Bad Journalism: A Small Recent Example, With Larger Implications

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In a Dorf on Law post almost two weeks ago, I argued that the recent IRS non-scandal-scandal is another good moment to wish that our journalists had not been depleted and dumbed down to the point where we now actually receive better independent commentary from late-night comedians.  When relying on those comedians works, it works well.  There are times when it is truly amazing to see how well Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can cut to the heart of a matter, in a way that straight journalists never could.

As I pointed out in that post, however, the danger is that Stewart and Colbert (and SNL, and the networks' late night guys) are often ill-suited to the task of speaking truth to power.  They frequently take cheap shots and easy outs, sometimes making matters worse.  For example, shortly after I wrote that post, Stewart ran a segment about one of the IRS officials who is under fire, Lois Lerner, and her decision to invoke the 5th Amendment, in the face of possible criminal prosecution.  Stewart looked at the camera and said plaintively, "Nobody said anything about criminal prosecution.  We just want to know what happened."

The fact is, however, that people had been talking very loudly about criminal prosecutions -- so loudly that Stewart should not have failed to notice.  House Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, had been talking about putting people in jail from the very beginning of the trumped-up controversy.  And Lerner was a prime target.  She would have been crazy not to invoke the 5th.  Stewart's laziness managed not only to make people think that Lerner has a persecution complex, but he fed into the dangerous idea that people who take the 5th are "hiding something."  (To his great credit, Colbert did not make that mistake in his show that night.)

All of which is a reminder that we really, really need good and competent journalists on the beat.  Ahem.  One recent example of how far the Fourth Estate has fallen was provided in an article on Slate by David Weigel, who explains the press's dangerous distortion of a quote by Sen. Max Baucus.  Baucus, a principal author of the Affordable Care Act, supposedly said during a recent Senate hearing that the ACA will be "a train wreck."

Weigel showed that Baucus actually was complaining to the Secretary of HHS about her department's having done insufficient work to educate the public about the ACA.  Baucus pointed out that HHS had hired an outside contractor rather than doing the work itself, which worried him, because contractors are sometimes ... shall we say ... more interested in pocketing their fees than actually doing what they have agreed to do.

So, Baucus said, if we do not do what we should be doing -- educating the public about how the ACA will work, and their part in it -- there could be a train wreck.  The ACA is not the problem.  The failure to educate the public would be.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans immediately jumped on this quote and distorted it, claiming that Baucus had called the ACA an actual train wreck -- full stop.  (Notice that I say that it is unsurprising that Republicans have no ethical standards when it comes to distorting their opponents' views.  That was not always true, and it is sad that we no longer even raise an eyebrow about this craziness.)  What Weigel points out, however, is that it is not just the usual suspects like Mitch McConnell and Sean Hannity who are saying this nonsense.  A top NBC correspondent, Chuck Todd, asked during a press conference last month at the White House:
Max Baucus, Democratic Senator, referred to the implementation as your health care law as a potential train wreck. And other Democrats have been whispering nervousness about the implementation and the impact -- and it’s all self-centered a little bit -- the impact that it might have on their own political campaigns in 2014.  Why do you think -- just curious -- why does Senator Baucus, somebody who ostensibly helped write your bill, believe that this is going to be a train wreck?
Notice that Todd immediately gets off to a bad start, even though he tries to hedge by calling the ACA a "potential train wreck," because he describes the "implementation" of the law as the potential problem.  Although that could, one supposes, include poor implementation of the sort that Baucus was actually worried about (doing a poor job of educating the public), the more natural reading of that statement would be to suggest that there will be poor bureaucratic implementation of the structures and rules of the law itself.  Maybe Todd's phrasing is not an outright distortion, but it is certainly sloppy -- in a way that supports a specific political narrative.

Note also that Todd then manages to insert a rambling comment suggesting that this is really all about political calculations, not actual concern about educating the public about the law.  Now, no reasonable person would doubt that Democrats are nervous about this, because they know that the Republicans are doing everything possible to sabotage the ACA before it even begins -- and because they know that supposedly independent journalists have become lazy mouthpieces for Republican talking points.

When Todd finally ambles toward his actual question, note the lack of context.  Baucus's comment was entirely contingent on something that he hoped to change (HHS's strategy to educate the public) -- and his frustration was apparent, as he considered the possibility that the Administration itself will abet the Republicans who are determined to destroy the ACA.  Yet Todd manages to act as if it is simply obvious that Baucus was saying that implementing the ACA will definitely be a disaster.  And if Baucus really felt that way, then why shouldn't we want the House Republicans to take a few more votes to repeal the whole bill?  That would be big news: A principal architect of the ACA thinks it will be a dismal failure.  Great story.  Not true.

There are, I suppose, two ways to be charitable to Todd.  Before offering those partial defenses, however, it is worth noting that Todd is not some cub reporter, nor is he working for some fringe news organization.  He is the Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News, for heaven's sake!  He should not need his work to be viewed charitably.  Admittedly, the major networks have been slashing staffs and budgets for years, but there are still some prime jobs that supposedly attract the best of the best.  Sure, the networks no longer maintain news gathering operations abroad.  They have shut down entire field offices as well as subject area desks.  They stopped covering labor issues decades ago (unless it is to give a megaphone to yet another claim that teachers' unions are the root of all evil).  They give seconds of coverage to policy debates, but hours of coverage to horse-race politics.

But the White House Chief Correspondent?  If a major network cannot find someone who is actually intelligent, skeptical, and tireless for that job, then we are in bigger trouble than we thought.  Apparently, we are in bigger trouble than we thought.

As I noted a moment ago, there are two potential (but only partial) defenses here.  One is that Baucus himself actually has a reputation for saying things that infuriate his fellow Democrats.  Throughout his career, he has been willing to "go Lieberman," to coin a phrase.  People who follow such things might well have thought, "Yeesh, there goes Baucus again."  That, however, is a rather sad defense of Todd's failure actually to inform himself before asking his question.  "I assumed that Baucus was going rogue again, so I didn't bother to verify the story" is hardly a defense on which one should hang one's professional credentials.

The second charitable way to think about this -- but which, again, is not really a defense at all -- is to imagine that journalists like Todd have become so shell-shocked by the Republican attack machine that they no longer even dare to try to fact-check (or utter doubts about) the conservative narrative.  This is a variant on the he-said-he-said default in U.S. political reporting that many critics have scorned: "Republicans say that Obama was born in Kenya.  Democrats say that he wasn't.  Now, let's take you over to the Weather Bunny to find out about tomorrow's forecast."

Again, it is one thing to say that local news has become completely devoid of content.  If the network news coverage of the White House has now become hack central, however, then this is bad.  That is true even if -- or especially if -- otherwise intelligent reporters are trimming their sails to prevent saying anything "controversial."

As the title of today's post indicates, I view this error by Todd as a "small" example of bad journalism.  It is, moreover, a single example.  If this were an isolated instance, then Chuck Todd and the U.S.'s "serious" journalists would not deserve the criticism that so many people heap upon them.  Unfortunately, it is just another example of the drip-drip-drip of incompetence (and worse) that the free press of the world's only superpower inflicts upon its citizenry.