December 14, 2007

Reporting Versus Stenography

In my recent post about the is-Obama-a-Muslim story in the Washington Post, I offered quick definitions of reporting and stenography (as applied to journalism):

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts

(Yes, it’s a “fact” that sources say things. Among the things they say are assertions of fact. What a good journalist is supposed to do is check a source’s assertions for some kind of correspondence to the facts.) 

I heard Lance Bennett touch on this topic in the podcast of Media Matters with Bob McChesney (scroll down to 25 November). He didn’t mention stenography by name, but he did discuss it in practice by noting that much political reporting today is not a search for facts but a competition to get the best spin, i.e. to write down what political sources say.

I’m trying to think of an “in other words” to make the trouble with that even more plain. Hmmmmm… can’t do it. That’s scary enough as it is.

Among the problems with passing along spin and calling it journalism is that it teaches journalists to think of themselves as political insiders (as opposed to “players,” which is another matter). And that leads to politically useless in-the-know analysis articles such as this one by Katharine Q. Seelye about an apparent apology trend going on in the presidential nomination campaign.

(This could have been an interesting one for the rhetoric beat, but Seeyle doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.) 

Some of the topics discussed in her analysis may certainly be worthy of reporting (check the definition above). But all we get from this reporter for The New York Times (that’s supposed to mean something, IMO) is a cynical point of view from inside a political process that’s largely staged precisely to manipulate journalism.

Because this could have been an interesting story from the rhetoric beat, let’s examine one of the reasons it fails:

On the Republican side, Mr. Huckabee was responding to questions in an article to be published on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. He was asked if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. He said he did not know much about it, adding, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The comments could be damaging to Mr. Romney because polls have shown that many voters are suspicious of Mormonism and would not vote for a Mormon for president.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, apologized to Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, after the Republican debate on Wednesday.

Thursday morning, he appeared on MSNBC. “It was never my intention to denigrate his faith,” Mr. Huckabee said. “I raised it not to create a story. I thought we were having a simple, casual conversation.” He said he apologized to Mr. Romney because, “I don’t think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.”

But then Mr. Huckabee accused Mr. Romney of running a negative campaign. “We run a positive campaign, more so frankly than Mitt, who’s running ads against me and dropping fliers in Iowa,” he said.

Wow. Could that be a red herring fallacy (employed with intention)? A reporter on the rhetoric beat would have some digging to do to see if this is typical of Huckabee.

But note how miserably Seelye’s analysis of political apology fails in the last quoted paragraph. Are we to gather from this that Huckabee’s apology in insincere because he proceeds to criticize Romney on another matter?

(Are these matters related somehow? That’s the implication. I don’t see it. But if it’s true, Seelye should have told us how they are related and how she knows.)

Even the Clinton example in this article is thin.

Now I’m not claiming that non-apology isn’t real or isn’t a tactic being employed in this campaign. I’m not claiming it isn’t important. I am claiming this lightly reported, heavily “stenographed” analysis is politically useless. 

5 Responses

  1. Anna Haynes 

    > “A reporter on the rhetoric beat would have some digging to do to see if this is typical of Huckabee.

    That would be fascinating.
    So Andy, is anyone in the U.S. on the rhetoric/campaign beat? I would love to read their articles.

  2. Anna… None that I’m aware of.

  3. stew 

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  4. Anna 

    FYI – just ran across this story on the rhetoric of climate change, from the Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

    My favorite bit –
    “Piltz says reporters need to look carefully at how some politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups pursue what to him is a ‘predatory relationship with uncertainty language.'”

  5. Anna… Thanks for the link!