Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?
I have an email in my inbox from that practitioner of worthless "he said, she said" journalism, Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post. Jonathan writes:
Subject: Hello Prof. DeLong
Date: April 29, 2008 6:56:56 AM PDT To: delong@econ.Berkeley.EDU
Haven't spoken to you in awhile, but I was compelled to write, seeing that you read an entire front page story on John McCain's curiously changed positions on tax policy, and out of all that, you fixated on a single word.
I find that remarkable, but I did want to thank you for reading so attentively.
Washington Post congressional writer
What's Weisman talking about? Weisman had written:
McCain Offers Tax Policies He Once Opposed: To supporters, McCain has simply seen the light and now understands.... Said J.D. Foster, a former Bush White House and Treasury tax policy expert, now at the Heritage Foundation: "It's logical that he wouldn't be repeating the arguments he made then. We all learn from experience"...
Upon which I had snickered, commenting:
Jonathan Weisman Strikes Again!: Ah. Page A1 of the [Washington] Post. The [Washington Post's] death spiral continues.... First time I have ever seen anybody describe J.D. Foster as a tax policy "expert." Lobbyist, yes. Apparatchik, yes. Ideologue, yes. But expert? Never seen that before...
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?
I note that Jonathan Weisman does not say a word defending his claim that the statement J.D. Foster is in any sense the view of tax policy "experts" who support McCain.
The natural questions for Weisman--that he has never tried to answer--are two:
- If Weisman isn't willing to defend what he writes, why write it in the first place?
- Why not go do something useful?
The natural questions for the Post management are three:
- Why does it retain and promote a reporter who doesn't even try to tell it straight?
- Who does it think will be reading it in five years if it doesn't try a lot harder than it is to regain its lost credibility as a news source?
- How stupid does it think its readers are?
If Weisman felt himself allowed to say what he really believes, and said it on the record, he would presumably say something like the following about how he and his fellow reporters at the Washington Post view their jobs:
Look, I know that the overwhelming opinion of McCain-supporting tax-policy experts--people like Greg Mankiw, Andrew Samwick, and Doug Holtz-Eakin--is that tax cuts don't raise revenue, that unfunded tax cuts are bad public policy, that McCain has caved to the ideological tax-cut lobby for the duration of the campaign, and that the tax-policy experts hope to recoup the ground they have given up and restore fiscal-policy sanity to the McCain operation after the election. I know that very well. I know that McCain has wussed out 110%. But I can't report it. I can't find McCain tax-policy expert supporters willing to say it on the record. And Len Downie won't allow me to print the story without a quote high up in the article making McCain look good.
Calling J.D. Foster a tax-policy "expert," and implying that the view that McCain has seen the light is a respectable view among the broader community of tax-policy experts is misleading, but only in a very minor way. I got a lot of good stuff out in that article, and I couldn't have gotten the article printed on page A1 without calling J.D. Foster a tax-policy expert. It was a very small price to pay.
But Weisman won't say anything like that on the record. The closest thing about the culture of reporting at the Washington Post was said by Weisman's colleague Mike Allen, who once traveled to Virginia Beach to say, as Matthew Yglesias reported:
Matthew Yglesias: He Said / She Said: I went down to Norfolk to be on a panel discussion with The Washington Post's Mike Allen.... Mike had something to say on the topic of "he said, she said" journalism that provided me with some valuable perspective.... 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.... 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.'"...
People... 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....
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."... He seemed happier with that restatement...
On my view, misleading "he said, she said"-lead-a-horse-to-water journalism--where what is really going on is apparent only to discerning readers willing to pay a lot of time and attention and who already know a lot about the issue--is not something that any reporter should be craven enough to practice or any reader willing to pay for. Jonathan Weisman and his bosses think differently.
What I don't understand is why Jonathan Weisman thinks that what he does has some right to my approval. I don't understand that at all.