Forced Neutrality II: Try Harder

Stop treating policy disputes as political squabbles

Yesterday, I wrote about the mainstream media’s tendency to cover policy differences only as he-said-she-said political controversies, without trying to figure out which side’s position best corresponds to the facts.

As if on cue, yesterday’s New York Times featured a story, about the Obama-McCain dispute over oil drilling and energy policy, that perfectly illustrates the point. The Times reports:

Senator Barack Obama took a poke at his Republican opponent on Tuesday, saying that for Senator John McCain to talk of a “psychological benefit” from expanded offshore drilling is to define that policy as a gimmick.

Mr. Obama was responding to remarks that Mr. McCain made on Monday in Fresno, Calif., when he observed that even though the nation might take years to benefit from offshore drilling, “exploiting those reserves would have psychological impact that I think is beneficial.”

The story then quotes Obama’s attack, and McCain’s response, before transitioning into a rundown of the two candidates’ positions on energy policy and oil drilling, and adding some more quotes from yesterday’s back-and-forth.

But nowhere does it flatly tell readers that, in the opinion of most experts, offshore drilling would do almost nothing to lower gas prices in the short term—a fact that’s at the heart of the dispute that the Times is reporting on, and that was even acknowledged by McCain’s top economic adviser last week.

It’s true that McCain, in a sense, conceded as much when he invoked the “psychological benefits” of drilling. So perhaps the Times felt that quoting McCain to that effect was sufficient.

We strongly disagree. Although it’s not breaking news, the fact that drilling won’t affect short-term gas prices is the most salient fact in the piece—much more important than the arftully chosen political rhetoric that the Times, as usual, leads with. It deserves to be stated unequivocally, in the reporters’ own words, near the top of the piece, so that even a casual reader comes away from the story having understood it, and so that it can be used as a factual baseline to evaluate the ensuing war of words.

And to repeat another point from yesterday: This isn’t a question of reporters not having the expertise to evaluate policy proposals on the fly, as Times political editor Richard Stevenson suggested in an online chat this week. The fact that oil drilling won’t affect short-term gas prices has been reliably reported recently, so it wouldn’t even have required a phone call to confirm.

It’s a problem of mindset, not capability. And until there’s a change to the mindset that sees policy disputes only as political squabbles, rather than as empirical questions with a more-or-less right answer, readers will continue to lose out.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.