Jay Rosen’s recent post on the ideology of the press centers on the introduction of fresh terms for a taxonomy of its various proclivities. Embedded among these, like a journalist in a humvee, is another call to “bust up” he said, she said journalism and replace it with, of all things, fact-checking.
It’s a brilliant move and has already spawned a challenge to David Gregory’s bald refusal to as much on Meet the Press. On having been asked to fact-check Gregory’s guests, following their appearance, Gregory said, “People can fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms.” Though Rosen had addressed Gregory, others were listening, and two college students launched Meet the Facts, a crowd-sourced effort to challenge the many empty and inadequate claims made on the program.
The Sunday morning political murderball that passes for political debate deserves the scrutiny. Gregory found that attention increased according to his defiance, but the format perfectly matches the phenomenon, and the answer seemed simple: fact-check it. With the Sunday morning format, the dispute is the news, and though a careful evaluation of the facts might arrest its inflation, the format couples controversy with controversy, yielding a tense bundle of trembling balloons, like so many disappointing and maybe toxic carnival prizes. Even the great statesman of the media, Tim Russert, whose hard-hitting questions appeared to inure him to the criticism, fell to blade of an earlier critic, Lewis Lapham, who wrote in Elegy for a Rubber Stamp:
his on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity, his modus operandi the same one that pointed Rameau’s obliging nephew to the roast pheasant and the coupe aux marrons in eighteenth-century Paris: “Butter people up, good God, butter them up.”
And yes, even the great and respected Tim Russert, had been branded with the sign of Rosen’s he said, she said journalism. Lapham, however, would be less sparing and, instead, tarred him with the slavish appearance of the court jester, mindful that one’s entertainments are more important than one’s scrutiny. Yes, Butter people up, good God, butter them up.
What then, should political journalists do? That’s exactly what Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic asked this morning, and he introduced the question in a slyly developed change of context. He shifted Rosen’s rhetoric from an outline for an ideology to one of pathology. It was an important shift, for the metaphor changes from a world-view to a disease. Whereas a world-view might merit a more thoughtful exchange of criticism and response, a disease requires a cure and deserves no cajoling or argument from the doctor. The shift may even insinuate a subtle jab at Rosen, ceding him credit while suggesting that he has in fact slighted the press with an overbearing, know-it-all analysis that budgets no respect for the insights that might come from the press. It’s very smooth, and I expect that it was done with the friendliest intentions, but but it misses the bundle of analysis for the merits of individual recommendations – the proverbial forest for the trees.
Rosen’s emphasis on fact-checking is a smart response to not only the Sunday morning format, but the broader base of political reporting. It provides a check on the pathology of he said, she said, and with exercises such as Meet the Facts, it may also marshal many more citizens for the scrutiny of our politicians and political system. Though idealist in ambition, there’s no shame in recognizing the marketing value of a broad and engaged base of readers.