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From AJR,   June/July 2011  issue

Reporting to Conclusions   

Journalists shouldn’t shrink from making judgments about factual disputes. Posted: Wed, Feb. 16, 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

When Larry Platt took over as editor of the Philadelphia Daily News on January 31, he sketched out an audacious new approach for the shorthanded but aggressive tabloid.

"We will continue to report the hell out of our city, in keeping with the highest standards of accuracy and fairness, but you should also not be afraid to have a point of view about what you report," he wrote in a memo to his staff. "Our pages should never be home to 'he said/she said' neutrality. Instead, you will be explicit adjudicators of factual disputes, and you'll be free to draw conclusions from your reporting."

Maybe Anderson Cooper also got a copy of the memo.

On the night of February 10, after Hosni Mubarak defied the pundits and said he wasn't going anywhere quite yet--a bold statement that was inoperative within hours--CNN superstar Cooper went off on the besieged Egyptian strongman.

"What we heard were the same lies that we've heard from him and his regime for more than two weeks now," Cooper told Wolf Blitzer. In particular, Cooper branded as "lies" Mubarak's suggestions that the enormous, passionate demonstrations by the Egyptian people were caused by that nasty foreign interference and that, anyway, all those protesters were taking it to the streets because they were being paid to do so.

Lies they were. But Cooper's willingness if not eagerness to call them that quickly drew flak.

Fox News contributor Liz Trotta found Cooper's performance "really shocking" and pronounced his remarks "incoherent." For what it's worth, I've listened to them a number of times and they sound pretty coherent to me.

More significant, Trotta readily conceded that Cooper was right on the merits. But, in best minister of protocol form, she huffed that it was "not in his purview to say so."

On his "Reliable Sources" program on CNN, The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz asked Newsweek's Christopher Dickey whether an anchor and correspondent like Cooper should be "taking sides on this kind of story." Dickey replied that "part of the soul of [Cooper's] show is to take sides" and be "committed to a certain vision of the story." At the same time, Dickey, like Trotta, said that Cooper was correct, that Mubarak's comments certainly were lies. (Hat tip to Glenn Greenwald for spotlighting that exchange in an excellent piece on the subject on Salon.)

So are the critics right? Is calling a lie a lie out of a journalist's "purview"? Was Cooper guilty of "taking sides"?

I don't think so.

All Cooper did was tell the truth, albeit in an unvarnished, perhaps jarring, way. As Platt would say, Cooper was the explicit adjudicator of a factual dispute. He drew conclusions from his reporting.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

For too long, mainstream journalism has pulled its punches. Admirably dedicated to fairness, balance, not picking winners and losers, it too often settled for "on the one hand, on the other hand" stories that left readers in the dark.

Clearly it's important to be impartial, to represent many points of view, to give each side its say. But that doesn't mean treating both sides of the argument equally when one is demonstrably false, or even deeply flawed. The world isn't flat, no matter how many times some misguided soul might say it is.

To treat everything equally is to create a false equivalency. And that really shortchanges the readers.

The rise of the Internet, and the emergence of so much punchy point of view in the blogosphere, underscored the fact that too much journalism was too mushy, and unnecessarily so.

It's not as if the traditional media never have the courage of their conclusions. Investigative pieces are presented in such a way to show that something is profoundly wrong, whether it's conditions at a hospital, a nuclear plant or a corrupt city hall.

And there has been progress on this front in recent years. One major breakthrough is the advent of political fact-checking at many news organizations. Rather than jotting down the positions of both sides and leaving it at that, these operations get down in the weeds to determine what's right and what's wrong. And they express that conclusion forcefully. A great example of that is PolitiFact's dreaded "Pants on Fire" rating, awarded when something is totally bogus--totally, well, Mubarakesque. And, yes, that's "Pants on Fire" as in "liar, liar."

But there is an important caveat. The conclusions have to be shaped by hard-edged reporting, by facts, not by political point of view. You have to apply the same standards to Mubarak and Mohamed ElBaradei, to Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell, to Esperanza Spalding and Pink. The world doesn't need more partisanship à la Fox News or MSNBC.

Does this approach come with risks? Sure. Will it misfire sometimes? Of course. But the potential payoff is huge, for the news organization, the reader--and democracy.