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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Robert's Rules

Mark Kleiman writes "the conventions of reportorial objectivity give a big advantage to liars, who get their lies reported on equal terms with the truth."

Kevin Drum asks how reporting could be improved.

In theory, everyone agrees with this. The problem is, I haven't yet come across a single person who's proposed a workable solution. Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable? The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts. Would you trust the average reporter to take on this role on a daily basis? And even if we do believe reporters should be routine arbiters of the truth, how exactly should they express this? Flatly call things lies? Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line? Something more subtle?

I answer at length with a vehemence matched only by my ignorance

I's say "Insert contrary evidence in their own voice whenever they decide someone has crossed the line" with two restrictions and a requirement -- The contrary evidence has to be based on a solid citation -- an official staistic, a well sourced news story, something clear (often a contradictory statement by the same person will do). The solid evidence has to contradict the claim. A failure to note available proof that the claim is a lie should be censured (as it is by mediamatters but by the journalistic community)

Contrary evidence in the reporters own voice should not be presented if it is relevant but does not contradict the claim of the original source (that would be nit picklering). When there is a legitimate debate (then the reporter should find someone to quote). I think the valid objection to the reporting of Nedra Pickler is that she debated candidates by presenting relevant contrary but not contradictory evidence. The convention is that this is done only to indicate a lie without using the word, thus her reporting was improper.

The restrictions I propose are not too restrictive to mean I am not proposing a major change in journalistic practice. If reporters always noted objective evidence which contradicts false claims, Karl Rove would have been out of business decades ago.

They are not subject to abuse if reporters are considered to have erred if they can not prove claims made in their own voice or can not convincingly argue that they show the public figure lied when they are challenged on that point.

I'd say contradictory evidence not the word lie when one could use the word lie and win a libel suit without claiming that the plaintiff is a public figure. This is very restrictive and would not give reporters the power to present opinions as fact, It would totally destroy the Republican slime machine. They assume that if they are caught in a lie, the costs will be tiny because it might or might not be noted and, if noted, will not be publicized as much as their claim. If it is standard practice to indicate that the claim is a lie by presenting available truth whenever the claim is mentioned, the costs will be high.

Also what about interviews and questions in press conferences. I would say that when someone is caught lying, the press shouldn't let it go until they confess. Two or three press conferences in which all questions address one demonstrated lie in an earlier press conference would change the way Washington works. The principle is that lies are unacceptable. The other principle is that reporters not use the not libel unless known to be false or with reckless disregard for the truth if they accuse someone of lying and don't stop until the person confesses.

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