How an “Objective” Press Covers Liars

I think there’s some irrational exuberance in Peter Beinart’s latest piece in The Atlantic. Certainly the headline (The Death of ‘He Said, She Said’ Journalism) goes too far. It’s nice that the New York Times reported on Donald Trump’s abandonment of Birtherism by calling it the abandonment of a “lie” and noting that he offered no apology. It’s nice that they did this on the “front page, top right—the most precious space in American print journalism.” But, this is still an aberration. It’s not the “death” of “he said, she said” journalism.

Beinart uses a pretty good example to illustrate the problem created when political actors brazenly lie.

For an example of such a story, consider the way the Times covered George W. Bush’s claim, during his campaign against John Kerry, that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with Al Qaeda. “Bush and Cheney Talk Strongly of Qaeda Links With Hussein,” noted a Times headline on June 18, 2004. Why were Bush and Cheney raising the subject? Because the day before, the 9/11 Commission had reported that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda did not have a “collaborative relationship.” Nonetheless, the Times reported Bush’s claims and Kerry’s response as equally valid. Bush himself had helped create the Commission to provide an authoritative, nonpartisan account of the events leading up to 9/11. Yet the Times refused to grant its view any more weight than Bush’s own. It refused to render any judgment about what was true.

It’s true that the press struggled mightily to report on the Bush administration’s propensity to tell Big Lies with no shame, and certainly Vice-President Dick Cheney and his minions were the most guilty in this regard. They were also masters of trading access for at least neutral reporting of their falsehoods. An outfit like the New York Times wanted the Veep’s office to answer the phone when their reporters called. They wanted to get scoops and leaks from the Naval Observatory. As a result, they regurgitated whatever nonsense about Al- Qaeda or Iraq that Cheney’s team churned out, often with no more skepticism than noting what they were printing couldn’t be independently confirmed. If you followed the Valerie Plame affair and the trial of Scooter Libby, you saw how this worked very clearly.

The most infamous example involved the Judith Miller and Michael Gordon story on aluminum tubes that ran on September 8th, 2002. The short version is that Cheney’s shop leaked bad intel to the Times reporters about Iraq buying tubes that were supposed to have no other possible purpose than in an uranium-enriching centrifuge. Once the article was published on a Sunday morning, Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and told Tim Russert about previously classified information.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Specifically aluminum tubes. There’s a story in The New York Times this morning- this is-I don’t-and I want to attribute The Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.

The Times was taken for a ride, but they valued Judith Miller’s ability to get access to people like Scooter Libby. Had they accurately reported that they were being used as a conduit to leak selective and highly contentious national security intelligence, their access would have dried up.

So, the need (and it is a need) for access is one reason why the ‘objective’ press is reluctant to report lies as lies. Another reason is that they worry about alienating huge chunks of their audience (or potential audience) if they’re perceived as taking sides in political debates. They believe that they’ll undermine their credibility and their reach if they come out and flatly assert that one side of the political divide is flatly wrong or lying.

When you combine this desire for access with the value they place on being perceived as objective and non-partisan, it becomes much too easy to manipulate them into promulgating talking points, innuendo, and big and small lies.

There’s no easy way out of this conundrum for a press outfit that aspires to be ‘objective.’ But it really becomes an acute problem when there’s a massive disparity between the basic honesty of the two sides of the political divide. It’s true that Hillary Clinton has told a whopper or two in her history, but there’s nothing in her record to compare to Trump’s multiyear Birther project or even his day-to-day lie-a-minute campaign.

In this case, the Times was incensed enough to break their standard of practice and report Trump’s Birther comments for what they were. But the way he lies and the way the Republican Party, more broadly, has abandoned reality-based politics is breaking the whole model of ‘objective’ journalism.

If they want to be truthful and ‘objective,’ they have little choice at this point to give up on the idea that they can avoid the perception that they’re taking sides. They’re going to have to lose some of their reputation for even-handedness in order to maintain their credibility with the reality-based community.

In other words, when one side nominates a Birther, it’s not possible or advisable to try to maintain some kind of perceived journalistic neutrality with the Birther’s supporters.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.