On Radio Rhetorica today, Ben Gardner and I discussed the article by Dan Balz in today’s Washington Post, entitled (on the web) “Aftershocks Are Unpredictable,” about the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. I maintain that the only responsible answer to what the recall and election mean is: “I don’t know,” or, as the headline suggests, “Wait and see.” I do, however, maintain that we can tease out some good assumptions about what the next few months hold in store for Arnold.
The article provides an excellent opportunity to see the fairness bias at work. Further, it also demonstrates how journalists can become tools of propagandists because of this bias, e.g. they allow others to frame the issues without challenging the frame.
So how do you report such an article? Well, you find people “on both sides” willing to speculate about what the recall means–not terribly difficult to do. You may quote them, but you may not say what their quotes mean or otherwise evaluate them. That wouldn’t be fair.
In their excellent new book, The Press Effect, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldmen contend that the press must be the “custodian of fact.” And this concept includes more than that which can be measured (my definition of “fact”). They also mean to suggest “reports”–that which can be verified. And we can find verifiable “facts” in discourse:
Just as politicians sometimes succeed in deceiving the public, journalists sometimes fail in their task of discovering and describing the knowable, relevant information at play in public discourse. (165)
Exactly. This means more than fact-checking [Note: I'm expanding on their concept; Jamieson and Waldman might disagree]. As I said this earlier this week, if journalists knew more about complex language use (rhetoric, linguistics, semantics, etc.), they could report on the persuasive tactics and propaganda agendas of various political actors as verifiable events, i.e. facts (although I prefer the term “reports”).
Let’s take a look at two quotes from the Balz article:
“Anybody who’s running [for reelection] who’s got a negative job approval on the economy, which Bush has, has to think twice about how to win support of the voters,” said Democratic pollster Mark Penn. Pointing to voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the economy, he added, “Those could be powerful forces in the election next November.”
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said, “It’s hard to imagine a bitter and angry campaign message selling in a broader general election electorate. That doesn’t mean it will not sell well among Democratic primary activists, who remain infuriated that George W. Bush is president of the United States. But it’s very important to make a bright and clear distinction between what works in a Democratic primary audience and what works in a general election electorate.”
Both of these partisan pollsters are doing exactly what they should be doing: spinning the message to favor their side. I applaud their efforts. Ayres is a little better at it than Penn (from this limited evidence), but they are both doing the same thing. One of the ways to recognize spin, by the way, is this: Assertions and characterizations that have no reasons or data to bolster them.
Balz does identify them as partisans. Still, by leaving their comments uncommented upon, one could easily get the impression that these two guys are giving serious answers to serious questions. They most certainly are not. Refer back to the first paragraph of this entry for the “correct” answers.
Their naked spinning (propagandizing) is a reportable fact. This is an analysis (says so at the top of the article). So comment already. Better yet, find some credible sources, i.e. people who can speak with authority from a position somewhat above the fray (yes, my elitism is showing here). The Penn and Ayers quotes tell us nothing more than how the sides are spinning–certainly important to know. Balz doesn’t have to quote them to deliver this information.