NYU professor Jay Rosen likes to talk about the “church of savvy” in political journalism. Diane Winston has a pretty good breakdown of the term, but essentially it describes how the journalism elite shape the news in cooperation with sources. The result is a contextless news presentation, with focus on horse race, tactics, gamesmanship, and “how will this play politically?” rather than verification and hard questions, rigorous reporting, and a focus on getting it right.
This is necessary in elite political journalism, of course. It shies away from tough questions because tough questions mean no guests for Sunday morning talk shows. Wash, rinse, repeat, frustrate your audience.
Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos.com likes to describe the outcome a different way, such as how he did during his SXSW panel when he argued that journalists have become “stenographers for those in power” rather than people who fact-check.
I was thinking about this as I followed the Twitter stream last night during the health care vote. The endless coverage on the cable nets had to fill airtime somehow, and so we got a fair amount of the usual stenographer action. Republicans say X, while Democrats say Y, meanwhile there’s an actual bill online against which we can check such claims. The result is repeating two contradicting statements, at least one of which by definition is actually false, rather than verifying both claims and reporting only the correct one.
In other words, the press didn’t really learn from the Joseph McCarthy problem.
It’s no wonder that so many Americans think the bill still has death panels even though it has been debunked to death. Why would they know this when the reporting process is entirely about the conflict, about the he-said-she-said misery rather than context? Journalism ideally reports only the facts, but often nowadays it is reduced to reporting the fact that somebody says something regardless of how true or untrue it is.
Or, as Rosen said on Twitter yesterday:
“Democrats: See that table? It’s painted white. Republicans: Americans know the table is black. The savvy: How will this play politically?”
There are a lot of examples like this throughout the health care debate. My favorite recent one has been the charge that the Democrats forced through a bill that “the American people don’t want” and that they weren’t “listening to the American people.” Such a claim is impossible, of course, because it’s not as if everyone was against the bill. But Republicans claimed poll data that showed a lack of support for the bill, so naturally we have data that we can mine through and verify the claim.
Except it didn’t happen. Polls can be used to say many things and interpreted many ways, and if there’s one thing PhD school taught me it’s that interpreting survey data can be an art as much as it is a science. But looking inside poll data is the job of journalism, for this is where we find context. The GOP, for example, was citing a Rasmussen poll showing that 54% of people opposed the bill. Now, others have noted that Rasmussen sometimes has a GOP lean to the numbers, but for the sake of argument let’s stipulate that number is an accurate snapshot of the American mood. If journalists report the GOP charge and cites Rasmussen, it has provided information but it has not done its job.
Journalism is a profession based on skepticism, as we know. And journalists should have been more skeptical of the charge. CNN, for example, published a poll today that showed 59% against the bill, but it had another question: why? And when you add that context, the opposition to the bill becomes clear as we see 46% oppose the bill because it’s too liberal. The other 13%? It wasn’t liberal enough.
So the story changes a bit; when you add that 13% to the 39% that supported the bill you get 52% who either want the current bill or more compared to 46% opposed outright. Yes, a majority of Americans opposed the current bill, but it’s not always because the opposition agrees with the GOP argument that this was too much. A sizeable block of that opposition wanted more, not less. They might not be happy with what the Democrats produced, but it’s not difficult to see how they are probably putting a decent amount of blame on the GOP for the fact that the bill wasn’t more.
In the end I think it’s easy to overinterpret. If you look inside the numbers, I’d say Americans were pretty well split down the middle on the bill and the margin of error could pull it either way. Pretty hard to argue that Americans didn’t want this bill. Some? Yes. Many? Sure. But I don’t think either side could credibly claim a majority outside the margin of error.
Of course, that is of no use to the savvy, already hard at work framing this vote in terms of the upcoming midterm elections in November. After all, if Congress defied America then this can be spun forward into future coverage. It gives us Very Smart Questions we can ask pundits on the cable news and Sunday shows. Elections are the only things that matter; the consequences of those elections (you know, actual legislation) only matter in terms of their impact on future elections.
I’ve made it clear that I’m a bigger fan of context. I want to see more journalism that breaks down what the bill means for people, and it’s frustrating to see publications like the New York Times running several stories about the impact the day after it passes after spending so much space before the vote covering the squabble. This should have been the news industry’s focus in the leadup to the vote; perhaps then a lot of the misconceptions about the bill would have at least been off the grid and people could choose based on truth rather than rumor or baseless accusation. Imagine if all that effort had been devoted to giving people context rather than a political sideshow.
This post isn’t an argument for a particular view on health reform. My view is pretty well formed and my guess is yours is too. But one persistent criticism I heard from the bill’s opponents was they were afraid of what might in it. They didn’t know despite pages and pages of information out there. This is not a failure of information delivery; it is a failure of our journalism, too focused on process and petty controversy rather than context. There was plenty of information out there by which to form a meaningful consensus about what the bill did or did not have; this should have been a debate about personal liberty vs. government intervention, not nonsense such as death panels or obscure procedural tactics like “deem-and-pass” that get used all the time in Congress.
We should have at least been able to agree about the facts.
Not everyone was doing it wrong. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post was one of my favorite reads during the health reform process. He did yeoman’s work in adding context to his many months of reporting on this issue. It’s funny to hear journalists who complain about whether bloggers can replace the pros, because in Klein’s case he started out as a blogger. My guess is that it’s Klein’s background in blogging, which relies on sourcing via hyperlinks, that has made him a rigorous fact checker. This is what blogs do really well, and it has made Klein an all-star in health reform coverage.