Journalistic Mal-Practice Undermines Old Media Claims vs. New

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Feb 14, 2009 at 12:00

This week, President Obama made news when he called on Sam Stein of the Huffington Post at his first press conference.  It was, indeed, a significant occasion, a milestone in loosening the death grip that old media has had on our nation.

Examples of this death grip are legion.  A few of the biggies include Whitewater, the multi-million dollar manufactured media scandal over a decade-old failed land deal. The media-assisted suppression of scientific evidence that global warming is a real and serious threat to human civilization as we know it.  The media-assisted theft of the 2000 election.  The media-assisted lie-based invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the arch-enemy of bin Laden.  These are not minor failures. Indeed, they're not failures at all: they are evidence of old media's true function, which is not to inform, but to deceive, and to do so in the interests of powerful reactionary elite interests.

I'm planning on writing about several major examples this weekend, but I thought I'd start off with something seemingly minor, a single story highlighted by Media Matters for America (MMFA) earlier this month.  Because sometimes it's easier to grasp a problem by seeing it in minuature.  And because one sees such seemingly minor examples virtually all the time.  

Paul Rosenberg :: Journalistic Mal-Practice Undermines Old Media Claims vs. New
It's routinely argued that old media--particularly newspapers--are superior, because they do "orginal reporting" while bloggers are merely parasitical on what newspapers reporters do.  Of course, this is very often the case, just as most opinion column are parasitical on newspaper reporters, too.

But it's not necessarily the case, and it's likely to be less and less the case as time goes by.  With the vast online publication of information from primary sources, government, scientific and professional reports and the like, the value of traditional journalists largely revolves around their ability to see the same things that anyone online can see, and then to ask the right questions to penetrate beyond what was originally presented.  And this is precisely where they routinely fail, not just falling short, but often amplifying the very lies and distortions they should be stripping away.

So, here's MMFA:

AP compared Obama's hiring of progressives at DOJ to Bush administration's alleged illegal hiring practices

Summary: In an article about criticisms of President Obama's nominations for Justice Department positions based on the nominees' "backgrounds" and "past clients," the AP's Devlin Barrett wrote: "Accusations of political manipulation at the Justice Department are not new. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has been investigated and excoriated by Democrats for making firing and hiring decisions based on political considerations." But there is no comparison between Obama's appointment of progressives to political jobs at DOJ and the Bush administration's alleged illegal use of political criteria to fill career DOJ jobs.

Indeed, the Bush politicization of the DOJ goes far beyond simply politicizing the process of hiring career staff using political criteria.  The whole point of hiring conservative Republicans was not simply to give them cushy jobs they weren't qualified for (although some possible were qualified, but those didn't need their help).  No, their purpose was to use the DOJ as a political weapon to attack, and attempt to destroy, the Democratic Party.  This is how a whole range of improper and illegal practices all tied together.  So MMFA is merely focusing on the most minimal aspects of what's required for accurate reporting here.

Here's the key passage from the AP story itself:

Accusations of political manipulation at the Justice Department are not new. Over the past two years, the Bush administration has been investigated and excoriated by Democrats for making firing and hiring decisions based on political considerations.

Tom Minnery, a vice president at Focus on the Family, charges that through the nominations, the new Democratic administration is not depoliticizing, but re-politicizing the Justice Department.

"They take our breath away the more we learn about these people," said Minnery. "This is left-wing politicization of the Justice Department. This is not a Justice Department that looks like America."

In it's critique of the AP story, MMFA relied entirely on the July 28, 2008 DOJ report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG), titled "An Investigation of Allegations of Politicized Hiring by Monica Goodling and Other Staff in the Office of the Attorney General." (PDF)  In the natural course of standard journalistic practice, this is the sort of crucial document that a beat reporter would have read. That's precisely the sort of intimate understanding that reporters are supposed to bring to their jobs, which the rest of us are supposed to lack.  MMFA did not "engage in reporting" according to the standard narrative.  They were "just blogging."

And yet, MMFA managed to unearth and highlight the most fundamental distinction between political appointees and career attorneys (something every beat reporter ought to know like the back of their hand), and present it using compelling quotes from an unimpeachable authoritative source.

In short, although MMFA was "just blogging" while AP was doing "real reporting", it was MMFA that produced a sound journalistic product while AP did not.

Now, as noted above, there's a great deal more that could be said about this subject.  Indeed, when I did a two-part story on the historical context behind the DOJ scandals for Random Lengths News, I interviewed former DOJ officials in the Civil Rights Division going back as far as the 1960s, to get a long-term perspective on the relationship between political and career attorneys and the roles of ideology and partisanship.  Significantly, while ideology intruded sharply into the picture during the Reagan Administration, I discovered that partisanship did not, and this was the truly unique difference between the Bush Administration and all others that had gone before it in modern times.

In short, there is something quite unique about the Bush Administration--not just partisan Democratic claims--and there is nothing unusual about the Obama Adminstration.  This is not just my opinion.  This is what every person I interviewed told me, and it is reflected in all the written material I gathered during my research as well.

There is nothing really unusual about this AP story.  That's the point.  Reporters routinely present their reporting within the generic "he said/she said" frame, with no regards whatsoever for the underlying factual reality.  They make no distinction between when someone is lying or when someone else is telling the truth.  There can be 20, 30, 40 years of history on one side, versus a newly spun lie on the other.  Makes no difference.  A quote is a quote is a quote.

But as this example makes clear the impact of the "he said/she said" frame is not just on the foreground presentation of the story, it impacts the entire process of framing the news, including the most fundamental decision of what constitutes "a story."  Here, a totally bogus rightwing claim is being made.  What makes that a story?  Rightwingers make bogus claims every hour of every day of the week. What's the news here?  There is none, really, if your grounded in the historical reality of the beat you are covering.  But if you're grounded in the "he said/she said" ethos, then anything that's said can be the basis for a story, and the wilder the claim, the farther removed from reality, the more of a story it is likely to be.

As this small example of a story illustrates, that formula directly undermines the claim that newspaper reporting is fundamental, and blogging is merely parasitical.  What is fundamental is conveying an historically accurate account of significant occurances, and AP quite simply failed to do this.  Such failures are endemic throughout the M$M on daily, hourly and story-by-story basis.

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For decades, this has been my lament (4.00 / 11)
The mythical remake of Reagan as a hero actually started while the man was in office.  The press ignored his support of Pinochet; the press ignored the truth about Iran-Contra.

The press spun and spun and spun and spun FOR Reagan.  Maybe I just dropped out during the Bush I years, but I clearly remember the press going nuts, demonizing women when Hillary became first lady. How dare that woman her own person.  It was clear.  How dare her keep her own last name (during her years in Arkansas).  Not one think about the good she did for poor women in Arkansas.  She dare her.

Then during the Whitewater crap I was sickened.  The obsession with a land deal, with a blowjob, while for years they ignored the death, torture and mayhem done in Chile, in Nicaragua, in Guatemala, that was enabled, assisted by American power brokers.  In the 1980s, while women were being beaten, killed, enslaved by men in Afghanistan whom the Americans armed and finance, the press was silent about it.  A decade later, David Broder was disgusted that "that man (white trash from Arkansas) was allowed in office, while his worship of despot lovers, torture lovers, went unchallenged.

What the press did to Al Gore, because of their hatred of Bill Clinton, to this day angers me.  The same hypocrites pretending to be anti war (Matthews and his buddies on MSNBC) have blood on their hands.  They aided and abetted in stealing the 2000 election because of their resentment of the Clintons.    Their feelings were hurt because two people who they trashed personally for years did not treat them as they thought they should be treated.  So they trashed, lied about, spun against Gore for a dry drunk idiot who has trashed the country.

The media talking heads who put Bush into office, the ones who love their power, their money, the plutocracy need to be taken down.  But they won't be.  They are truly lapdogs of their rich corporate masters.

Yes, the press ANGERS me....

Good Rant. Well Deserved. (4.00 / 3)
The difference now is that we don't have to just take it anymore.  And that's what's driving them crazy.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Big business (4.00 / 2)
The media is big business and as such needs to defend its turf. It also needs to curry favor with government which it goes to frequently for favors.

These range from waivers on cross ownership of newspapers and TV stations to favorable mailing rates for magazines like "Time". One does not bite the hand that feeds you.

With few exceptions those in the blogosphere are not making a living from this activity. Most get nothing from the effort while for a few it is just a (slightly paid) sideline. If they offend the big powers the worst that might happen is they will lose their audience. Ego crushing, perhaps, not not much of a financial blow.

I don't know whether picking Huffington Post's reporter was an acknowledgment of the rise of alternative media, or was one of the few choices Obama had to pick a "liberal" to ask a question.

The media is represented by the "neutral" center like the NY Times and the three networks. These are actually pro business and definitely in support of the status quo. And then there are the overtly rightwing outlets like Fox and the Limbaugh network. There are no national presences like these on the left so who else could Obama have called on if he wanted to balance the questioners?

Ed Shultz was in the front row and made a big deal about it on his radio show the next day, but he didn't get to ask a question (which he said would have been about organized labor). I imagine most people reading this will say: "Ed who?". Exactly.  

Policies not Politics

Good post, Paul. (4.00 / 3)
Two points.  First, the AP lacks journalitic integrity.  They are similar yto Fox News, running right wing stories all the time.  Your exemple is perfect.  Along with the fact that the story is factually wrong, they present Focus on the Family as a "reasonable" critic.

Second, much of what the press does is paraphrase print press releases.  Now that politicans make those available on the internet, as well as makinga vailable You Tubes, the press and bloggers are equalized in many ways.

How much actual investigative journalism is there anymore?

Paraphrasing press releases (4.00 / 2)
I used to head up a small theater company and we were always amazed how many times a "news" story about one of our productions or about our theater would quote word for word big chunks of our press release.

When I first started doing politics I went to a training on the media and campaigns and we had several people who had worked on small campaigns -- town clerk and such -- talk about how their local newspaper would often print their campaign press releases as stories.

I wonder how often that happens on bigger stories?

Today's excesses (4.00 / 5)
This morning I went into my local Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee.  The article on the stimulus was AP boilerplate but neither the article nor the headline could be said to be balanced.  

"Democrats muscle through huge stimulus" screamed the headline.  There was nothing there about the stimulus being half the size of Bush's tax cutss, less than a third the size of the ultimate cost of Bush's war (no, not the $600 billion, the $3 trillion a nobel prize winning economist not named Krugman said the war would cost according to Bush's own budgets).  

Steny Hoyer, a conservative Democrat was matched up even-steven with John Boehner in the quote department except Boehner's quote was signifucantly more colorful and eloquent.  Boehner ain't that good.  This was a cherry picked stunt.  Otoh, Hoyer's a stab in the back devil and Pelosi or some real progressive should have been quoted.

Even "complimentary" articles are lies.  The Washington Post had a long article saying only FBIs 100 days rivaled the scope of Obama's stimulus victory when Bush baby clearly exceeded the scope greatly and caused great problems.  Nice but not true doesn't cut it, guys.  You are basically saying this is it.

Want something really rich?  Tim Pawlenty whose bridge-repair veto led directly to a bridge-collapse fiasco is busy laying off state employees and simultaneously pushing for a large business tax cut.  Nothing there about the wisdom gap Pawlenty had previously shown or the giant gree of a long series of business grabs that economists prove to be non-productive.  It is funny, really, that I can only think of on example where Republican budget "wizardry" was turned on them: the Iowa election where ex-House budget chair Nussle bragged on his budget experience and his opponent said that the experience in creating huge deficits and poor growth proved he was not competent to hold higher office.  Might have been Chet Culver for office but if Rob Portman runs for the Senate in Ohio I want to see the same tactic used against him.

Want "investigative jornalism?"  The Washington Post expended five pages in its web edition on a hit job against the University of Maryland men's basketball coach.  No scandals, mind you.  Not in 22 years.  Only he hadn't won a national title in 7 years and the locals wanted to hire somebody else who would "do a better job of local recruiting."  Part I of III.  Cover Bush, nah.  Try to get Gary Williams fired?  Oh, that's investigative journalism at the WaPo.

Yup (4.00 / 1)
It's everywhere you look.

That's why I decided to take just tiny little bit in this particular diary.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Going to primary sources (4.00 / 1)
I needed to read a righteous rant this morning. Sick and tired of the manufactured outrage about the "pork-laden" stimulus package and the 13-year-old daddy in the UK. I wanted to add to your comments about the lazy, access-driven reporting that generates all the blather we read and hear every day. I think the bloggers who do the document mining and hard slogging through primary sources owe a lot to I.F. Stone. He came from the ranks of daily newspaper journalism to The Nation, then to his own I.F. Stone's Weekly in the early '50s. He elevated the mining of public domain information and government reports to the highest journalistic art. The man reported circles around the corporate media of the day. The best bloggers are now standing of I.F. Stone's shoulders. In fact, Marcy Wheeler bears a slight resemblance...hmmmm.  

IF Stone Had It Hard (0.00 / 0)
He actually had to go to archives, or at the very least order government reports.  All we have to do nowadays in 19 cases out of 20 or better, is click the "download" button.

No PJ's for Izzy, poor dude.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Right you are, Paul (0.00 / 0)
Izzy had to do it manually. Anyone interested in learning a bit more about I.F. Stone should check out  

[ Parent ]
If I ever (4.00 / 1)
wrote a book about the American media the title would be "Gaslighting a Nation."

All this time they've been playing games, trying to make us think we are the crazy ones, that we can't believe what we see with our own eyes, or even trust our own memories. But we are not the crazy ones.

Montani semper liberi

Link When You Say That, Pahdnuh! (4.00 / 1)
Like this: Gaslighting

Or this: Gaslighting

It's amazing how many folks don't know what this is.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Thanks! (4.00 / 1)

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
I didn't know what this was (4.00 / 2)
thank you for the links.  The Wikipedia link is better though.

And thank you for educating me about this term.  I have been the victim of this but never knew what to call it.  I love having this word.

[ Parent ]
Yes, Wikipedia Is Better (0.00 / 0)
but the second link has a sort of folksy daytime-tv-talk-show-style charm about it.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Only (4.00 / 1)
they never did tell us "how to gasproof your life."

Wait, I know the answer to that one -- hang out with better people.

Old media, you have been warned.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]

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