Politics & Media
Aug 12, 2008, 06:50AM

Subjective is the New Objective, pt. 2

Thy name is Spade: Should the media be concerned with telling us what’s right, rather than what is?

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This is Part 2 of an ongoing series regarding the role of objectivity in digital journalism. Part 1 concerned Detroit-based journalist and blogger Michael Happy.

Ron Fournier hasn’t had such a hot summer.

The DC bureau chief for the Associated Press, the outlet that delivers news to literally half of the world, is being kicked around over two issues: One is his drastic refocusing of the AP with his “accountable journalism” ideology; the other involves his now-public predilection toward brown-nosing such types as Karl Rove. The two are not mutually exclusive, but on its own the first issue is part of a very significant debate that touches on long-standing notions of objectivity, and it potentially marks a significant turning point in the ways mainstream media presents information to the public.

Fournier, for some, represents a gross disregard for media ethics. The phrase “cutting through the clutter” means a lot to him. So much, in fact, that he’s re-branded the AP’s “just the facts” journalism as his new “accountable journalism.” In essence, Fournier is loosing his reporters to combat misinformation, misdirection and propaganda machines looking to misinform, misdirect and propagandize you. For him, the media is here to save us from ourselves—and from the Information Age. But “just the facts” journalism can’t cut it anymore; it’s time for reporters to call all the spades as they see them.

Let’s go back to late August, New Orleans, 2005. As I recall, there wasn't a single legitimate defense of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Now it’s 2008, and we can say with certainty that FEMA and the higher-ups and Bush and whoever else had any semblance of influence in the recovery process, in a word or two, fucked up. But we already knew this. In September of 2005. Look at, say, the dispatches filed by one Ron Fournier of the AP. One article starts with, “The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent’s identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn’t match the public’s view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.”

Think about that quote in the context of 2005, and then today. It is a prescient sound-off that reverberates right into our current election cycle. No bullshit, no spin quote from a White House aide, no “heckuva job.”

We want this. A large part of what draws the public to news is how it can distinguish between right and wrong; sometimes, a reporter—by nature of the job, from repeated contact with experts and people in the know—will provide the best argument for a certain issue. Fournier's Katrina dispatch speaks to the cliché “holding truth to power.” In an AP internal memo circulated in June of 2007, which foreshadows his current tenure’s methodology, Fournier wrote:

Just because a public official says it doesn't mean you need to put it in your story or give his claim equal billing to what you know to be true. We have an obligation to write factual and fair stories, but we are not obliged to print attacks, spin or distortion under the cover of "fair comment."


Shortly after Katrina struck, I dutifully reported that President Bush had said nobody anticipated the breach of the levees. In fact, many experts had predicted a major storm would bust New Orleans’ flood-control barriers. In the past, that’s all I would have written; readers would get both sides of the story and then be expected to draw their own conclusion. This time, I went a step further and simply wrote: "He was wrong.” Why not? Why force the readers to read between carefully parsed lines when the facts are clear?

Fournier is speaking to that irresistible, sometimes mythical tenet of journalism: providing the final answer to the issue at hand. When this issue is teased to its hypothetical extremes—a story on a Holocaust memorial with a quote from a local Holocaust denier or a front page campaign news article that kicks off with “The decrepit, withered McCain” or “Look at the Muslim fascist Obama go”—we believe the answers ought instead to be straightforward and follow an absolute injunction: Don’t opine, don’t allow bias to cloud objective reporting.

Fournier is saying there’s a third way: trust reporters to call it like they see it, to scream the obvious instead of clouding truths with “on the other hand … ”

Getting out of hand—on this hand and the other

It so happens that Fournier exchanged emails with Karl Rove. These were uncovered in the unrelated investigation into the US government's propagandizing of the death of former NFL player Cpl. Pat Tillman.

Fournier was not reporting on the story, but in an email to Rove about the issue, he wrote, “The Lord creates men and women like this all over the world. But only the great and free countries allow them to flourish. Keep up the fight.”

Add to that the “breaking news” that Fournier was approached by the McCain campaign with a job offer back in 2006 and you have an insta-bias extravaganza making like chain-lightning across the liberal blogosphere. The logical conclusion is that there is no excuse for any whiff of a partisan slant in a news article, that the above events point to an embedded bias in Fournier's reporting, and so "accountable journalism” fails as a result. If the reporter is not accountable, how is the reporting?

With that in mind, consider this lead by the AP’s Beth Fouhy: “Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former first lady who hasn’t driven a car or pumped gas in many years because of Secret Service restrictions, joined a blue-collar worker at a filling station Wednesday to illustrate how the high price of gasoline is squeezing consumers.” (Politico)

Quite a leading statement. Yes, she probably hasn’t filled her tank since gas was a buck and a half per gallon, and gross insinuation—yes, she’s “illustrating” blue-collar understanding in a rather ironic way but, seriously, every single presidential candidate does that.

And Fournier’s own writing?: “Mitt Romney’s victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics … the former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponent’s record and continued to show why he’s the most malleable—and least credible—major presidential candidate.” (Media Matters) Media Matters has also noted a pro-McCain bias in AP reporting.

Pick your battles

It is fairly obvious that political reporting is not the best battleground for accountable journalism. The stakes are ever changing; in other words, Fournier's ideology—“cutting through the clutter”—is essentially impossible with political discussions. Leave that to the op-ed pages and blogs.

Accountable journalism hinges on common knowledge and conventional wisdom: If the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina can be universally agreed upon as being grossly inadequate, report it as truth; if Michael Happy can breath some life into a Detroit community as reporter, blogger and advocate, then so be it.

But commonalities and conventions are not easy to find in the media, and this is good. Skepticism and even-handedness are the meat and potatoes of reporting. But we shouldn’t be afraid of breaking that wall when it catalyzes a greater understanding of what’s happening right here, right now.

  • I agree with Klein that politics is not the "best battleground" for "accountable journalism." (Although I'm still not exactly sure what Ron Fournier means by that, except for telling the truth.) Reporters and columnists get too chummy with candidates, both Democrats and Republicans during the two-year campaigns. In a way, it's hard to blame them: they're all in the same fraternity. It's one more reason--and I'm not sure how exactly you pull this off--to adapt a British style of campaigns, meaning MUCH shorter ones. The political to and fro, often over meaningless gaffes or rumors, crowds out other real news that readers are probably a lot more interested in.

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