Watchdog Blog

Saul Friedman: How The Truth May be Told by the MSM

Posted at 11:53 am, September 18th, 2007
Saul Friedman Mug

Two of my Nieman classmates (1962-3), the late curmudgeon Pat Owens, and Dan Berger, who retired from the Baltimore Evening Sun, were editorial writers and they despaired at the use of the cop-out cliches of their business: “On the other hand…,” “It Remains to be seen…” and Dan’s favorite, “It bears watching.” The words may vary, but you get the idea. It’s a refusal to tell it like it is, or as you see it, to take a stand, make a judgment.

Perhaps it’s time for the reporter to do the same, now that modern journalism in most places is done with the myth of objectivity. In fact, beleaguered and bewildered newspapers need to give such freedom or latitude to their reporters as a matter of survival in a journalism that has been taken over by bloggers, good and awful, right- and left-wing interest groups, entertainers who pass as reporters, the 24/7 cable news programs and the Fox News type propagandists for whoever is in power.

Newspapers, with few exceptions, and most of their reporters have better reputations and credibility, or at least they ought to. Yet the so-called Main Stream Press has become an epithet (“MSM”) for even the most responsible bloggers and critics. Indeed in my 50 years of journalism, I don’t remember such criticism, and from good friends of the press, like Bill Moyers, who took the press apart (except for Knight-Ridder’s Washington Bureau) for its failure to sound the alarms and uncover the lies of the Bush administration when it was hell-bent for war in Iraq.

At that time, I was a frequent visitor to my own Newsday Washington Bureau, and here was the pattern I found, which I wager was common elsewhere: One or two investigative reporters were probing for and finding holes in the administration’s claims. But the news of each day came out of the Pentagon and White House and they led the paper, day after day, straight stories quoting administration officials or the president or the defense secretary. Only occasionally, did the reporter write, “But critics say,” or “some Democrats say.” It was the obligatory throw-away line to show the story was fair and balanced. Maybe it was, but it was also wrong. Many of the reporters knew the nation was being led into war and that the reasons were questionable, but they hung onto the bandwagon of war because all they could do with their brand of journalism was to become, in Lenin’s words, a “transmission belt.”

Many of those reporters with no axes to grind (unlike Judith Miller and Michael Gordon), if they had some decent, dissenting sources, and there were plenty, could have found out what was really going on, but they didn’t. They were telling both sides of the story and thus fulfilling journalism’s duty. But as Paul Krugman has observed, if the White House proclaims the earth to be flat and the journalist writes, “on the other hand, critics (or Democrats) say the earth is round,” reporters have not done their job, telling truth as far as you (and your sources) know it. How can any journalist take seriously, and write without challenge, the politician’s proclamation that evolution is but one side of the story? A good science reporter will know more about Darwin than any politician and he or she has the expertise to challenge such ignorance; to do otherwise is dishonest.

In his Washington Post media column Sept. 17, Howard Kurtz wondered why news organizations couldn’t take a stand in their reporting. He asked, “Or is there no realistic way to do what critics demand without becoming partisan?” Telling truth, with good, solid reporting, will be called partisan by those who disagree with the conclusions. That has always come with the terriitory. Kurtz quoted blogger Arianna Huffington:”too many in the Washingtonpress corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of ‘what is truth’ to their readers–refusing to admit there is such a thing as truth…The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt.” Thus we are forced into writing, in effect, “on the other hand,the White House says…”

Nevertheless, if the reporters for Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) got it right, why not others, especially those for the richest and most powerful newspapers? I would suggest a measure of careerism was at work, going along with the inevitable, rocking no boats, and maintaining official sources for those behind-the-scenes books. The books by Bob Woodward and Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, among many others, disclosed too long after the fact the lies that got us into this war and plague us still.

Now they tell us? Why can’t reporters who cover their beats well and who become as expert as possible in that field–the law, courts, medicine, consumerism, politics, the Congress, even the presidency–write for their newspapers as if they’re writing a book or a magazine piece? If they are truly expert, as many reporters are, they need not depend on someone else for a meaningless quote. They should be freed from the constraints of “he said, she said” and provide narrative journalism, which is much more interesting than “on the other handism.” And it may come closer to the truth.

10 Responses to “How The Truth May be Told by the MSM”

  1. Representative Journalism - Blog - Another Voice on Improving Reporters’ Value says:

    [...]  Saul Friedman, a 1963 Nieman Fellow and  former White House correspondent for Newsday and Knight Ridder newspapers, writes at Neiman Watchdog Blog:   Why can’t reporters who cover their beats well and who become as expert as possible in that field–the law, courts, medicine, consumerism, politics, the Congress, even the presidency–write for their newspapers as if they’re writing a book or a magazine piece? If they are truly expert, as many reporters are, they need not depend on someone else for a meaningless quote. They should be freed from the constraints of “he said, she said” and provide narrative journalism, which is much more interesting than “on the other handism.” And it may come closer to the truth. [...]

  2. Matt J. Duffy says:

    But, too often “truth” is just another word for “my belief.” If we start encouraging reporters to abandon even the appearances of objectivity (via trite “he said, she said” reporting), then we’ll produce a press even more susceptible to accusations of bias.

    Of course, maybe that’s what we need to do anyway. With U.S. media credibility at record lows, perhaps it’s time to adopt the European model of an overtly partisan press. Then, each paper’s writers could freely report its version of “truth.”

  3. Right Angles » Blog Archive » Bad idea of the day says:

    [...] This guy says what we need in the media is MORE bias. Yeah, that’s what I need in the papers I read. More backing into stories with the lede about 12 paragraphs down. More unsubstantiated conclusions. More quotes from only one side of the issue. I can’t wait. [...]

  4. Tom Stites says:

    What comes first in my mind is the relationship between the newspaper and its readers. Does the newspaper present journalism that is relevant to their lives, respectful of them as human beings, and trustworthy? There is an informal covenant between the newspaper and its readers on how the news is to be presented if it has any hope of achieving the readers’ trust, which at this point in our history is in drastically short supply. Deviating from the expected form is in and of itself a waving flag that raises suspicion, so I’m drastically wary of Saul’s suggestion.

    There are subtler ways of doing he said-she said than is the norm. It is possible to throw an uncontrovertible fact into the exchange such as, “More than X Nobel laureates and Y other climate scientists have signed a statement saying the global warming is real and humanmankind’s burning of fossil fuels is a significant contributor,” or somesuch. That puts the he said-she said dance into context for the reader without the reporter making an Olympian assertion of truth.

    Under just the right circumstances I can imagine creating a special space in a commentary section for essays by expert reporters. But I can’t imagine them in the news pages if they go beyond the usual norms for news analysis. The covenant with the readers is that the news pages are for news.

    All this said, I certainly agree with my fellow Newsday alum that perhaps journalism’s biggest challenge is finding trustworthy ways to lead the readers safely through the propaganga blizzard to clarity about what’s really happening. Ourt mutual friend Pat Owens would cheer, grumpily, for whoever could blaze the path.

  5. L.A. Burchyns says:

    Newspapers need guts as much as they need brains. They are, of course, a human endeavor. While it may be a ridiculous suggestion to say any reporter can be majestically objective in the face of his or her own beliefs, in the face of so much spin, and amidst so much complex and unknown information, it seems to me NEWS has an ethical, civil obligation to impress a sense of fairness on the readers. That’s brains. Now guts: That said, I do think newsreaders want more than just the “straight story.” They want fiery columnists who have eyes and ears and voices of their own and who aren’t afraid to use them. These are the heroes and villains, outlaws and sheriffs, of the business, enlightening and vexing us and actually getting our blood pumping. Let there be news, let there be gurus, let there be rock stars.

  6. Tom Kearney says:

    Hear, hear! I call this writing with authority. Everybody’s trying to spin us. We should help people understand what’s true by writing it clearly. We should use every tool we have, and that includes the thousands of hours we’ve spent on the beat, learning every nuance of it. Cut through the crap.

  7. ed ericson says:

    Here’s the thing: if you stop chasing after authoritative quotes from official sources for a day or two and talk to regular people–newspaper readers and not–you find that regular people already know that government and corporate officials are snowing them. Newspapers and “MSM” have lost their credibility precisely because they’ve stuck for generations to a formula the elites have long since learned how to game. And part of that game is the right wing dittoheads slurring “bias” whenever a reporter stops, even for a moment, spooning out the pabulum. So of course Freidman is right, as far as he goes. But it’s not a simple matter of unswaddling allegedly “expert” beat reporters. Some of them are good, true, but many of them know nothing beyond the day’s talking points. All of these need to formally become the flacks they’ve so long pretended not to be. The investigators, the reporters who’ll actually read documents, the ones who’ll leave their desk and the pack and go talk to someone who actually knows something real, all of them ought to be unshackled.

  8. ed ericson says:

    er, make that Friedman. Sorry.

  9. Unscripted | Charleston City Paper » The Iraq War, Ballet, and Truth-Telling says:

    [...] But what if it weren’t so taboo, asks Saul Friedman in an insightful column for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism? The blog is called the Nieman Watchdog and I plan to read more of it. [...]

  10. The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media » Giving Objectivity A Bad Name says:

    [...] my former Knight Ridder colleague, Saul Friedman, blames a rigid objectivity for failures to report the flaws in the Bush administration’s [...]

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