December 4, 2007

Much Ado About the Same Ol’ Same Ol’

The Washington Post recently ran an article about ______ that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Try to fill in the blank with a politically neutral term.

Is it a rumor or a false claim? Perhaps it’s simply a lie. Or a mistake. Or it could be propaganda. Then again, perhaps we’re talking a political tactic. Or even the truth. Is it wishful thinking or a desperate hope?

(You can, however, fill in that blank with a term that meets acceptable truth conditions. More on that below.)

A reader responded this way in an online discussion with Post political reporter Lois Romano:

I object to today’s story in The Post talking about the “rumors” floating around that Obama is Muslim. It is simply inaccurate and poor reporting to call them rumors. They are false claims. Obama is not a Muslim; calling them rumors gives them credence.

Romano had this to say:

These are always very difficult decisions– how to address something that people are talking about, that has clearly become a factor in the race, without taking a position. Part of our job is to acknowledge that there is a discussion going on and to fact check and lay out the facts.

This is truly fascinating. On the one had she’s not supposed to take a position, but on the other hand she’s supposed to “lay out the facts.” (Yo! That’s a position!)

In so much of political journalism today laying out the facts means writing down what “both sides” say. But if you suggest to journalists that perhaps what “both sides” say is data that should be checked against the facts, well–that’s bias!

While there are folks on the political left that dearly want this to be a case of conservative bias, it is no more so than similar treatments of right-wing politicians constitute liberal bias. What this is: A sad case of how political journalism is practiced in America today. Its agency is stenography rather than reporting.

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts

I believe this is a legitimate story, i.e. what is Obama’s religious background? There are parts of this article that tell us interesting things about him. There should have been, however, a statement by the reporter, based on gathering the facts (i.e. reporting), that justifies a term to go in that blank space.

(Notice I said “justifies.” That’s because nothing can go in that blank that is politically neutral. My assertion makes no claim about truth conditions. The term could meet acceptable truth conditions and still fail to accurately portray the reality of any given faction. The reason: ideology–a lens used to see the world in particular ways.)

In any case “rumor” should not be the term. A rumor is “a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts.” So a rumor is a starting point for a journalism that gathers and reports the facts. Journalism, then, is (or should be) a rumor-destroying practice. Another way to put this: No responsible, legitimate journalism should ever be about rumors.

4 Responses

  1. Sven 

    Journalism, then, is (or should be) a rumor-destroying practice.

    Well put. The writers/editors use the “wild rumors on the Internet” as a hook to write about Obama’s religion (which I agree is a valid subject) and more generally religion in politics.

    But the article seems weirdly disjointed because it never actually addresses the purported primary thesis: that wild rumors distributed through the Internet are playing a role in presidential politics. If they’re going to raise that point, then the story is only nominally about Obama; it’s about the Internet.

    Chris Hayes wrote that story, and it’s fascinating (he also tracks down the real source of the Obama innuendo; the Post should be ashamed for attributing it to the Clinton campaign with zero evidence).

  2. Sven… Thanks for the link!

  3. Tim 
  4. Tim… Wow. So it appears that “smear” may be a good choice for that blank space. Thanks for the link.