In today’s New York Times, Katherine Seelye and Jeff Zeleny write that Senator Clinton’s “claims of helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland have been debunked, [Obama supporter Greg] Craig said.”
Readers expecting this to be followed by the reporters’ own independent assessment of whether or not those claims had indeed been debunked, however, were disappointed. That single sentence was all we got on the matter. A better example of she-said, he-said journalism would be hard to find.
It’s not a trivial issue, either. Clinton has touted the national-security experience she says she gained during her husband’s administration as the reason why she’s ready to pick up that White House phone at 3 a.m. And one of the chief examples of that experience that she has cited is her involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process. So readers—and Democratic primary voters—might actually want to know whether or not that claim has been convincingly knocked down.
And it wouldn’t have been hard for the Times to tell them. Back in January, after Clinton first started pointing to her work in Northern Ireland—and was met with skepticism by some Clinton critics —The Washington Post took a careful look at the question. It concluded:
Hillary Clinton seems to be overstating her significance as a catalyst in the Northern Ireland peace process, which was more symbolic than substantive. On the other hand, she did play a helpful role at the margins
Would it have been so hard for Seelye and Zeleny to simply use some of the Post’s legwork, and offer a quick assessment in its own words?
Of course, the Times reporters weren’t writing an issue story about Clinton’s national security experience. They were compiling a political report on the day’s campaign back-and-forth, so perhaps it’s understandable that getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject of that back-and-forth wasn’t their top priority in the limited time they had.
But in a way, that’s the point. As long as the press thinks of disputes between the campaigns not as substantive, empirical questions in which one side might enjoy a larger share of the truth, but rather as rhetorical struggles to be judged purely for their political effectiveness, then reporters on the trail will never make it their first instinct to assess the campaigns’ claims.
And that means, ultimately, that readers will still end up less informed than they might be.