Facing Down “Forced Neutrality”

Why not have policy experts cover policy speeches?

In an online chat with readers this week, New York Times political editor Richard Stevenson was asked a question that goes to the heart of one of our most persistent criticisms of his paper and its brethren.

Wrote reader Ravi Garla:

I hope to hear a response to what Ariana Huffington has called forced neutrality. I remember most recently experiencing such a moment when I read in The Times about the call to open the outer continental shelf to drilling — I had to read through three-fourths of the article to find out some (shallow) analysis on whether the drilling would actually lower the price of gas. On top of just being a sounding board for opposing rhetoric, analysis was limited to how it would affect the balance of power between two political parties and the presidential race. Is it too much to ask The Times to answer the one question I assume everyone had: whether it was good policy?

Stevenson replied, in part:

[M]any of the issues are complex and take time to sort out before we can render a knowledgeable judgment. Our political reporters (and their editors, for that matter) are generally not equipped to render an answer on the fly to the question of whether more offshore drilling, for example, is good policy.

I agree that political reporters and editors tend to be poorly equipped to render quick judgments on complex policy questions. But that’s exactly why I’ve long believed that newspapers like the Times have the wrong people writing these stories.

When a candidate gives a speech on, say, energy policy, why not have it covered primarily by the paper’s energy reporter, rather than a political reporter? Ditto for economics, trade, or healthcare. After all, the policy being laid out is much more newsworthy than the accompanying details of political presentation. Political reporters could attend the speech in person and contribute on-the-scene detail, but the bulk of the story could be written by someone with knowledge of the issue at hand. Indeed, one of the great advantages that papers like the Times enjoy over many other news outlets is that they have, on staff, reporters who are true experts in their fields—like Jad Mouawad on energy, or David Leonhardt on economics, or Robert Pear on healthcare. Why not use these resources—not just to offer “analysis” pieces a few days after the fact, but to provide the initial news story, so that their insights would more fully shape the overall coverage of the proposal?

Of course, even an expert reporter won’t always be able to render an immediate, authoritative judgment on the merits of the policy. Sometimes, as Stevenson points out, the issue is muddled. But at least they’d approach the story from the standpoint of policy, rather than politics, which would be of much more value to the reader.

While that’s probably not going to happen just yet, the Times and its ilk could still do a much better job rendering judgments on policy questions even without re-jiggering their personnel. Stevenson’s questioner appears to be referring to this Times story from last week, which reported on President Bush’s announcement that he would ask Congress to end a ban on offshore drilling. Nowhere did the piece assess whether allowing offshore drilling was likely to affect gas prices—the stated purpose of the president’s initiative, after all. The article did quote a top Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid, declaring: “The Energy Information Administration says that even if we open the coasts to oil drilling that won’t have a significant impact on prices.” But it did so only in a he-said she-said format, offering no independent verdict on whose argument—Reid’s or Bush’s—best corresponded to the facts.

Doing so shouldn’t have been difficult, even for a non-specialized reporter. After all, if Harry Reid can discover the verdict of the Energy Information Administration (an arm of the Department of Energy), so can a New York Times reporter. The problem, I’d argue, is more one of perspective than of capability. First and foremost, the Times viewed the president’s speech as a piece of political news. The paper, therefore, covered the speech out of its Washington bureau, and put it immediately into a political context: What did Democrats say in response? Will this help or hurt John McCain, who now also favors ending the drilling ban? In that context, the question of whether the president’s proposal will actually fix the problem it seeks to address is, at best, secondary.

But if the paper viewed the speech as a piece of news about energy, that same question would be just about the first thing that any reporter would try to answer. And by making a few phone calls, they could likely shed some light on the question.

It’s true, of course, that most policy proposals, whether from the White House or the 2008 candidates, are drawn up with politics in mind. And there’s nothing wrong with the press pointing out the political considerations in play. But the priority should be to tell readers, as clearly as possible, which policy ideas appear to hold up as policy ideas, and which don’t. Right now, that’s something that, too often, the press fails to do.

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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.