Friday, June 10, 2005

June 9, 2005

I nearly threw my glass of wine at David Gregory last night. Gregory is NBC’s White House correspondent, in case you don’t know. So there I was enjoying my evening libation and listening to Gregory report from the White House lawn the news that a former oil company lobbyist had changed scientific reports on global warming in ways that downplayed the threat.

The former oil industry lobbyist, Philip Cooney, is now chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He is, by profession, a lawyer with no background whatsoever in science. Before joining the Bush administration he had worked for the American Petroleum Institute where he headed its “climate issues programs.” Like Big Tobacco propagandists that preceded him, Cooney’s job was to sow doubt and confusion over any scientific claims that his employer's products were killing people -- and maybe the earth itself. And that’s just what he was doing for the Bush administion when he got caught.

Anyway, back to Gregory’s report. After dutifully – and correctly – reporting both sides of the flap, including a proforma denial from the White House spokes-flak, Gregory ended his report like this:

“The question remains, was the Bush administration trying to shed light on global warming, or trying to muddy the waters? This is David Gregory at the White House.”

Okay Dave, which is it? I just listened to your report and I am none the wiser for it. Holy molly man, how much are you paid? I assume you are paid a lot more than a stenographer. Any first-year journalism student could have put that story together, and without even leaving his or her dorm room.

Look, I was a reporter for over a quarter century so I understand the balancing act journalists have to perform when covering a story with more than one side to it. But there seems to be some confusion about that among journos these days. They seem to be confusing coming to an informed conclusion with opinion journalism. And the two could not be more different.

While journalists are rightly not supposed to inject their own opinions or bias’ into their stories, readers do expect them to deliver some kind an informed conclusions in return for pouring through a storys' "balancing" and conflicting positions. "He's wrong about that," says someone for the Party of the First Part. "He's right about that," says someone representing the Party of the Second Part. Okay. So, Mr. Reporter, can you help us sort that out before signing off?

I always assumed that was my real job. To get out there and do the research, interviews and gumshoe work my readers didn't have the time, resources or inclination to do for themselves. Reporters are human and of course they often begin work on a story with some of their own opinions. But if they do their job right their opinion is always trumped by the facts they discover while researching the story. I can’t count the number of times I began work on a story pretty sure I knew what was going on, only to end writing just the opposite.

Readers don’t want a reporter’s personal opinion in a news story. But, after cutting through all the balancing comments, conflicting views and spin-doctor la de da, they sure as hell expect some kind of informed conclusions. I mean, both sides can’t be right. One side is almost always wrong, lying, or - as has so often been the case with this administion -- both.

Or let’s stop pretending and call reporters stenographers and press release readers. Hell, the networks could save a fortune by replacing expensive reporters with pretty boys and girls to read dueling press releases in place of the evening news. After all, that's often all they do now under the guise of “news.”

Yesterday I mentioned the flap over Howard Dean’s remarks that the GOP had become the “white Christian party.” I challenged reporters to report some real news about Deans comments. I noted it would be a lot more helpful to their readers if they spent some time researching Dean's claim to discover if he was right or wrong.

Instead the media continues to make Dean the story. Is he outrageous? Is he hurting his party or helping it? Blah, blah, blah, uninformative, inside the beltway, intramural, politics of personality, blah blah.

Why don’t reporters these days produce stories actually end with informed conclusions? Because that kind of journalism is hard -- really hard. It requires reporters nail that sucker down tight as drum before it goes to press. But, as long as a story simply dutifully and accurately reports just what each side says, that's easy. That can be done without ever leaving their cubical, via email, or phone. And those kind of stories are safe for both reporters and their bosses. They produce less flak, fewer lawsuits, and fewer angry letters from readers.

But, if after doing their due diligence a reporter comes to and informed conclusion, and prints it, it better be right. And that level of getting it right requires a lot more work and nervous tension than many of today’s journalists have the stomach for. Ask me if I miss it. I don't.

Anyway, here were are a week into Dean “white Christians” story and we still have no probing investigation into the truth, or lack thereof, of his claim. Could it be true? Did he break out of the politically correct straightjacket to describe what is? We still don’t know. I can’t find out because I am just a reader like the rest of you now. I don’t have big medial resources to get at that kind of information anymore. But from what research I can do from my desk just using Google, it sure looks like he was right on target.

"White evangelicals and born-again Christians are 26 percent of all registered voters -- that's quite a big chunk -- and the survey shows they are quite happy with Republicans," said Adam Clymer, political director of the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, which polled 3,715 registered voters nationwide July 1 to 21, with a margin of error of 1 percentage point. "Whatever percentage the turnout of your voters, if you get another 1 percent of evangelicals and born-agains, that's a lot more votes.... There are more of them in the South than the Northeast, but they are just as much pro-Bush and pro-Republican in general in either place." Mr. Clymer said.
(Washington Times, July 27, 2004)

And how about this?

But the untold story of the 2004 election…. (is that) the White House struggled to stay abreast of the Christian right and consulted with the movement's leaders in weekly conference calls…in many respects, Christian activists led the charge that GOP operatives followed and capitalized upon…. surveys of voters leaving the polls (showed), Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical…
(Washington Post, November 8, 2004)

It sure sounds to me like the GOP is the party of choice of white Christians. But I still want to see the hard, unmonkeyed-with numbers. I just know that some pollster or demographer out there has done such research and knows the answer. All we need now is a reporter with the get up and go to get up and go get that information and share it with the rest of us.

Then the story will not be whether Howard Dean is a loudmouth. He is. We know that already. And it won’t be whether Dean is a polarizing force. He is. That’s his job. We know that already. And it won’t be if Republicans are mad at his remarks. Great Caesar's ghost, Jimmy Olson, what a scoop that is! Of course Republicans are mad about Dean's remark. But we knew that already. Hell, we would have known that even if reporters had not reported it.

No, the real story… the still untold story… is whether Dean’s claim is correct.

If it isn’t, that matters.

But if if Dean's charge is true, that really matters -- and a hell of a lot more than whether Dean is a loudmouth or not.

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