February 16, 2011

Willful Misinterpretation

[Editor's Note: The following critique is based on journalistic texts as presented and not a deeper examination of original source material of those texts, i.e. the stories as presented to the audience.]

Willful misinterpretation of a message is not a tool of opinion journalism.

Willful misinterpretation is a tool of punditry and propaganda.

Willful misinterpretation is one bad byproduct of our new view-from-somewhere age. I’m all for viewing events from particular points of view and being open with the audience about those points of view. But willful misinterpretation falls outside the bounds of the ethical practice of journalism informed by one’s point of view.

Willful misinterpretation is the deliberate misreading of a message — in order to distort the message — of a source or other news-maker. Such an act would simply fall into the realm of punditry if it weren’t for the added twist of distorting a message for partisan reasons.

Let’s look at two recent examples from Talking Points Memo. (Several online news sites from across the limited left-right axis have turned this style of “reporting” into a high art.)

Example #1: South Dakota Bill Could Legalize Murder Of Abortion Providers

No, it couldn’t. Anyone with a modicum of interpretive skill can see that the bill does nothing of the kind. It really seems to do nothing at all. Consider:

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones first reported on Tuesday that HB 1171 would amend the current law to include the following language (bold parts are new):

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

At first blush it appears to do exactly what the inflammatory headline suggests. But pay more careful attention to the bill’s language: “resisting any attempt to murder” and “commit any felony upon him or her” and “reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury.”

The only way to read this as a potential legalization of killing abortion providers is to completely ignore that language. It’s a far more cogent critique of this law to say that it attempts to create “personhood” for the unborn, which would be real news if achieved.

I’m not claiming anything about the intention of the bill’s sponsors. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “legalizing murder.”

Example #2: Bachmann Blasts First Lady And ‘Nanny State’ — For Promoting Breastfeeding

No, she didn’t. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying:

“I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.”

She legitimately questions the use of government funds for a specific purpose: buying people breast pumps. She claims to have breast-fed her own kinds and says nothing about the general promotion of breastfeeding by the First Lady. One can disagree with her, but one (i.e. the journalist writing this story and the editor writing the headline) ought not distort by amplification. There is no logical link between questioning policy regarding breast pumps and a general “blasting” of the First Lady and the “nanny state” for promoting breast feeding.

I’m not claiming anything about Bachmann’s position on breast feeding. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “blasting” the “promotion” of breast feeding.

Journalism — even journalism practiced on the web and practiced from a transparent point of view — must not violate the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) by distorting events based on willful misinterpretation. I call it willful because the writers and editors of TPM (and other liberal and conservative web operations) know better. They know what good journalism is. They are choosing not to practice it.

But worse, they are choosing to misinform the public for partisan reasons. And that takes their work out of the realm of journalism (or opinion journalism) and into the realm of propaganda.

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6 Responses

  1. Jason 

    Right on the mark as usual, Andy. Well done.

  2. Tim 

    One of the failures of web journalism will be the editorial feedback mechanism that rewards partisan propaganda over fact-checking.

    Does TPM use a model that rewards fact-checking over one that rewards media success in terms of visits, comments, or clicks? Is fact-checking at TPM only rewarded if it fits TPM’s POV? Can that still fulfill the primary purpose of journalism? Can fact-checking your POV compete with fact-checking your opponent’s POV?

  3. acline 

    Tim… All good questions. I’m thinking that the audience’s self-selection toward agreeable POVs play a big role in this. It creates a disincentive for actual fact-checking.

  4. Tim 

    Self-selection will not correct a lack of fact-checking or partisan echo chambers. But would a journalistic process at TPM (or anywhere) account for that?

    It reminds me of Rosen’s question if CBS had anyone reading their Internet critics or Sulzberger’s “most depressing” moment realizing readers didn’t complain about Jayson Blair fabricating stories because “that was what journalists do.”

    The obvious result has been loss of trust.

  5. acline 

    Tim… My hypothesis would be that a lack of fact-checking (and/or willful misinterpretation) becomes more tolerable (and/or more rhetorical) on the part of the offending journalist/news org as audience self-selection replaces scrutiny with acceptance. Hmmmmm… how would one test that?

    And, yes, loss of trust.

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