by Perry Parks, Freelance Writer and Editor
Perry Parks has been a reporter and editor for The Virginian-Pilot and a journalism adviser and instructor at Michigan State University. His book, "Making Important News Interesting: Reporting Public Affairs in the 21st Century" (Marion Street Press, 2006), offers modern methods for engaging readers in traditional news stories. He is a freelance writer and editor in Athens, Ga.
When journalists cover political campaigns, whose side should they take?
If you’ve been around journalism for a while, your reflexive answer is likely: Nobody’s.
The best journalistic tradition assumes neutrality in the episodic candidate clashes that punctuate our democracy. By never favoring a candidate, but dutifully reporting each side’s claims and counterclaims, the press remains theoretically above the fray – observing the process without affecting it.
To the extent that campaigns are honest, earnest and focused on the problems they pledge to solve for the American people, this neutrality can work fine. But unfortunately, when cynics grab hold of the electoral reins with the intent to manipulate instead of enlighten, that same neutrality can transform journalists from detached observers to unwitting tools – blunt instruments for political hatchet men.
Political operatives have learned to take advantage of journalistic traditions to create outsized stories from minuscule claims simply by planting the right charge at the right time, or by throwing endless globs of mud against the media wall until something finally sticks.
To put a stop to this manipulation, it’s time for journalists to take sides in campaign coverage – but not by favoring a particular candidate over any others. Instead, journalists need to resolve that, in the rumors they check, the questions they ask, the analysis they produce and the stories they tell, they will come down hard on the side of the VOTER.
Journalists should never be neutral in their work; they should always be advocates for the citizens they’re reporting to. What this means, primarily, is pursuing the truth independent of sources’ agendas, particularly whatever PR points they’re trying to score with the message of the moment. Bad journalism laps up and regurgitates these gimmicks; good journalism challenges them through what Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call “the discipline of verification.”
Let me illustrate the difference with some coverage of the Barack Obama campaign on Feb. 18 and 19, the eve and night of the Wisconsin primary.
First, I need to disclose that I’ve given Obama my vote and some money in the past few weeks. This is the first year of my adult life that I’m not employed by a news organization, so I’ve expanded my use of the First Amendment to include political speech. But while both of the incidents below reflect badly on the Obama campaign, one left me fuming, and the other had me cheering for more.
The first of these stories is the allegation of plagiarism against Obama for repeating on the stump, without attribution, a few sentences that had been uttered by his political pal Deval Patrick during Patrick’s run for Massachusetts governor. The allegations surfaced when Hillary Clinton’s campaign drew attention to video clips of both men’s speeches on YouTube.
We know plagiarism is a loaded word for reporters and editors. It’s one of the most egregious professional transgressions, and many of us have been on one end or the other of plagiarism accusations at some point in our careers. But while there are many clear-cut cases, plagiarism can be a nebulous offense, and opinions vary – sometimes in quite public disputes – on the precise definition. The trend has been to expose and purge even the most minor offenders, in the interest of restoring public trust in the news media.
Whether the Clinton campaign understood this hypersensitivity or not, the introduction of plagiarism charges into the Democratic primary race was guaranteed to elicit an aggressive journalistic response, even where other, perhaps more substantive, attacks on Obama have failed to gain traction.
I don’t want to get into a debate about whether Obama’s lifted lines from a political ally’s successful speeches constitute plagiarism per se, except to note that this isn’t journalism or academia we’re talking about; it’s political rhetoric. Speechmakers rarely write their own addresses from top to bottom, and credits don’t roll listing the contributors of any given phrase, passage or paragraph of oratory. The professional standards are distinctly different.
What’s pertinent for this analysis is whether journalists approached these plagiarism charges with skepticism, or whether they merely served as a conduit for a quick kneecapping by one campaign on another. Reporting on the incident ran across the spectrum, but some emblematic coverage comes from CNN, which reported the story breathlessly throughout the slow news day of Feb. 18.
CNN consulted many experts on the plagiarism issue. Everyone had a slightly different take, and I didn’t watch or read every word of coverage, but here’s a representative comment from Keith Boykin, a former aide to Bill Clinton and current media commentator, to Anderson Cooper in a CNN transcript: “Well, I think you have no choice but to talk about it. But the truth is that it’s really not a big issue. What Barack Obama did is nothing different from what Hillary Clinton did when she took the fired-up, ready-to-go language (from Obama).”
Boykin said he had talked with David Kusnet, a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, who agreed that “this is not something different. All candidates steal from other candidates all the time. It’s not unusual. And I think we have made a big to-do about something that really shouldn’t be a big issue.”
Commentator David Gergen, who has advised several presidents, said during the same discussion that Obama made “a mistake” by not acknowledging Patrick, then added: “It is not plagiarism. They’re – all the time, you know, you have people suggesting to you things to say in a campaign speech, and people pick that up.”
Throughout that conversation and others aired on CNN that day, most experts repeated over and over that Clinton’s accusations were essentially baseless – Obama had acted squarely within the norms of his profession. The content of coverage was a repeated admission that the plagiarism story was a non-story.
Then Gergen made a point that demonstrated exactly how CNN, by belaboring a non-story, had essentially signed on as an adjunct of the Clinton campaign:
“But the biggest problem is … it’s dominating the conversation on the night before Wisconsin. So, if that suppresses a vote … and she were to pull an upset tomorrow … then that’s going to change the dynamic of this race some.”
If CNN had been taking citizens’ side on Feb. 18, its journalists would have evaluated the plagiarism charges on their merits and, seeing that they had no merits, mentioned the accusation as a brief aside on the way to more substantive news rather than covering it wall to wall.
By treating a non-story as a story, repeatedly linking Obama with plagiarism even while essentially exonerating him, CNN helped to mislead voters.
Let’s contrast that passive journalism with more aggressive, though very basic, reporting by Chris Matthews on MSNBC on Feb. 19, after Obama had won the Wisconsin primary. The analysts were already looking ahead to Ohio and Texas, and Matthews was talking to representatives from each campaign.
The Obama supporter was Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson, and Matthews asked him a straightforward question: If Watson was such a big Obama fan, what did he see as Obama’s notable legislative accomplishments?
Unfortunately for Obama, Watson drew a big blank. He tried to stammer through a generic statement about Obama’s promise for the future, but Matthews persisted, repeatedly demanding some evidence of a legislative record. Watson finally surrendered, admitting he couldn’t provide a specific example.
Video of the exchange, along with a link to Watson’s humble follow-up commentary, can be found on The Huffington Post, among other places. If you watch the video, it’s easy to conclude that Matthews first ambushed and then badgered Watson. It’s an uncomfortable moment, and once the guy was pinned, Matthews just kept pasting him.
But, sorry as I felt for Watson, I thought it was a great moment for journalism. It wasn’t like Matthews was asking about Obama’s abs, or his wife, or his kindergarten aspirations. He was asking a state senator, chosen to represent Obama on national television, to deliver the highlights of Obama’s record so voters could understand the substance of Watson’s support. Any surrogate of any national candidate should be well enough informed, and well enough prepared, to answer such a question if he expects his candidate to be taken seriously.
Matthews certainly wasn’t on Obama’s side during this exchange. But he wasn’t on Clinton’s side, either. He was taking the side of the voter, the citizen, who is entitled to substantive explanations of why one politician supports another, and on whose behalf Matthews and other journalists are acting when they interview these appointed spinners.
The biggest thing to fault Matthews for is that he doesn’t hold all his guests to the same standard. Voters should see all political assertions tested this way because as political operatives learn that
they can’t just make a bogus claim and get away with it, they will become more honest, more informed, and more genuine sources.
One of the best regular examples of this citizen-sided journalism is washingtonpost.com’s fact-check blog, which is an equal-opportunity spoiler for political claims that are exaggerated or just plain false. A recent entry highlighted the top five policy reversals (that is, “flip flops”) of each of the Democratic candidates. I’m sure neither candidate cares for this feature, but it’s a big help to voters.
Journalists are often accused of getting into people’s faces too much, but the problem is really that they’re getting into the wrong faces. When political pros play offense against each other, a skeptical press should insist that they defend their claims.
If politicians want their ideas to take hold in the democratic marketplace, they ought to be made to work for it.