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Sunday, October 22, 2017

Published with permission from Washington Monthly.

I get why Washington journalists respond to criticism in partisan fashion. When readers complained last week about a botched AP report, they were mostly supporters of Hillary Clinton. Naturally you’re upset, the reporter thinks. You don’t like news that reflects poorly on your preferred candidate.

By now, we know that report was wrong.

It claimed that half of private individuals who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state were also donors to the Clinton Foundation. But Clinton met with hundreds of people, public and private. Worse, the AP reporters used as their villain in a story of corruption a Nobel Prize-winning economist who’d known Clinton for more than 30 years.

This is old news, but the Washington media continues to disappoint. On NPR this morning, “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep asked Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake if he shares Clinton’s view on immigration. According to Trump, Inskeep said, his opponent favors “open borders” and “amnesty.”

This is an example of a statement that’s technically accurate, but entirely misleading. And dangerous. Yes, Trump has said, time and again, that Clinton wants “open borders” and “amnesty.” It’s also true that this claim exists only the realm of fantasy. Indeed, in an interview — just yesterday — NPR’s Mara Liasson told Inskeep those claims were false.

Journalists, I believe, are beholden to the truth. If they are unwilling to pay deference to the authority of the truth, even when that deference conflicts with the profession’s other guiding principles, there isn’t much point in being a journalist.

Again, I understand why reporters respond to criticisms in partisan fashion. It’s natural. Indeed, I was sympathetic to Business Insider’s Josh Barro when he quipped on Twitter that Clinton supporters are among the whiniest supporters.

But in this case, vocal complaints by Clinton supporters are not empty. They are based on something. They are based on demonstrable instances of journalistic malfeasance.

Journalists of Steve Inskeep’s high caliber say they privilege getting the facts right, as they should. But holding them accountable to those standards can be nearly impossible.

I got in touch with Inskeep on Twitter this morning to make him aware of his mistake. (I do not subscribe to the childish claim, as Glenn Greenwald does, that the American media is in the tank for one or the other candidate). It was an honest mistake. So I asked: Will you be offering a clarification?

I didn’t expect Inskeep to reply. When he did, it was not a good faith exchange between journalists about the concrete facts of the matter. He offered instead a series of bewildering deflections, obfuscations, and, to be frank, playing dumb.

Here is some what he said:

“The recording shows me noting that Trump claims his ‘opponents’ favor ‘open borders.’ I then ask Flake, a reformer, if he does.”

(Yes, we know this.)

“Nowhere was a false charge simply repeated unchecked.”

(Actually, that’s precisely what you did. You said as much.)

“Doesn’t asking a question allow someone to state their true position? Should we never ask?”

(Flake’s position is beside the point. The question was based on an NPR-reported falsehood. How about a clarification?)

This is Hannity’s technique interviewing Trump, whom he backs. But as a journalist I prefer to let Flake give evidence.

(I didn’t know what to say. The presumption here would seem to be that a politician is responsible for the truth.)

I know how it feels. I hate — just purely blindly hate — being called out for a mistake. Mistakes chip away at a journalist’s credibility. Credibility is a journalist’s lifeblood. Ideally, it would be better for the journalist never to be aware of it.

But that’s not the world we live in. Indeed, we live in a world in which a candidate for the presidency of the United States can give a policy speech on immigration based on the fever dreams of nativist-white nationalists, and the entire media apparatus does not report that it is unadulterated racism.

We need a better media.

We’ll see if that begins with a minor clarification.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.

Photo: Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event with Vice-President Joe Biden in Scranton, Pennsylvania. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

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