September 1, 2009
There comes a time in every reporter’s life when he will have to grapple with how to cover bullshit.
It may be “death panels” in health care reform, conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate, scientific research spawning “cow people” or a silly spat between two senators being cast as the biggest hate crime since the assassination of Medgar Evers.
Didn’t hear about that last one? Well, here in Michigan, there’s something about solving a budget deficit that brings out the worst in our leaders. Two years ago during the state government shutdown, there were near-fisticuffs on the Senate floor between Tupac Hunter (D-Detroit) and John Pappageorge (R-Troy). Two months ago, Sens. Irma Clark-Coleman (D-Detroit) and Roger Kahn (R-Saginaw) had a tiff in a 22-second elevator ride following a contentious Appropriations Committee meeting.
Basically, Detroit didn’t fare well in community health funding, which peeved Clark-Coleman. Kahn didn’t like being told he was being “discriminatory” against Motown. I’ve seen worse antics on a playground (as well as more maturity), but the incident soon escalated when Clark-Coleman called the Michigan State Police and demanded for Kahn to be stripped of his committee chairmanship.
There was an investigation by the secretary of the Senate and plenty of colorful offerings from the Detroit senator, who claimed Kahn “charged me like a bull” and he “looked like a blowfish.” None of the witnesses, however, backed up her claim that Kahn was physically threatening or the heavy-handed implication that this was a major racial incident.
Still, that’s the story the Democrats wanted the media to tell, as they kept harping on the plight of a poor, 72-year-old grandmother. Luckily, we all could read the secretary’s report and let the facts speak for themselves. Not even the liberal blogs wanted to touch that one. So this looks to be the end of that story — until the Dems start running their “angry Kahn” ads next summer when he’s up for re-election, of course.
Slicing through spin and non-stories is one thing. But more and more, journalists today are expected to report on everything — every burp, sigh and tweet of those on their beats because readers supposedly care (snort) — which often includes total bunk.
The problem is that even if there’s no fundamental truth in a claim, reporters are assigned to cover it just the same. Why? Well, as we’re cheerfully told by teevee pundits: health care reform is boorrrring. But a board empowered to kill Grandma? Well, wake me up!
Those forced to cover those pitiful shoutfests laughably labeled “town halls” have it worst of all. Just fact checking all the misinformation being screeched at those migraine-inducing events would take a day. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent websites that may have already plowed this ground, like Factcheck.org and Politifact.com. Reporters can also take advantage of other newfangled technology, like linking to the exact section of the health care bill on end-of-life decisions, so that readers can see in black and white if faceless bureaucrats are angling to strangle the elderly.
The responsible journalist won’t merely transcribe a quote (no matter how good it is), but make sure it’s accurate. If it’s not, he has two choices: take it out or leave it in along with a sentence explaining what the facts are. I’ve done this a number of times while covering candidate debates, analyzing campaign ads and writing on controversial issues like abortion.
But there is a valid argument that doing any story at all on folks like the birthers — the few, the proud, the insane who have invented an intricate mythology as to how Barack Obama can’t be president — legitimizes their cause. (My personal favorite is the oh-so-clever, gee-whiz story about how all the other sleazy media are covering the extremists de jour).
However, there is an interesting dance in American politics in which the more you tend to ignore the big-splash crazypants theories — the Clintons killed Vince Foster; George W. Bush knew about 9/11 — the more they mushroom. And in this day and age of media meltdown, no one wants to get beaten on a story, like how the National Enquirer broke the John Edwards affair. So outlets end up covering everything, feigning disgust at the tawdry, the sensational. Sadly, it’s true that you never have trouble finding an audience.
Of course, as an opinion columnist I have the advantage of being able to call bullshit when I see it without fear of compromising any “objectivity.” That can still get me in trouble, like with a pro-life reader who convinced a newspaper to stop running my column after I had the nerve to criticize the patently false campaign against Proposal 2 that legalized embryonic stem cell research in Michigan. (The gutlessness and fecklessness of newspaper management will have to wait for another column.)
But as much as I disagree with the anti-2 Michigan Catholic Conference, the group is nothing if not persistent. Last year, the conference dumped millions (which must have come from tithings although MCC officials won’t say) into sinister ads warning the research would lead to cow-people hybrids straight out of a bad science fiction flick. Even though the group lost in November, an MCC spokesman just last week spent five hours trying to debate me via e-mail over outrageous claims like that, which he insists are “facts.”
The No. 1 political strategy, of course, is to muddy the waters enough that no one knows the difference between fact and fiction. During a recent Senate Education Committee meeting, Chair Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland) heard conflicting testimony on the efficacy of charter schools.
“Can’t there just be one study we all agree on?” he asked in exasperation.
As a reporter, that’s a sentiment I’ve shared for years. But the answer is: of course not, senator. That would be too easy — and mean some PR flack was falling down on the job.
Susan J. Demas is a 2006 Knight Foundation Fellow in nonprofits journalism and a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service.