For your consideration, a quote:
The Globe reporter, in short, saw something that did arguably raise questions. She looked into it. She found nothing. Then rather than printing nothing — since, after all, that’s what she found — she instead went to press with a story that “raises questions” — a formulation that simply amounts to a presumption of guilt.
Say, who described Andrea Estes’ latest hatchet-job so accurately?
OK, actually it’s not a quote. It’s a paraphrase of Matthew Yglesias, talking about the New York Times’ treatment of Barack Obama investments.
This is to point out that the Globe’s new school of smoke-without-fire journalism has analogues on our national scene. Did you see this hatchet job on John Edwards’ real estate deals? Or maybe you remember Whitewater. All copiously documented with facts and figures, all utterly lacking in anything you’d call proof of bad behavior, and all refusing to acknowledge alternative, un-venal — indeed likelier — explanations for the subject’s actions.
The first and most important question that Estes should have addressed in the Buckley/Walsh/DIA story should have been this: Is Judge Buckley qualified to be head of the Department of Industrial Accidents? Is it likely that he’d do a decent job? Instead, we read at length about his (considerable) political connections, his past salaries, his pension prospects. These are relevant. But simple fairness and decency requires a reporter to question and temper her own null-hypothesis narrative, which here was clearly “Patrick Hires Hacks!” Never mind that a balanced story, including that information that doesn’t fit the easy talking points, is actually a heck of a lot more interesting, IMO.
But once the non-story hits the paper, of course, the damage is done. In the guise of — actually, in place of — journalistic objectivity, a highly tendentious narrative enters the political bloodstream. Pretty spinny, huh?
Certiably Sane Guy Kevin Drum points out some potential reasons why these kinds of stories get written:
- Reporters just hate the idea of spending a bunch of time on a story and then not having anything to show for it. This is actually an even bigger problem in the field of “trend analysis,” where the actual evidence often turns out to suggest that nothing much is going on but the juicy anecdotal stories are nonetheless too good to pass up.
- Reporters often toss out half-formed stories like the Obama one (or the Edwards house story) in hopes that beating the bushes will dislodge some additional information. What better way of letting people know that they should call you with tips than by printing an accusatory story on the front page?
The downside of all this, of course, is that newspapers routinely print stuff that’s unfair and/or misleading. But I guess they figure that’s a small price to pay.
So here’s a rule of thumb: We should all watch out for stories that purport to “raise questions” or “raise concerns” about someone’s actions or reputation. Either the reporter has really got the goods, or she doesn’t.
And if not, she should simply document the story as it really was by deadline time — without unwarranted conjectures and insinuations of base motives. It’s perfectly OK to say, “There’s nothing there.”
PS: Again, our MA blogosphere is all over this.
- Mass. Liberal asks the right questions.
- Dedham Blog, in truly excellent journalistic fashion, does a Google search and finds that gosh golly, this Buckley guy sure seems qualified for the gig. Who knew?
- Ryan compares the tone of the Globe’s coverage of Romney’s early days to Patrick’s.