Sunday, May 08, 2005

# Posted 11:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHEN IT ISN'T HE SAID/SHE SAID JOURNALISM: As you may have noticed, OxBlog enjoys every salvo fired in the debate about he said/she said journalism, i.e. mechanically reporting on the arguments made by both sides in any given debate without giving any sense of which side is telling the truth.

The purpose of this post is to put of a bit of a twist in the he said/she said hypothesis by pointing out that journalists often discard the norm of balance almost entirely. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not going to argue that journalists dispense with the norm of balance by ignoring the conservative side of the debate (an approach that is not unknown).

Rather, I want to point out that journalists consider it entirely appropriate to write articles that focus almost entirely on one side of the debate provided that the articles leave a balanced impression about the merits of that side of the case. In fact, journalists are even willing to focus almost entirely on the conservative side of a debate.

Take for example, the front page article in today's WaPo about Baptist minister Rick Scarborough, architect of some of the most visible opposition to the Democratic filibuster threat. At the very end of this relatively long article, there are two brief quotations provided by Scarboroughs critics. But that's not balance. Rather, it's the way that the WaPo correspondent describes Scarborough that provides balance. The first two sentences of the article run as follows:
In his home town of Pearland, Tex., Baptist minister Rick Scarborough was tireless in promoting his conservative Christian way of thinking.

He attacked high school sex education courses, experimental medical treatments and transsexuals trying to change their gender identification.
"Tireless" is better than lazy, but it's a pretty neutral description. "Attack" suggests that Scarborough tries to win arguments by volume rather than reason, but it's pretty reasonable to describe a staunch partisan as a attacking his opponents.

Shortly thereafter, the WaPo tells us that the filibuster debate
Provides a fiery new front in the culture war. And Scarborough is emblematic of the Christian right leaders who have been drawn to the fray.
This is an interesting pair of sentences. I'd suggest that "fiery fronts" and "culture wars" carry some strong negative connotations. Almost everyone, and especially newspapers, idealize cool, rational debate about substantive policy proposals. References to fire and war suggest that Scarborough deviates from that norm. Nonetheles, he was "drawn" to this debate rather than igniting it.

The first time we hear directly from Scarborough, this is how it goes:
"One of my goals in life is to give the Republican Party courage," Scarborough said in a recent interview. "We have a lot of gutless wonders who wear the tag conservative Republican. Anytime there's any amount of fire, they crater."
Here we have a Republican criticizing other Republicans, so you can't say the article is unfair to Democrats. Yet forgive me for suggesting that this quote made it into the article in order to demonstrate how radical Scarborough is, since journalists almost never describe the GOP as the more timid of the two parties.

The next time we hear directly from Scarborough, it is when the WaPo says of the leadership of the Christian right that
Their real power rests in their unique access to millions of voters "who happen to go to church," as Scarborough puts it. "It's straight to the heart of people from men and women they trust," he said.
In this instance, Scarborough is analyzing politics rather than making the case for his point of view. Thus, the exclusion of his opponents from the narrative makes little difference. I would suggest, however, that this passage hints at the danger of dictating politics from the pulpit. Along with idealizing cool and rational debate, we tend to condemn theological interventions in politics, since they divide audiences according to faith. Thus one might say that what's really happening here is that the Post is giving Scarborough just enough rope to hang himself.

The third time we hear from Scarborough, the minister comes off looking good. In the second half of the article, we learn that
Scarborough, 55, started preaching while a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. His other preoccupation was football; one teammate was future Redskins star kicker Mark Moseley. "I hiked every ball he kicked in college," Scarborough says.
Go Skins! There's always next year! Anyhow, this bit of puff coverage just sets the Post up for his finisher:
[Scarborough's] first foray into politics came two years later, when he attended a local high school assembly on AIDS awareness, and was appalled at the frank talk about condoms and "various sex acts." He read the transcript from the pulpit one Sunday morning and took his complaints -- and at least 400 parishioners -- to the school board. Eventually, the high-school principal was replaced by a supporter of abstinence-based sex education.
So is this an instance of positive grassroots action, or the unforgiving purge of a principal who refused to toe the party line? The Post's description only consists of facts. But the selection of facts is just as important as whether or not they are true. And even the truest facts have connotations.

Now perhaps the situation with regard to that principal was exactly what the Post suggests: an ideological purge. I have no reason to think otherwise except that I am generally suspicious of whatever the Post says about Christian activists. If it was an ideological purge, than readers should have that information available when forming their opinions about Scarborough.

But remember what this post is trying to show: that even by focusing exclusively on one half of the debate, one does not necessarily disadvantage the other side. In subtle ways, a purely factual focus on just one side can be even more effective than splitting the column inches between both.

Since this post is getting long, let's just consider one final quotation from Scarborough. According to the next-to-last paragraph of the article,
Scarborough insists that his broad goal is simply to put in place "constitutionally minded judges."
'Insists' is a fascinating word. One doesn't have to 'insist' about facts. No one insists that the capital of Virginia is Richmond. (Although I guess if someone told you that the capital of Kentucky is Lexington, you might have to insist that it is Frankfurt.)

The use of 'insists' in this article is expecially intersting, since we find Scarborough insisting that his stated opinion is his actual opinion. From that, one should infer that the good minister is not to be fully trusted, even on the subject of his own motives.

Strangely, the article never tells exactly what sort of opinion that Scarborough might be hiding. The answer is obvious, of course: the opinion that the real litmus test for judges is not whether they are "consitutionally minded" but whether their theology resembles that of Scarborough.

So what we have here is a case in which only Scarborough is quoted and he is defending own his opinion, but the article still isn't unfair to the missing side of the debate.

Now, if you're still reading this post, either because you hate it or because you are procrastinating, let me predict that the biggest criticism of this post will be that it reads far too much into the language of correspondents who are constantly trying to meet deadlines and don't have the time to think about the subtle connotations of every one of their words.

As a pre-emptive response to that objection, let me remind you of an observation made by Mike Allen, one of the Post's top political correspondents. Allen told an audience at a public discussion of the US media that
News writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to [their work], but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story. [NB: This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote, provided by one of Allen's fellow panelists.]
I certainly have enough confidence in the WaPo to believe that its correspondents are fully capable of filling their work with interpretive hints, even when they are under deadline pressue. I just wish they would be a little more forthright about their opinions.
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