The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

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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Saturday, February 28, 2004

Over at the CJR Campaign Desk, what facts are they checking?

It's what you might call the ultimate watchblog; and its arguments with bloggers over publishing exit polls before the closing of voting have been amply covered by Jay Rosen.

The Campaign Desk is a worthwhile exercise, no doubt. But one entry (from February 11) raises the question in the hed:

It cites an AP piece [1]:
Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., said he heard a 1998 speech in which then-President Clinton warned that something must be done about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. "Unfortunately, he did not complete that task before his term expired," Goss said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

CD cops a 'tude:
Huh? "Said he heard ... "?

By what journalistic standard does that qualify as attribution?

Has AP lost its contract with Nexis? Or has it just lost any pretence at attempting to nail down the facts? Has it no clue how to, say, peruse Clinton's 1998 speeches to see if Goss is talking through his hat or, conversely, if he's on to something?

Or is it, as we here at Campaign Desk have "heard," that AP's editors have a clause in their contracts letting them leave early on Wednesdays?

CJR hiring straight out of junior high these days?

The point is: What was the news here? Under the (chimeric) regime of objective journalism, the speech of a Congressman is a reportable event in itself. He may be speaking the purest bologna [2], but the rule is that what he says is ipso facto news; and that parsing or ridiculing is optional, and, if done at all, must be done in a different piece.

No doubt, the rule is imperfectly adhered to. But, for reasons which pass my understanding, there still seem to be plenty of hacks happy to defend its merits.

A notable exception was to be found in the pages of the CJR itself last year, in an article by David Greenberg [3] Calling a Lie a Lie: The dicey dynamics of exposing untruths. Greenberg ran through some Bush lies, and why the press had been reluctant to call him on them.

In contrast to juicy tabloid lies - Clinton's sex lies, say,
The lies reporters on what are usually more important matters: claims about public policy - taxes, abortion, the environment - where raising questions of truthfulness can seem awfully close to taking sides in a partisan debate. Most of Bush's lies have fallen in this demilitarized zone, where journalists fear to tread.

Now, checking the truthfulness of Goss' assertion about Clinton isn't exactly in the same league as questioning tax or abortion policy. But it would be questioning the truthfulness of an elected representative.

And the clear default of the system of objective journalism is that the elected representative will be treated as speaking the truth. (Though this clearly is utterly against the weight of the evidence!)

Absent this absurd convention, you'd hope that the natural curiosity of the journalist concerned would have impelled him to check Goss' statement out. (Campaign Desk couldn't spare a single Googling Monkey to do so, apparently: all too busy practising their flouncing, perhaps.)

But, then, as I've recorded umpteen times here, the media usually manage to stifle such natural curiosity pretty effectively: Robert Novak's South Dakota ballot-stuffing blast was never followed up, to take but one example close to home.

There is also the related Lord Hutton question. Hutton was adamant that there was no difference between an allegation made by the BBC, and an allegation made by a third party, but published by the BBC. In both cases, the BBC was to be held as responsible for the truth of the allegation.

In defamation law, one has the repetition rule - which says much the same. But, most hacks agreed when the Hutton Report came out, strict adherence to Hutton's Edict would make journalism practically impossible.

(Note that, when the BBC published the allegation by Clare Short that HMG had bugged Kofi Annan, there was nary a whisper that it had so grossly infringed Hutton's commandment barely a month after the tablets were Fedexed from Sinai!)

The irony is that, whereas it was American hacks who bellyached the most against the BBC post-Hutton, American-style objective journalism is the reverse of the Hutton rule: in reporting politicians' pronouncements, objective journalism views the newspaper as effectively interpleading in a suit between the pol and his public, or acting as a mere conduit.

On the substance of the Goss piece, I have to say, if I had been the journo concerned, it would have annoyed the hell out of me not to trace the speech and make sure it said what Goss said he remembered it saying. And I wouldn't have gone first to Nexis [4] - I'd have called up one of Goss' guys, given him the chat, used the inquiry as a pretext to probe what might really be on Goss' mind.

In other words, done some actual journalism. If that was ever allowed.

  1. It uses a Yahoo link - which only last a few days. (Wouldn't the CJR know this?) The ABC links are usually pretty durable - Googling Monkeys oblige...

  2. Bologna is (or was) notoriously the foodie capital of Italy, whose charcuterie is both excellent and expensive. It was also regularly ruled by Communist local administrations (1970s, 80s). Go figure.

  3. A piece I mentioned on September 8 2003.

  4. I've never used it. But Goss' vague formulation might make a keyword search time-consuming even on the professionals' gizmo.

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