Hack Roast

When citizens attack...reporters

On November 30, 1999, Al Gore told a high school class in New Hampshire about how, 20 years earlier, a girl their age had informed his congressional office about toxic waste problems in her hometown of Toone, Tennessee. The resulting Capitol Hill hearings, which Gore sponsored, also investigated a much more famous polluted area of upstate New York called Love Canal. "Toone, Tennessee -- that was the one that you didn't hear of," the then-vice president told the Granite State students. "But that was the one that started it all."

The next day, both The Washington Post and The New York Times changed the wording of that last quote, replacing "But that" with "I," making it seem as though Gore was trying to take credit for discovering the Love Canal disaster. Hours later, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson issued a press release blasting Gore for his "pattern of phoniness" while mutating the quote still further: "I was the one who started it all," the alleged remark now read.

Even though the Times and Post both ended up running corrections more than a week later (under duress from the outraged high schoolers), and several media critics eventually deconstructed the tale, the story of Al Gore "discovering" the Love Canal became a fixture in Campaign 2000, to be repeated in several hundred newspapers and on every major news network in America.

In 2004 it's much harder to get away with such shaggy-dog reporting, thanks to a tidal wave of amateur online media criticism that has finally started to break into professional newsrooms. On January 4, for example, Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler transformed a legitimate Howard Dean debate point ("I opposed the Iraq War; with the exception of Dennis [Kucinich] and Carol [Moseley Braun], everybody else supported it") into a lie: "I opposed the Iraq War when everybody else up here was for it." The misquote was picked up by The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and dozens of other newspapers, but it was also flagged by several pro-Dean sites and the popular blog Daily Kos. Within a few days Pickler acknowledged the error, the AP ran a correction, and a potential urban legend about Dean's intemperate fabulism was strangled in the crib.

The 2000 and even 1996 presidential circuses were already pestered by online media critics and citizen dart blowers -- the Gore-Love Canal story was dismantled in real time by D.C. comedian Bob Somerby, who edits the invaluable Daily Howler site -- but this year several new factors have thrust the kibitzers inside the mainstream news cycle. Web strategy is now central, not marginal, to the campaigns; political weblogs have continued their spectacular growth; and the scrutinizers' gazes have shifted from the op-ed pages and weekend gabfests to the nuts-and-bolts reporting itself.

This last change in emphasis has coincided with a spike in professional news organizations' appetite for blogger-style media criticism. Both trends are illustrated by the changing fortunes of 25-year-old Bryan Keefer.

In April 2001 Keefer, his high school chum Brendan Nyhan, and Nyhan's college buddy Ben Fritz launched a site called Spinsanity.org, "dedicated to tracking and analyzing the increasingly pervasive form of spin that we believe is corroding American political discourse." Although the startlingly earnest editors "all have been politically active in Democratic and progressive politics" (as they dutifully disclose), the site has been scrupulously nonpartisan in its debunking of media myths and lancing of rhetorical hyperbole, from Michael Moore and Robert Scheer to Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. Keefer's creation has become a valued resource, but aside from a small syndication deal with Salon, professional appreciation of Spinsanity has mostly been limited to the currency of citations.

Until January of this year, that is. That's when The Philadelphia Inquirer began running a weekly column of original Spinsanity material on its op-ed page, and when Keefer started working full-time as the assistant managing editor of a brand new journalism-parsing weblog called The Campaign Desk (campaigndesk.org), published by the ivory toweristas at the Columbia Journalism Review.

With a paid staff of five (expected soon to reach seven) and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, The Campaign Desk might well be the largest and most expensive weblog published by a professional American news organization. "The hope," says Keefer, "is to bring...the prestige of the magazine, and combine that with the best features of the Internet." He wants the site to be critical of reporters, but also to "issue praise when we think it's deserved, as well as serve as a resource to keep other reporters from making the same mistakes."

The M.O. might sound a little Church Ladyish, but the site was surprisingly jocular and useful after only two weeks, busting reporters for failing to reveal that their "impartial" political-observer sources had backed specific Democrats, tracking down disputed candidate quotes, needling commentators for using absolutes such as never and always, and so on. Small beer, mostly, but every drop applies more public pressure on journalists to do a better job.

With the Spinsanity guys, the question was never "Are they ready for prime time?" but "Why doesn't every newsroom with more than 100 employees have a built-in Spinsanity?" After all, newspaper journalists never tire of reminding cynical outsiders about their hard-earned "credibility" and well-trained bullshit-detecting skills. And since newspaper profit margins still exceed 20 percent on average, why not deploy these remarkable resources to tell readers whether their favorite authors or columnists or politicians are full of it?

Keefer theorizes that "reporters really don't...evaluate the truthfulness of their subject." He says that's in part because they're taught in journalism school that to be balanced you have to represent both sides fairly. "They're good at picking up when someone's obviously lying, but what they're not good at is picking up the sort of fudges that people do." John Timpane, the Inquirer editor who made the deal with Spinsanity, says newspapers "are fighting a losing battle, partly because there's so much stuff [to fact-check] and partly because they're all understaffed....That's not a defense, because we should do a much better job than we do."

Or maybe professionally nonpartisan institutions just aren't the best generators of the political passion that fuels so much amateur media criticism. Both Keefer and Timpane are unusually committed to the elevation of reason over rhetoric. Keefer studied history at Stanford under professors who believed "it's not all subjective impressions; it's not just however you feel or whatever; there really are facts." And Timpane, a former English professor who taught at Rutgers, Stanford, and elsewhere, co-wrote Writing Worth Reading, a textbook that included a large section on "how to avoid the pitfalls of easy argumentation and how to make a strong argument without making some of the errors, like...name-calling."

This January, while Keefer and Spinsanity were enjoying their breakthrough month, a group of mostly lefty webloggers created an "Adopt-a-Journalist" movement, whereby individual campaign reporters would be tracked daily for signs of bias and sloppiness. Journalists who have a "watch blog" attached to their hides now include the aforementioned Nedra Pickler, her AP colleague Calvin Woodward, Reuters' Patricia Wilson, The New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren, and The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Cecil Connolly, among others. Commentary on these blogs ranges from the fair-minded to the cruel, but without the political motivation there probably wouldn't be any "watching" at all.

This manic drive toward maximum transparency may seem like overkill in an age where we can watch several hours' worth of candidates' speeches every day on C-SPAN, read hundreds of pages of detailed policy plans, and see a lifetime of voting records sliced up and analyzed every which way. But when citizens become journalists, and journalists become accountable, the biggest losers will eventually be politicians with something to hide.

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