Sunday, February 05, 2006

# Posted 3:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NYT VS. WaPo: JOHN BOEHNER AND THE SUBTLETIES OF PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM. On Friday morning, both the Times and the Post provided pretty good round-ups of John Boehner's victory over Roy Blunt in the contest for Majority Leader. Even so, the subtle differences between the information provided by the two papers is telling. For example, compare the opening paragraphs of the NYT and WaPo lead stories on the election. Here's the Post:
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who ran an insurgent campaign calling for change in the face of a widening corruption scandal, was elected yesterday to succeed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) as House majority leader in an upset over the acting majority leader.
And here's the Times:
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio in an upset on Thursday became the new House majority leader as Republicans, worried about a corruption scandal and their own tarnished image, tried to distance themselves from the tenure of Representative Tom DeLay.
Both are good openings, but both of them clearly involve acts of interpretation. Whereas the Post emphasized Boehner's call for change, the Times focused on the GOP's efforts to distance itself from Tom DeLay.

The point I'm driving at here is that even accurate, fact-based journalism inevitably involves acts of interpretation, since an author's decision about which facts to emphasize is incredibly important. Whereas most arguments about media bias focus on a presumed distinction between objective and biased journalism, the real issue is what kinds of interpretation journalists impart to their work.

Consider the fourth and fifth paragraphs of the Times' story, written by Carl Hulse:
Mr. Boehner is a conservative in the same vein of House Republican leaders for the past dozen years, and his election is unlikely to lead to any substantial change in direction on most policy issues.

He presented himself as a reformer, highlighting his opposition to directing taxpayer money to pork barrel projects, but he is no stranger to lobbyists and interest groups.
Let's take those two sentences apart. The first half of the first sentence is Hulse's judgment with regard to the factual question of whether Boehner is the same sort of conservative as Blunt, DeLay, etc. The second half is entirely an assessment of probabilities about what might happen in the future. Moreover, this assessment goes to the heart of the issue that divides Democrats and Republicans right now: Does Boehner represent change, or just more of the same with a prettier face?

What we have seen here so far are three levels of interpretation. First, there was an interpretation expressed through the selection of facts. Then there was an interpretation that involved a judgment about a set of facts. Finally, there was an assessment of future probabilities.

One might argue that journalists should limit themselves to the first level of interpretation. I disagree. I believe it is better for journalists to be candid about their judgments. What I ask is that they acknowledge how prevalent acts of judgment are in their line work.

For example, consider that fifth sentence again:
[Boehner] presented himself as a reformer, highlighting his opposition to directing taxpayer money to pork barrel projects, but he is no stranger to lobbyists and interest groups.
The first clause in this sentence provides the first hint that Boehner's election had anything to do with the issue of reform. Morever, Hulse's use of the verb "presented" already lets the reader know not to put too much stock in what Boehner said, thus warming readers up for the implicit judgment that Boehner is a hypocrite because of his intimacy with lobbyists.

In contrast, the Post stated in its first sentence that Boehner "ran an insurgent campaign calling for change." The Post gives the reader no reason to suspect that the truth is otherwise. Depending on your opinion of Boehner, you may think that either the Times or the Post did a better job covering this story.

A third position to take on this subject is that I am making mountains out of molehills and shouldn't be reading so much into such small differences. I disagree. The patterns I describe here are not unique to these stories about Boehner. Rather, they represent consistent patterns that characterize professional journalists' coverage of every kind of story. They may be subtle, but I suspect that over time they have a tremendous impact on casual readers.

Getting back to the story, it is important to point out that the Post's correspondent, Jonathan Weisman also traffics in the art of probability and prediction. In fact, Weisman almost directly contradicts the Times by writing that:
Boehner's election portends a change of direction for the House this year.
Weisman does Boehner a further favor by mentioning his ability to work with Democrats successfully on programs such as No Child Left Behind and pension reform. Hulse mentions neither in this piece, although both a second story by Hulse and a news analysis column by Adam Nagourney describe Boehner as more inclined to bipartisanship than the DeLay clique.

Now, lest you think that the WaPo went totally soft on Boehner, there is this paragraph from Weisman toward the end of the story:
Although he campaigned as a reformer, Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) is no stranger to Washington. In the early 1990s, he was one of the zealous "Gang of Seven" that pushed to expose a check-kiting scandal in the House bank. But once in the leadership, he avidly cultivated ties to the K Street lobbying community. He made headlines for handing out checks from tobacco interests to colleagues on the House floor.
Surprisingly, the tobacco check incident didn't make it into the Times at all.

In conclusion, I want to go back to one broad point that has nothing to do with John Boehner. Even when journalists stick to just the facts, they exercise their facility for interpretation. There is no such thing all the news fit to print, so the the decision to include some facts and not others makes a big difference.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

We know going in that neither the WaPo nor the NYTimes nor any of their reporters have any use for Boehner, DeLay, Blunt, Shaddegg, Gingrich, Bush, K Street, self-reliance, capitalism, or apple pie... What you have dissected here is opinion embedded in news columns, sometimes forward-looking opinion, and sometimes backward. Years ago they would have given the facts, period. The vote was such-and-such at such-and-such a time and place. Now they are advocates, and what they advocate, day in and day out, is a plague on the whole GOP.
Some interesting changes:

1. Boehner is the first non-Republican Study Committee leader of the GOP in the House since Bob Michel. While he is not a moderate, he has never travelled in the circles of the conservatives.

2. Blunt, DeLay, and crowd was interested in power for power's sake. Gingrich was interested in power to do something with it. And RSC is interested in power to move the country in a certain ideological direction. Expect Boehner to be a Newt-lite.
Tobacco made it into this editorial, however.

"The image of his blithely dispensing checks from tobacco interests on the House floor 10 years ago is more relevant than ever, despite his frequent apologies."
David is right on. But what strikes me about reporting in the nation's capitol is its superficiality often times. For all its worth, Boehner's ascension probably deserved a couple of paragraphs and could have been done by a staff researcher. Please can the newspaper managers do a better job of directing the time and reportorial resources to more indepth coverage of government and the lack there of.
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