National Public Radio: The Facts and the Truth

NPR has changed its rules for journalists [HTs and more discussion: Daily Kos, James Fallows] from reporting “both sides” of any issue to including expert judgment about the sides’ relative weight. This is a very big deal. Print journalism used to be quite partisan, but around the turn of the 20th century, wire services started to market a product designed to be attractive to all newspapers, and invented the idea of “balanced reporting” presented as an ethical principle, a bowl of grits model of news: tasteless, vitamin-free calories that can’t offend anyone. The idea was to stick to facts, and to present them in pairs. This degenerate idea of fairness and ‘accuracy’ became a de facto standard for newspapers generally. For example: “Galileo Galilei announced today that three moons circle Jupiter, but the Bishop of Padua said that was impossible.” Martin Linsky used to demand that the press report the truth and not just the facts: that Galileo and the bishop said what they said are indeed facts, but it’s essential for the reader to know that Galileo had seen the moons doing their thing with a telescope, while the bishop only had an dogeared copy of Aristotle. Supply your own current illustration from, for example, climate science reporting.

So-called “he said/she said” reporting, as the NPR code now recognizes, makes the reporter the servant of her sources and not the reader/listener. Reporters are not just selling news to us; they are selling us to politicians, lobbyists, and their other sources, and they are paid by access. If your copy isn’t useful to a senator, the senator will not return your calls. When the senator says what is not true, and the reporter says “Senator Foghorn lied to a press conference this morning”, the reporter is being useful to us but not to the senator, and her editor will wonder why Foghorn’s bill funding a new highway was in all the other papers first.

If NPR’s understanding of what it really means to report catches on, the news is going to get a lot more useful and interesting. It will also lead to some ugly battles between politicians and corporate shills accustomed to the idea that they have some right to pump any kind of nonsense through the media, and real journalists trying to do their jobs. And keep their jobs in a world where reprinting press releases and sending a reporter to stand in the rain on camera to tell us it’s raining somewhere is more and more all the industry can afford. Until we fix the broken business model for content, things may get even worse before they get better, but NPR is on the side of the angels (and on ours) here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.