Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ballance at the Washington Post

I use the word ballance as a reference to the Washington Post's willingness to break its own clearly defined rules in order to avoid allowing the liberal bias of the facts to influence their coverage of Republicans and Democrats. I stress that the Post does not deny this practice (or assert that any particularly egregious practitioner has suffered any actual consequences as a result). The word refers to Rep Frank Ballance (D) who was included on a corruption scorecard even though the clearly defined rules implied that he shouldn't have been. The post confirms that his name was added (ignoring their rules in view of the result of applying them) so that the score would be more balanced. This is not contested and the Post has given no reason to suggest that the practice does not continue.

In fact, the Post just made it very very clear that the practice does continue. Immediately after reporting the fact that the McCain campaign used absolutely false claims on a matter of fact to accuse Obama of not visiting troops without TV cameras around (as he has repeatedly done) , the Post published not one but two articles which accuse Obama of being presumptuous because of a statement which was (allgedly) quoted second hand from an anonymous source.

The journalistic misconduct in a post by Jonathan Weisman is so extreme that, even given his track record, it is hard to believe that he would abandone all standards if there weren't a decision to provide ballance (maybe his personal decision).

I excerpt

"I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source.

[snip]

No tape of the event exists and no one is denying the quote.


Now clearly the Post can't argue that they know for sure that the words in question left Obama's mouth in the order claimed by the source so why the hell did Weisman use quotation marks ?!?!?! An indirect quotation would have been inflamatory enough and would not be absurd. Isn't it a rule that quotation marks are used only when a reporter knows that the quoted words are exact ? Since when are anonymous sources trusted to quote exactly word for word ?

In fact, even if he can't generate indirect quotes, I think that Weisman would have stayed this side of a clear breach of all journalistic standards if he had written

An anonymous source told me "Obama said 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,'"


That way he would be correctly quoting his source (and I would expect him to have it on tape) and not claiming to have quoted Obama and relying on a source when making that claim.

The claim that the quote is not contested is no longer accurate.

Someone present in the room mailed Greg Sargent
a quote which includes "I have just become a symbol ... ." This is not just a matter of distorting the meaning of a quotation by removing context. According to this second source the quotation published on www.washingtonpost.com is innaccurate, false, wrong and unacceptable, because there is no ellipses between "have" and "just". OK so are Weisman and his editors willing to go into Watergate mode betting the credibility of the Washington Post on their definite specific claim that Obama uttered no words between "have" and "become".

I think the answer is of course not. No paper would bet it's reputation on a quote from memory from an anonymous source. No paper which deserves a reputation would put such a quote in quotation marks.

Now the aid who e-mailed Sargent stresses that just before the contested sentence Obama said (if he recalls correctly) something to the effect of a claim that it has become increasingly clear in [his] travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about [him] at all. It's about America. (the aid put a quote from memory in quotation marks, but hey he's e-mailing not journamalisming in the post).

Roughly simultaneously, Dana Milbank wrote an article about Obama using the same contested quote.

Anyone who is willing to argue that this isn't ballance is invited to do so in comments.

Update Jonathan Weisman is infinitely further from being a journalist that I thought. Like Sargent he received the push back e-mail. He has a new post which I quote in full.

House Aides Push Back On Obama 'Symbol' Quote

By Jonathan Weisman
House Democratic aides are pushing back hard on a quote reported from Barack Obama's meeting on Capitol Hill last night, saying that when the presumptive Democratic nominee said, "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America," he was actually trying to deflect attention from himself.

No tape of the event exists and no one is denying the quote. But one leadership aide said the full quote put it into a different context. According to that aide, Obama said, "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."


OK let me now excerpt

from the older post

"I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source.

from the newer post

no one is denying the quote. [snip] "I have just become a symbol."

Now if the older quote had been "I have ... become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions," he said, according to the source." then Weisman could claim that no one is contesting the quote. However it wasn't. The e-mail alleges that the quote published by Weisman is innaccurate, not just distorted by removal of context (as the removal of the word "just" would have been if there had been an ellipses it its place) but innaccurate.

Weisman is so utterly indifferent to the basic rules of journalism and English punctuation that he doesn't see that eliding words without an ellipses is misquoting not just removing context. It's all right there two inconsistent quotes and the claim that the first quote is not contested by anyone.

No comments: