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He Said / She Said

I went down to Norfolk to be on a panel discussion with The Washington Post's Mike Allen, talking about blogs to interested Virginia Press Association members. Mike had something to say on the topic of "he said, she said" journalism that provided me with some valuable perspective and that I thought readers might be interested in.

Somebody from the audience asked a question which seemed to take as its premise that there was a strict dichotomy between "factual" writing, which is what you see on news pages, and "opinion" writing, which is what you see on editorial pages. The latter, he was saying, seems to be what blogging is mostly about.

I took some issue with that characterization. News pages, I said, aren't so much giving a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to reporting. Rather, they're trying to act as neutral arbiters between contending parties. Oftentimes this means there will be political controversy about a basically factual subject ("what's the effect of X on the deficit?") that goes unresolved by a news writer. Instead of giving us the facts, the news writer gives us a set of meta-facts -- "Joe says 'X' but Same says 'Y.'" Bloggers, I said, sometimes do offer pure opinion. More often, what they're trying to do is present facts in a non-neutral manner. People, including bloggers, become partisans in large part because they think the facts are partisan. When I say that the Bush Social Security plan involves a huge quantity of transition debt that risks provoking a fiscal crisis, I'm trying to state some facts, as I see them. Others who disagree are likewise trying to argue facts. We're not offering "opinions" as such, though some political disputes (one guy: "executing 17 year-olds is just wrong, man." another guy: "no it's not.") are like that, must aren't really.

Allen took issue with that characterization of what news writers are doing. He said that news writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to it, but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story.

I tried then to revise my statement of the situation. A good news reporter, on my revised view, tries to "lead a horse to water," while a blogger is more likely to try and "throw the horse in the lake." He seemed happier with that restatement. And I think the restated view has some truth to it. Oftentimes, even though a story doesn't come out and say, "so-and-so said such-and-such and he was lying," it's pretty clear from reading the strory that so-and-so was, in fact, lying. Indeed, oftentimes it's only because it is so clear from the story as written that so-and-so was lying that I, as I reader, find myself annoyed that the reporter didn't come out and say so. I think, though, that a higher proportion of news writing really is pure "he said, she said" than Allen seemed willing to say. At the same time, he's one of the better political reporters out there, so probably sees his craft more through the lense of how he practices it, than through how the lense of how others may do the job.

Last but by no means least, I think the "horse to water" model to some extent suffers from a lack of thought about how, in practice, news stories get read. If you need to read something -- especially an A1 story that jumps to the inside -- all the way through to figure out what's going on, a very high proportion of readers aren't going to do that. They'll scan a few grafs and their takeaway will be "aha! the parties are engaged in a partisan dispute." Now how much can you plame newspaper writers for the fact that their readers are likely to be lazy and/or rushed as they read? I don't really know.

March 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

If you can't plame writers, can you plame Same?

Posted by: Jake Haisley | Mar 6, 2005 2:12:22 PM

Also, there's the TV factor. They really don't try to do the "show that X is full of it" thing AT ALL. And way more people get their news from TV than from the dead trees or the internets.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 6, 2005 2:17:53 PM

"He said that news writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to it, but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story."

Ah, objective journalism.

While I completely understand where Allen is coming from, there's something sad about the tortured reasoning he needs to perform his job without cognitive dissonance setting in.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 6, 2005 2:23:49 PM

He said that news writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to it, but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story.

Well, if this practice is actually common, there's our problem with American journalism. We have unstated bias right from the outset -- the journalist decides who is right. But, we also have him/her writing in such a way so as to try and avoid saying that. Further, we have articles that require close, complete reading to get the journalist's secret gist of who is right.

In short, we have a cluster-fuck. This is what Republicans have mastered -- they are as good as any could hope to be at getting their message out in this format. They are playing journalist for fools. The whacky, completely-contrary-to-reality claim the Republicans make is the story lead. Many readers don't go much farther. Of those that do, many only see a He-Said, She-Said tug of war between Democrats and Republicans. Since the Republican message was made to be emotionally appealing, it ends there. The average reader comes away having completely, and uncritically accepted the Republican point of view (never mind that it is completely contrary to reality).

Journalists have been hoist on their own petard. Sadly, the average Republican media strategist seems to be much smarter than the average journalist. And all this, of course, looks past the "journalists" such as those at Fox News or The National Reveiw who are complete partisans from the outset, whose express purpose is to further the Republican agenda, whatever it may be, and yet who are treated the same as the "regular" journalists who shackle themselves in a misguided sense of objectivity.

(And of course, the Republican view is not necessarily at complete odds with reality, but it seems to be the case an awful lot these days).

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Mar 6, 2005 2:59:50 PM

I think the problems you and the panel were trying to get at were all well and good to talk and think about, but there are more pressing problems that make them a bit beside-the-point.

That is, I hope you managed to mention good left-wing blogs while you were there. This may sound like I'm steeping into the trap you were discussing, but boy am I ever not!!

The effect of 1) only right-wing blogs being mentioned in MSM, and 2) blogs in general being questioned as to their validity, is that people (who do not already have access to blogs) are discouraged from investigating blogs in general, while being given only the lead to check out a Republican blog if they're going to go that far at all.

The problems that you all were chewing on don't even get on the dinner plate when an additional door has been thrown up to influence people's entry into the blogosphere.

People have to have equal access to check out all kinds of blogs before there's a point to worrying about opinion vs. "obejectivity" IMO.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 3:02:35 PM

Yeah, I agree with Petey, that's lame. The purpose of newspapers is to inform, to make things clear. Making things clear to "the discerning reader" is not nearly enough. They ought to target "the average reader," to make sure that "most people" will get it.

Posted by: mk | Mar 6, 2005 3:03:24 PM

That's true that sometimes the newspapers and news TV channels are effectively tools of partisan obfuscation when they fail to have the courage to call a duck a duck.

When the president misrepresents the facts, it's not editorializing to start a paragraph with, "But the President's statement misrepresents [whatever]..." or something similar.

When the GOP's political technique is to confuse people, it's not non-partisan to fail to point out the particular instances of this just because you feel it's not nice to catch someone in a lie. Then, all the journalist is doing is helping the QOP pull off the lie.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 3:23:06 PM

"Yeah, I agree with Petey, that's lame ... . They ought to target "the average reader"

But if you're reading the NYT or WaPo, you're not "the average reader". You're more likely to be "the discerning reader".

And more to the point, what's the alternative?

If Allen explicitly indicated that the GOP was full of shit on privatization, he'd simply make himself and his paper a target, and no longer "an objective voice" on the topic.

Identifying the solution is much more difficult than identifying the problem.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 6, 2005 3:25:21 PM

If Allen explicitly indicated that the GOP was full of shit on privatization, he'd simply make himself and his paper a target, and no longer "an objective voice" on the topic.


Petey, I think you've got some of the best comments on this blog, but I don't get you here. Don't the right-wing tabloids have writers that are much more explicit & partisan than that? And doesn't Krugman call the GOP out? Yet he's still got his head above water.

Sometimes the answer of "what to do" in a fight is just as easy as "hit back."

Fantasizing that some irreparable harm is going to happen to you if you don't put up your dukes and show some integrity is really the entire substance of the problem. Stop believing it and the chains disappear.

McCarthyism ended when people started standing up to McCarthy. If people just started giving the GOP the finger, the GOP's modern McCarthyism would end, too. Look at AARP, for example. GOP thought that all they had to do was flex their muscles a little bit, and AARP would get scared and back down.

Wrong, suckers. It's just like Freddy Krueger... it needs fear to feed itself. Don't give it the fear, and it's got nothing left.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 4:06:37 PM

In fact, I think most of us are past due to write to individual reporters and editors to ask them to be more explicit.

If they're having trouble finding some guts, we need to help them along.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 4:18:14 PM

"Don't the right-wing tabloids have writers that are much more explicit & partisan than that? And doesn't Krugman call the GOP out?"

Sure. But they're officially partisan.

The WaPo, NYT, and WSJ news pages are all officially non-partisan.

There's a difference, and the dilemma that Allen faces in how to write in those non-partisan pages is one without simple solutions.

And while I find his particular solution to be sad, that's probably more of a commentary on how the administration is so proudly non-reality based than a commentary on how Allen's solution is somehow wrong.

---

"Sometimes the answer of "what to do" in a fight is just as easy as "hit back."

As a lefty, I wish there were more explicitly lefty dailies like the Washington Times or New York Post. George Soros should finance one, or Al Gore should put together a group to start one. But that's a very separate issue than the one facing Allen.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 6, 2005 4:41:08 PM

But they're officially partisan.

The WaPo, NYT, and WSJ news pages are all officially non-partisan.,

If a statement doesn't looks like it was probably duplicitous, then making that clear somehow in your writing isn't partisan at all. It's just objective reporting.

When I'm saying "hit back," I'm not advocating doing what the right does... not at all. I'm juts saying, don't be cowed. Don't be complicit to the lie.

It's really not such a big leap to make. In fact, it's just a little baby-step.

Allen should get in the pool, already. The water's fine.

Posted by: Swan | Mar 6, 2005 5:09:35 PM

Allen's answer is internally inconsistent. The only point to his procedure is that it preserves deniability. Why does he need to do that? If he knows something, such as that George Bush is lying again, he should explicitly say it; if he does NOT know, he shouldn't be suggesting that he does. Trying to have it both ways is bullshit.

I agree with Swan:

If a statement doesn't (do you mean does?) looks like it was probably duplicitous, then making that clear somehow in your writing isn't partisan at all. It's just objective reporting.

It's not partisan to say that Bush is lying if, in fact, he is lying. Failure to say so, leaving room for doubt or for a mistaken impression by someone reading casually is, for a real reporter, a failure of duty.

Presumably the reason for this is fear of retaliation, with perhaps a secondary motive that "shrill" behavior like pointing out actual lying is somehow uncool among sophisticated journalists who know that this goes on all the time. I don't really know; I do know that I'm really tired of it. See dailyhowler.com for years of painful details.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg | Mar 6, 2005 6:51:25 PM

As a lefty, I wish there were more explicitly lefty dailies like the Washington Times or New York Post.

That would be the Washington Post and the New York Times.

And when Allen says that he is trying to signal who is right, he's REALLY saying that, since he is a liberal, he is doing everything he can to tell everyone that liberals are always right (without it being so obvious that conservatives can call him on it).

Posted by: Al | Mar 7, 2005 12:15:58 AM

"That would be the Washington Post and the New York Times."

No. Y'see that's the problem. The NYT and WaPo are trying to be non-partisan in their news pages. And that's not a trait the Washington Times and New York Post share.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 7, 2005 1:21:02 AM

Again humans are talking to the local trolls. Any Norwegian can tell you that nothing good comes of talking to the trolls.

Posted by: John Isbell | Mar 7, 2005 7:23:07 AM

This sems a lot like Jay Rosen territory to me.

I think it's instructive that Allen sees reporting that way, since I think there's more to reporting than "I spoke with X, then I spoke with Y, and here's what they said." But then, I'm wacky that way. I'd rather someone spent time looking more closely at whether what X said was accurate and then maybe explained why Y saying something opposed to X adds to the debate (or doesn't) - which seems like more than what Allen's saying. Expecting readers to be able to make fine discernments between "he said/he said" (there's not a lot of "she" out there, now, is there?) seems like expecting way too much in this country at this time.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 7, 2005 8:52:57 AM

Since my previous post I've thought of a scenerio in which Allen's procedure makes sense. In that situation the problem is not the Bush administration but his own editorial staff. If it is assumed that, for whatever reason (possibilities: paper is/is owned by a mega-media conglomerate that likes Bush's tax policies, mistaken definition of objectivity, etc.) he couldn't get simple statements past the censorship imposed from above, writing as he says he does is all that is left. Also, in this situation it would be impossible to say publically that editorial censorship is the problem.

In other words, a Straussian scenerio.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg | Mar 7, 2005 9:50:45 AM

The NYT and WaPo are trying to be non-partisan in their news pages.

Not according to what Mike Allen just said!

Posted by: SaveFarris | Mar 8, 2005 9:08:42 AM

Mike Allen's fixation on "he said, she said" journalism is misplaced and his analysis disingenuous. What I see more and more in the newspapers today are not "he said/she said" articles about an ISSUE, but rather puff piece PROFILES of advocates for one side or the other; the ones titled "(fill in the blank), Rising Dem Star)". Journalists can and do get around the "he said/she said" restrictions by profiling a person or cause that the journalists agree with. The "profile" allows them to give free publicity to the viewpoints (almost invariably liberal) they favor. For example, my hometown Chicago Tribune has done articles on every war protestor in the Chicago area (giving them free space to advocate their cause), but never once done a similar article on war supporters.

Posted by: CivilWarGuy | Mar 8, 2005 2:44:07 PM

The problem is they try to balance the truth from the left with a lie from the right.

They're so concerned with getting the story first that they don't really give a shit about getting it right. With the 24 hour news stations its harder and harder to break a story if you actually spend any time researching it to find out who is lying and who is telling the truth, hence its easier just to report who said what.

Posted by: esther in vancouver, wa | Mar 14, 2005 12:15:57 PM

Yes but....

I really do get that they expect their readers to figure out that the guy who says "white is black" is really not telling the truth.

But Allen has to understand that the currect crop of conservatives have exploited the msm balanced news reporting model to make it look as if nothing is white or black--that there aren't really any true facts. Cutting taxes increases revenue. Freedom is on the march in the middle east. There really were wmds.

They exploit this model by stating outright and blatant falsehoods knowing that readers will be led to have doubts about the opposing position. That's what swiftboating is all about. Nobody really believed that Kerry didn't earn his purple hearts, but saying so, over and over, created doubt, and ruined Kerry's veteran narrative.

And then there's the narrative business that Peter Dauo has talked about. Even if you run "balanced" stories, when you run them withing a narrative frame of presidential strength or democrat disarray, the story's content doesn't matter all that much.

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