There is a long history of candidates and their staff members occasionally interacting with reporters on a social level.” She referred to a couple events during the 2008 campaign; Sen. Barack Obama played Taboo with reporters; Sen. John McCain hosted a barbeque for the media. Those facts alone should have kept any alert comedy writer, satirist, or political pundit in material for the next four years.

A beach football game between politician and press may seem innocent enough—a couple of hours of fun to break the stress of a long, and usually annoying, political campaign. But there’s far more than flags pulled from shorts.
Reporters who socialize with the power elite—and this happens far more than it doesn’t happen—often fail to do their primary job: challenge authority, as the Founding fathers so eloquently asked. It wasn’t White House reporters who broke the Watergate story that eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, it was two police reporters at the Washington Post, who took abuse heaped upon them by the White House reporters and hundreds of others, including some of their own newspaper, for going on what was called a vindictive witch hunt.  It was the media who proved they were better stenographers than reporters who dutifully chowed down whatever crumbs they were fed by the Bush–Cheney administration, and seldom questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. A few from the major media and many from the alternative press who did question authority were dismissed as mere gadflies. It was the sycophantic press that also didn’t question the destruction of civil liberties by the passage of the PATRIOT Act.
Against policy wonk/environmentalist Al Gore in 2000, Americans said they would rather have a beer with George W. Bush. Many of the press did have beers with candidate Bush, who once invited the media onto his ranch to watch him shoot and then barbeque pigeons for a group barbecue.

Every year in the nation’s capital is a high society event, the “Gridiron dinner.” Everyone—politicians, members of the press, and a horde of actors and singers—dress up in ball gowns and white-tie tuxedos to drink and schmooze. When it isn’t Gridiron Season, there’s all kinds of social events at all kinds of places that reporters just have to attend in order to get their stories, they simplistically justify.

Sports reporters who are too close to the teams or the sports they cover are derisively known as “homers,” not for Homer Simpson, who some of them act like, but because they favor the home team. Entertainment reporters and arts critics feel important because publicists will often go to extraordinary lengths to get them face-time with celebrities. To prove how “independent” they are, some, who have no discernible creative talent, will write snarky columns about celebrities and their works, thinking they are clever rather than the pompous self-aggrandizing jerks they really are. Many in the media—especially those in television and the print reporters who often do TV talk-show commentaries—probably should drop the pretense they’re journalists and just accept the appellations that they are celebrities.

It isn’t just reporters who cover national stories who get too close to their sources. There are now state and metropolitan gridiron dinners. At a local level, Reporters who cover the police and city council are often on a first-name basis with their sources. Even if they honestly believe they are objective, and will knock down lies and deceptions, they often don’t. They believe they need these sources to get more news, and are afraid that if they become too tough, the news, which is fed to them, will somehow dry up. They often accept “background” and “off-the-record” comments, which they never report or attribute, because somehow it makes them feel that they, unlike their readers of a lesser level, are “in the know.” And yet, every reporter will swear upon a stack of style manuals that he or she is objective and independent.

Don’t believe that? Put yourself in the position of being a reporter. You’re sitting at your desk in the bullpen of a newsroom, now decimated by layoffs. In walks a man in a three-piece suit and a woman in fashionably-acceptable skirt, blouse, blazer, and two-inch heels. They have a story to tell. Now, you may think that because they are PR people or middle-management executives for a large corporation, they are suspect to begin with, but they, like you, are college graduates; they are eloquent; they have a news release with the story laid out. Want anything else? They’re more than pleased to get it for you.

Now, the next day, while walking outside your office, a bag lady accosts you. She’s wearing little more than rags. Her hair is unkempt; her breath stinks. It’s doubtful she was ever a sorority president. “You a reporter?” she barks, knowing that if you’re wearing jeans, a nice but not expensive shirt and a tie you probably aren’t a corporate executive or big-shot politician. She wants to tell you a story—something about a corporation that did something very unethical and possibly illegal. You’re running late to your appointment with a physical trainer who has promised to keep you fit and attractive. You just want to get past this obstacle.

Who do you relate to? Those who look, act, and think more like you—or those who you probably wouldn’t have a drink with after work?

Don’t expect the media to stop having social encounters with their sources; it will never happen. But, do expect that maybe some will heed the call of the Founding Fathers and be independent of the sources they are expected to cover.

[Walter Brasch spent more than 40 years as a journalist and university professor, covering everything from local school board meetings to the White House.  He is currently a syndicated columnist and book author. He acknowledges that in his early 20s he was enamored by being at the same parties as the “power elite,” but quickly got over it, and has been fiercely independent from the power-elites, including the power-media, whether at local, state, or national levels. His current book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

           

 

 

 

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

 

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag. Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism—and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence—with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials—there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast—the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”—on some stations it makes no difference—using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club—as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting—how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled—and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather—who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be—explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations—local, regional, broadcast or cable—have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said. Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

 

 

 

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

 

by WALTER BRASCH

 

 

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag. Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism—and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence—with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials—there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast—the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”—on some stations it makes no difference—using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club—as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting—how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled—and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather—who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be—explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations—local, regional, broadcast or cable—have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said. Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

 

 

 

Reality, News Perception, and Accuracy

                                                                         

By WALTER BRASCH

 

She quietly walked into the classroom from the front and stood there, just inside the door, against a wall.

I continued my lecture, unaware of her presence until my students’ eyes began focusing upon her rather than me.

“Yes?” I asked. Just “yes.” Nothing more.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said peacefully. I was confused. So she said it again, this time a little sharper.

“Ma’am,” I began, but she cut me off. I tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t reason with her. She pulled a gun from her purse and shot me, then quickly left. I recovered immediately.

It took less than a minute.

The scene was an exercise in a newswriting class, unannounced but highly planned. My assignment was for the students to quickly write down everything they could about the incident. What happened. What was said. What she looked like. What she was wearing. Just the facts. Nothing more.

Everyone got some of the information right, but no one got all the facts, even the ones they were absolutely positively sure they saw or heard correctly. And, most interestingly, the “gun” the visitor used and which the students either couldn’t identify or misidentified was in reality a . . . banana; a painted black banana, but a banana nevertheless. The actual gun shot was on tape broadcast by a hidden recorder I activated.

It was a lesson in observation and truth. Witnesses often get the facts wrong, unable to distinguish events happening on top of each other. Sometimes they even want to “help” the reporter and say what they think the reporter wants to hear.

Reporters are society’s witnesses who record history by interviewing other witnesses, and they all make mistakes not because they want to but because everyone’s experiences and perceptions fog reality.

Of the infinite number of facts and observations that occur during a meeting, reporters must select a few, and then place them in whatever order they think is most important. Which few they select, which thousands they don’t select--and, more important--which facts they don’t even know exist--all make up a news story, usually written under deadline pressure. Thus, it isn’t unusual for readers to wonder how reporters could have been in the same meeting as they were since the published stories didn’t seem to reflect the reality of the meeting.

But there are some facts that are verifiable. We know that a South American country is spelled “Colombia,” not “Columbia.” We know that Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive Republican. And we know that the current World Series champions are the St. Louis Cardinals not, regrettably, the San Diego Padres.

But, for far too many in my profession, facts and the truth are subverted by a process that has become he said/she said journalism. We take notes at meetings, recording who said what. If there are conflicting statements, we try to quote all the opinions, even the dumb ones, believing we are being “fair and balanced.” If  a news source says the world is flat, we write that, and then see if we can find someone who will say that it is round—or maybe square.

When we write features and personality profiles, we tend to take what we are told, craft it into snappy paragraphs, and hope the readers don’t fall asleep. If someone shyly tells us he earned a Silver Star for heroism during the Vietnam War, we don’t demand to see the certificate—or question how a 50 year old, who was wasn’t even in his teens when the war ended, could actually have served during the Vietnam war.

At the local level, although we’re trained to be cynical, we aren’t. If a mayor or police chief tells us something, we attribute the quote, figuring we did our duty. Maybe we ask a couple of questions, but we tend not to pursue them—we have far too many stories to write and far too little time. Besides, if the facts are wrong, we believe we’re “protected,” since it’s not we who said it but someone else. Legally, of course, we’re still responsible for factual error even if someone else said it and we accurately quote that person, but we don’t worry about the technicalities.

Adequate reporters get their facts from people in authority; the great reporters know truth is probably known by the secretaries, custodians, and other workers. We just have to find the right sources, dig out the facts, and verify them.

And now comes another presidential election, and we continue to perpetuate lies by not challenging those who spout them. Rick Santorum says California’s public colleges don’t teach American history—and we write down his lie. Mitt Romney claims he never said the Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the entire country, that Barack Obama never mentioned the deficit during his state of the union or that the President is constantly apologizing for America, and we write that without challenge. Newt Gingrich, like most Republican candidates for president and Congress, wants us to believe he’s an “outsider” and a fiscal conservative, and we go along with the fiction. Barack Obama said he’d be a leader for defending Constitutional rights, yet willingly signed an extension of the PATRIOT Act, which curtails civil liberties. Pick a candidate—any candidate, any party—and we think we’re “fair” because we record what he or she said, even of it’s a lie, a half-truth, an exaggeration, a distortion, or a misconception. Perhaps American politicians have internalized the wisdom of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Quoting people isn’t journalism—it’s clerking. We’re merely taking words, transcribing them, and publishing them. Journalism demands we challenge our sources and find the truth. As one grizzled city editor said in the late 19th century, if your mother claims to be your mother, demand a birth certificate. It was good advice then; it is even better advice now.

[In a 40-year career as a journalist and professor, Dr. Brasch has won more than 200 awards for excellence in journalism in investigative reporting, feature writing, and for his weekly column. His current book is the critically-acclaimed novel Before the First Snow, which helps explain the rise of the Occupy and anti-fracking movements. The book is available in both ebook and hardcover formats.]

 

 

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