Stop lying to the public: some notes on the faux-ethics of the press

CountyFair had an important and much-needed lesson in journalistic ethics for us this morning. The key points:

First: it should never, ever be considered acceptable to quote a candidate or official making a false claim without noting its falsity. Reporters do this all the time, justifying it by saying they’re just presenting both sides, or that they aren’t making the false claim, they’re just reporting it, or saying they corrected three other false claims in the article. That is not sufficient: if a journalist includes a false or misleading claim in their news report — in any form — without indicating that is false, they are actively helping to spread misinformation.

Second: the way in which news reports debunk misinformation matters a great deal. If Candidate A lies about Candidate B, for example, the fact that Candidate A is lying should be the lede – otherwise the news report just drills the false claim into readers’ and viewers’ minds, allowing the misinformation to take hold before it is corrected. As I wrote in my column on Friday, the news media too often privileges lies rather than punishing them.

To put it simply, we need a press that, when it hears a public figure lying, understands that the story isn’t the substance of the lie, which therefore needs repeating; it’s that a public figure is lying. And it’s okay to use these words. When a public figure says something that is patently false, and that he or she knows or ought to know, as a matter of basic competence, then it is okay to report what happened: Candidate A lied this morning. That is not opinion – it is a statement of fact.

So I second MediaMatters (and the Shankar Vedantam piece they’re riffing on) here. I’d also like to broaden the discussion a bit in order to provide some context for the appropriate use of terms like “negative ad,” “go/went negative” and “attack ad.” I heard one of the network nitwits this morning talking about another round of “attack ads” – a lede that reinforces the message that the candidates are campaigning “negatively.” This approaching to packaging the story pretends that the claims of the ads are irrelevent. If Candidate A indicts Candidate B for lying, and Candidate B shoots back with an ad that lies about Candidate A some more, a reporter (or morning show host pretending to be a reporter) who frames these events as an exchange of negative ads has not only failed to accurately report the story, he or she has in fact added to the lie.

All “negative” ads are not alike, and I’d be grateful if someone would explain the difference to the collected asshaberdashery at NBC “News.” Let’s illustrate with a couple examples:

  • Congressman Bob has been using his office to conduct all manner of graft and fraud for 20 years and a recent investigation has brought it all to light. His challenger, Assemblywoman Jane, runs an ad pointing all this out and saying that it’s time to run the criminals out of the statehouse.
  • Congressman Bob runs an ad accusing Assemblywoman Jane of being a communist millionaire crook who blows lobbyists under her desk. All of these assertions are either demonstrably false or at the very least based on little more than Bob’s imagination.

NBC leads its morning show with a story about mudslinging in the campaign and repeats the substance of the charges in the story without making clear that one ad is truthful while the other is bad creative writing. In doing so, they have certainly provided “balance,” but they have also done to the truth what the guys in that shop did to Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. They not only fail to bring truth to the audience, their malfeasance helps the audience internalize an outright lie.

It’s reached the point where as soon as I hear the term “negative campaigning,” or any iteration thereof, I immediately assume that I’m about to be lied to. If the source is one I know to usually be credible, I figure they simply haven’t thought about how they’ve bought into this corrosive, corruption-enabling canard, which must originally have been fabricated on the same hellish meme-forge that gave us “Japan-bashing” and “flip-flopping.”

If I hear it from a member of the mainstream press or someone who gets their information about the world from those corporatist sources, I assume either stupidity, intentional dishonesty or a measure of both.

Regardless of the source or intent, however, this kind of uncritical, half-educated rage for the faux-ethics of “balance” and “fairness” is doing very real damage to our society. Given the central role played by Big Media in our politics, then, the first step in holding our leaders to a higher standard is to demand that the press hold itself to some kind of standard – and really, just about any kind of standard would be an improvement.

15 replies »

  1. So, who gets to decide who is lying? The reporters themselves?

    It’s already being done. This is exactly reason the media is pathetic today. The reporters insert their own value judgments into the stories they write. I’d much rather be told the facts of the case and let me draw my own conclusions. However, there are very few news outlets or reporters that do that anymore.

    As a general rule-of-thumb I always assume that it’s the MEDIA that is lying. It’s been my experience that the media delivers more lies than politicians — and politicians lie all the time.

  2. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Facts may be misunderstood, but there is only ever a single set of facts. Any claim that is demonstrably false according to the facts is a lie.

    If a reporter fails to research a claim sufficiently to report on the factual basis of a claim, then either a) the report shouldn’t be run in the first place or b) the report shouldn’t be run in the first place. If the facts are researched to be one thing and are later found to have been misunderstood, then a correction must be run. How bad the factual misunderstanding was determines how big the correction must be.

    Seem’s pretty simple to me.

  3. Fritz, I don’t think I suggest anywhere above that reporters substitute their judgment for facts. If there’s a question of judgment, or fuzzy interpretation, or legitimate doubt, then that’s one thing.

    What I’m talking about is when a candidate LIES. Like saying “I voted against bill X” when the record shows, in black and white, that he did the precise opposite.

    You know, things like that. If they can get the obvious stuff right I’ll deal with the gray areas on my own.

  4. Dr. Slammy,

    What is your opinion of media guys that inject editorial content and invective into their newscasts? I’m referring to guys like Matthews and Olbermann, and a bunch of guys on the right side of the aisle.


  5. Jeff: there is a difference between reporting and commentary (at least, at this moment in our history; whether that’s good or bad we can debate another day). I’m not talking about the opinioneers here. Some of them are quite helpful. These are the ones who proceed from a foundation of facts and are guided by an ethos that privileges a good-faith search for truth over raw ideology.

    It’s true for ALL of us that our ideologies and our theories about the world sometimes come into conflict with facts and evidence that doesn’t fit with our preconceived notions. When this happens, some people slam the square peg of the facts into the round hole of their dogma and clip merrily along as though black really were white. Others alter their theories to account for the new information.

    I think you can guess which sort I prefer.

  6. Thanks! They got caught up in “false equality.”

    Obviously you don’t need to have someone from the Flat Earth Society on your show each time someone happens to mention that the world is round. YET, that’s what started happening, starting during Regan.

    They pushed the idea that there was a “liberal bias” to the news. At the same time (remember money talks!) it APPEARED as though Fox “News” was garnering a large audience. So, trembling with fear, they went for this false notion of balance and started giving equal time to liars and morons.

    “The man can sit on the elephant, but the elephant should not sit on the man.”

    They would say, “because a man can sit on an elephant, it is only FAIR that the elephant gets to also sit on the man!”

    It’s only fair…

  7. The problem with this mild-mannered complaint strategy is that it ignores the obvious nature of corporate media as an instrument of propaganda — fundamentally — not some organ of truth telling that needs a little prodding.

    That is a myth which should be dispensed with completely. I thought Chomsky/Herman already set the record straight in Manufacturing Consent?

    The “lies” delved into above are trivial and mostly inconsequential compared to the massive propaganda efforts at promoting militarism, official enemies, and covering up what is arguably Treason at the highest levels. Failure to competently investigate is the real sin, part of a larger program of mass mind control, the real reason for the current state of what they tell you is “news.”

    From Pearl Harbor being a deliberate “provocation” and not a “surprise attack” at all, up through 9/11, to the latest CIA sponsored would-be terror attack exposed by German authorities the other day, Americans are perhaps the most ignorant people alive today.

    Thanks to their gullibility, their national myths and their obliviousness. All promoted by the corporate press of course.

    Carry on.

  8. The shadow of a hair’s
    turning, premeditated for an untrue purpose, the slightest twisting or
    perversion of that which is principle–these constitute falseness.

  9. In Daytona Beach we have a similar problem not only corruption is rampant but this is a one-newspaper town with the associated manipulations by a press controlled by a single individual. In the short few months we have been on the net, we have acquired over 15,000 readers evidencing the hunger of the local population for undistorted news.