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.