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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, January 23, 2004
 

Nedra Pickler and the battle for the agenda


Nedra who?

Matthew Yglesias' piece in American Prospect (January 20) explains.

Ms Pickler [1] is one of a growing list of journo hate figures for one group or other. Her shtick, as will be seen, is to give a pol's statement on an issue, and mention some other thing that he fails to mention.

The suggestion from Pickler's detractors is that these nitpicks have a partisan motivation, with the aim of implying a tendency to dishonesty amongst Democratic presidential candidates.

The problem is, of course, that no politician would want - or would have the time, even in an hour-long speech - fairly to cover every angle of a particular subject, or caveat his words as if he were giving a legal opinion.

And, in many cases, the omission of qualifications or context may make a statement utterly misleading, if not downright false. Such that any hack would want to nitpick. In other cases, the comment may simply be irrelevant to the point the pol is making.

The examples Yglesias gives illustrate the fact: they are very far from being all of a piece.

Opening graf:
A Dec. 10 wire story took a look at a recent Democratic debate and concluded that Democrats "sometimes leave out the facts" in their critiques of the Bush administration. For example: "[S]everal of the nine candidates criticized the tax cuts George W. Bush pushed through Congress. But none mentioned that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan . . . has cited those cuts as a reason for the recent economic growth." Shocking! Sources indicate that the candidates also failed to mention the Tuesday-evening chicken wings special at the Lucky Bar and my little brother's late guinea pig, creatively named Guinea.

Up to a point, Lord Copper!

I'm no economics expert; but I am fairly sure than one effect commonly seen when a government cuts taxes is an increase in growth. I believe I may even once or twice have seen growth suggested as a reason to cut taxes.

Tax cuts can also lead to inflation, and higher interest rates and an increase in trade deficits and other bad stuff. There's a balance to be struck. And if a pol mentions all the negative features of a tax cut, but none of the positive features (of which growth would be a major one), that would be misleading. Politics as usual, but misleading.

So Pickler pointing out the growth effect would be germane to the issue.

(Deceased livestock - not so much.)

Further down, he has Pickler
charging that "when he criticizes Bush's links to [former Enron CEO Ken] Lay, [former Gov. Howard] Dean [D-Vt.] never mentions that Enron's mismanagement was not a result of the president's tax-cut package." Similarly, Dean never mentions that the No Child Left Behind Act was not responsible for the Iraq War.

On the face of it, an example of a nitpick that wasn't germane.

Then,
Pickler made her distaste for Dean pretty clear with an Oct. 25 story castigating the former governor's inability to correctly spell "spondylolysis" (Microsoft Word's spell checker doesn't know it, either!), a type of vertebrae stress fracture from which Dean has suffered since his days as a high-school runner, and which rendered him ineligible for military service. She then noted that "Dean said he decided not to correct the problem because it would require an extensive operation with a long recovery time. But when he got his draft lottery number . . . he took his X-rays and a letter from his orthopedic surgeon to Fort Hamilton, an Army installation in Brooklyn, N.Y." -- thus winning the 2003 award for Creative Use of the Word "But" in Political Reporting. By inserting a single word, an innocuous fact was magically transformed into an insinuation of draft dodging. Ta-da!

Again, a couple of things that are not on all fours: the spelling thing: irrelevant. Give you that.

But the draft-dodging. If the facts stated (in particular, the timings, obviously) are true, I think that but is justified: the receipt of the lottery, followed by changing his mind on the op: I'd say that was probative. If the facts stated are true (I'm making an assumption, like on summary judgement).

What politicians face is a Filter problem - as Bush kindly spelt out, so that we were all on the same page. He wants to say what he wants to say - nothing more, nothing less. And the damned Filter is reporting something different. All pols have the problem. They supply the rushes, but the hacks edit the movie, and they film some extra scenes to cut in, too.

But compare now with the old days, the hey-day of objective journalism: when a Senator could get his words reported as he said them in the news pages of the newspapers, without interleaved comments or sidebars from smartass hacks. Any chi-iking would be penned way off in the op-ed pages, out of harm's way.

In those days, the words of a Senator were treated with the respect they deserved. Weren't they?

And the organisation largely responsible for passing on the good Senator Joseph McCarthy's wise words free from journalistic interference was Associated Press - who just happen to be Nedra Pickler's employers. Yglesias rightly points to the continuing position of AP as the supplier of news to a whole army of small and medium-sized papers, who, I suspect, often use AP stuff edited only for space.

If hacks are using AP to spin for their own agendas, turning in misleading stories which they know will not be queried by AP members in the sticks, that would be a quality control issue for AP.

But AP hacks - or any other, for that matter - are surely under no obligation merely to report without comment the words that fall from pols' lips. And the place to balance otherwise misleading statements is in, or close to, the text being qualified - not in some other section of the paper.

(The small paper point cuts both ways: if Pickler reports just the facts, and leaves it to members, or other AP journos, to supply the comment in op-ed pieces, chances are that the necessary qualification of the pols' statements will never appear in many outlets.)

Without wanting to overstate the issue, there is a possibly of speech-chilling here. Journos holding back for fear of being vilified - or, more likely, risk-averse proprietors not wanting scandal attaching to their product.

The agenda wars between Tony Blair's spin team (until recently under Alastair Campbell) and the BBC have been laid open to scrutiny in the Hutton Inquiry. Speech-chilling was the name of the game; and, though resistance was offered, the freedom that journalists felt seems to have been due more to organisational incompetence and laxness than any particular policy of defying Campbell and his rottweilers.

Similar campaigns were regularly waged by the Campbell mob against other UK news outlets.

My impression is that the US media is not completely immune from similar pressures - no doubt exerted in different ways.

In fact, journalism's effectiveness in holding pols to account is questionable, for all the talk of a culture of contempt, and informal media styles. A piece in the Columbia Journalism Review was bemoaning the lack of cutting edge in interviews with pols on TV - the medium where most voters get their political information from. Rarely does the journo get to set the agenda; for all the heat sometimes generated, only very rarely does a hack lay a glove on the pol in a way as to do significant damage.

The days when the facts are sacred - and the words spoken by a pol were facts - are surely over. (For one thing, we're rather more sophisticated about what exactly a fact is.)

To quote Justice Brandeis's well-known statement from Whitney v California:
If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.

Clearly, with Pickler, we're not talking about Palmer Raids: it's self-censorship that's liable to be the main problem with the media if the Filter idea gains bipartisan support amongst the pols.

If the public can be persuaded - and this is a public around half of which believe in Creationism and a JFK assassination conspiracy (December 10) - that the media, in their riding the pols, questioning their every nod and pause, are being anti-democratic - un-American, even - a climate more hostile to journalistic enquiry might result.

That sounds unlikely. More likely, there's a marginal shift in public attitudes and journalistic behaviour. But even a marginal shift would be undesirable.

  1. Nedra is #1414 on the 1990 Census list of girls' names. Right next to Precious..

MORE

Nedra Pickler now has her very own watcher blog at What A Pickler.


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