Thought about posting this on the political blog but decided it was just a bit too theoretical so I’ll post it here. Just some thoughts on the media and how that is different than journalism. A small point. This idea was cut from my not-yet-posted review of “All The President’s Men” because it’s already running pretty long.
It concerns how standards have slipped in what, exactly, constitutes a denial.
It’s something that struck me as I was reading Woodward and Bernstein’s account of how they went about investigating. They would talk to some sources, put together a story based on those sources, many of whom, because of the seriousness of what they were talking about, wanted to be anonymous. And rightfully so; the sources knew the stakes in the game they were playing, and a lot of them knew that they were accusing the most powerful men in the country, and possibly the world, of very damaging things.
And, in the course of reporting these things, the reporters would contact the accused person and ask for a statement, which they would include in the story. And, time and time again, after hearing the vague “statements” that the accused would offer, Woodward or Bernstein would conclude, “That’s not a denial” and then write into the story something like: “When asked for a statement, Mr. Accused did not deny the allegations”.
And it piqued my interest. Certainly what the text said sounded like a denial to me. So I had to figure out what was missing.
And what was missing from the non-denial denials was… facts. Something that could be checked out. Something, anything, that would directly counter the statements made.
Let me give you an example. Say there’s a reporter doing a story on me, and she’s dug up some source somewhere that claims that, during Labor Day weekend last year, I was in New Orleans with some redhead who was married to someone else. And the reporter, before printing this allegation, called me up to ask for a statement. After due consideration, I provide the following statement:
I did not travel to New Orleans, or anywhere, with a married woman.
Sounds like a denial, right? But what if I did spend Labor Day weekend with a woman? But we took separate planes? And it wasn’t in New Orleans? And she wasn’t really married, just dating someone, but it was kept secret from her boyfriend? My statement is true, as far as it goes, and it certainly sounds like a denial, I mean, it’s emphatic enough, but, see, it’s not, really.
In order to counter the allegations I need to provide some backup, not a qualified statement. I would want to provide some documentation, like a plane ticket to Las Vegas, perhaps. Maybe some witnesses, or a picture of me riding the roller-coaster at New York, New York, things like that. Of course, if those pictures or witnesses showed me with the woman in question, then I’m sunk. But that’s part of the problem; denials of the facts almost always have flaws. They don’t hold up.
Nowadays, however, the media simply accepts and prints the denials they receive from targets of their investigations without digging into the facts of the matter. They rarely follow up the request for a statement with more investigation. They just print the “he said/she said” and call it fair and balanced. Somewhere along the line, they’ve lost their courage to dig deeper.
And that’s part of the difference between journalism, and the media. Journalists dig; the media simply records and reports.
The loss is gianormous.