Grunwald on the Latest Dirty Political Ads

From Michael Grunwald in the Washington Post: The Year Of Playing Dirtier.

Experts say that in the past, negative ads were usually more accurate, better documented and more informative than positive ads; there was a higher burden of proof. Stanford’s Iyengar thinks that is still true for candidate-funded messages, which now require candidates to say they approved them. But it is not true when the messages are produced by political parties, shadowy independent groups or partisans posting on YouTube.

“You’re going to see more of this sensational, off-the-wall stuff,” Iyengar said. “If you get people disgusted, they might withdraw from politics, and that’s the real goal these days.”

Unless you’re someone like me, who actually enjoys politicians asserting ridiculous things, in which case it’s like catnip to a cat. Bring it on! :-)

In that vein, check out this email I sent to Tim O’Brien, staff writer for the Times Sun Union of Albany, NY:

From: jbc@lies.com
Subject: Obligation to identify reported gibberish as such?
Date: October 28, 2006 1:26:42 AM PDT
To: tobrien@timesunion.com

Hi. I enjoyed reading your article, Political foes pull out stops.

It sparked the following exchange between myself and a friend in an online chat environment:

You say, “republican congressional incumbent john sweeney, re: bill clinton:”

You quote, “”The deficit is actually a result of a recession that began in his administration,” he contended. “We are exponentially paying down the deficit in an accelerated time frame.”"

You say, “exponentially!”

You widen your eyes.

Hiro says, “Wait, what?”

Hiro says, “How can you possibly claim that while running the highest deficits ever?”

Hiro shakes his head.

Hiro says, “I don’t understand how they can just get away with bald-faced lying like that.”

You say to Hiro, “it’s exponential!”

You say to Hiro, “and accelerated! those are big words!”

Hiro says, “So why can’t reporters consult a few economists, get a “thats gibberish” answer, and _report_ that?”

I’m curious what your position on that might be. Some possible answers that occurred to me:

* You might not think it would be appropriate for you to provide that context. As a reporter, you view it as your role to present the information from both sides without editorial comment. You quoted Clinton extensively without nitpicking his remarks; you owe the same to Sweeney. If Sweeney wants to say completely ridiculous things, people are free to react as myself and my friend Hiro did. The falsity of the statement is self-evident for a sufficiently informed reader.

* As a practical matter, making an incumbent Congressman out to be a liar is a losing proposition for a reporter. You got those quotes because Sweeney expected you to include them in your story without undercutting them. Were you to engage in such undercutting, you’d quickly lose that access, your job would get harder, and your readers would become less, rather than more, informed.

* You might be of the opinion that actually, Sweeney’s remark was true, either in a substantive sense or at least in some hypertechnically literal sense, and that given that, it wasn’t your place to contradict it.

* You might not have the editorial authority to engage in that kind of opinion-mongering within the power structure of your job as a staff writer. You were told what kind of story to write by your higher-ups at the paper, so that’s the way you wrote the story.

* You might have been inclined to include expert responses as part of the coverage, but simply didn’t have the time, given the realities of your deadline cycle.

Anyway, I was curious what the reality might be.

Thanks again for the interesting read.

John Callender
jbc@lies.com

[me again]

So, we’ll see what, if anything, comes of that.

2 Responses to “Grunwald on the Latest Dirty Political Ads”

  1. ymatt Says:

    I’ll be curious to read the response; I’ve often wondered the same and it would be interesting to get a perspective from one reporter.

    It seems like a subtle point, when people can find real data in a couple clicks on Google, but I think it’s very similar to Microsoft’s argument that it didn’t matter that they made Internet Explorer the default web browser because you could easily download Netscape. The default browser still has a very very high success rate (how’s that for an analogy you’d only read in blog discussion), and people still believe that we went to Iraq to get the guys who attacked us on 9/11.

    I believe the default setting for reporters should be to point out verifiable bullshit when it is reported, and that’s not at all the same as “spinning” a story. Spinning a story would be to point out that the person in question has said questionable things in the past. Reporting verifiable facts that are relevant is what it means to be a reporter, but I never ever seem to see that.

    The only good reason I can think of for this is that the political parties have been so successful in convincing us that everyone and everything is inherently political — you’re either red or blue, for or against, liberal or conservative. If you accept that, there’s no room for pure fact anymore. You have an economist that says it’s ridiculous to say we’re paying down the deficit? He’s obviously a liberal Clintonite and can’t be trusted, it’s his word against mine, and you don’t want to look like a “liberal” newspaper do you? You have an entire scientific community that says global warming is a terrible fact? Well, I have an industry expert here that says that’s all just alarmism and political fear-mongering.

    It’s true that there are two sides to every story, but I wish reporters would remember to figure out which one of them is supported by fact.

  2. jbc Says:

    For the record, Tim O’Brien didn’t reply to my email.

    *sniff*

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