In early June, a prickly Jim Lehrer told CJR Daily’s Liz Cox Barrett that “My part of journalism is to present what various people say … I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism.” In other words, it’s not his job to have an opinion or even reach a conclusion; his place is only to report the who and thewhat and the where, but not the why. “Best I can do for [his viewers],” Lehrer continued, “is to give them every piece of information I can find and let them make the judgments.”
Some critics might call this stenography — indeed, plenty of bloggers make that charge every day — but what Lehrer was getting at was that he is an “objective” journalist, concerned with the facts and the quotes, but not, presumably, with figuring out which party (political or otherwise) might actually be telling the truth, and which is just practicing spin.
But that method of reporting — which is actually of somewhat recent vintage — has some huge drawbacks. This is especially true for the casual news consumer who is trying to navigate her or his way through the rocky shoals of political reporting, with all of its competing agendas and professional spinners muddying the waters of public discourse.
Consider a piece this morning by Time’s Mike Allen on the partisan battles brewing in the wake of Ned Lamont knocking Joe Lieberman out of the Connecticut Democratic primary on Tuesday night. The piece quotes a veritable Who’s Who of GOP agenda-setters, with RNC chair Ken Mehlman, Vice President Cheney and White House spokesman Tony Snow (more on him later) all mouthing obviously scripted Republican talking points, as they hammer home their Fall ‘06 rallying cry — that the “radical left” has hijacked the Democratic party, and that Lamont’s victory can only boost the spirits of — Osama bin Laden?
Allen seems utterly indifferent about whether these charges are true or not. He shows an utter lack of curiosity about any possible Democratic rebuttal to the Republican spin until the final paragraph, when he mockingly writes, “Trying to look on the bright side, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean issued a statement this morning pointing to strong turnout in the primaries and declaring that Democratic voters ‘are energized.’ The challenge for Dean, and his party, is to channel that energy in a direction that makes victory more likely, not less.”
Now, Allen is an excellent reporter, and we’re hoping that anything he writes for Time magazine will be more textured than his work on his Time.com blog. Nonetheless, this piece is totally perplexing. He paints the Democrats as “doleful” and Republicans as “gleeful,” while wondering if the “Democrats’ rejection of a sensible, moralistic centrist has handed the GOP a weapon that could have vast ramifications for both the midterm elections of ‘06 and the big dance of ‘08.”
But is that even true? All the big-ticket names in the Democratic Party publicity supported Lieberman in the primaries, from Minority Leader Harry Reid to Charles Schumer to Hillary (and Bill) Clinton to Joe Biden to Barbara Boxer. They didn’t reject him — rather, it was the voters of the Democratic party of the state of Connecticut who rejected him. That would be the liberal state of Connecticut, with whom Lieberman had fallen out of favor, and not just on Iraq. Making more of that fact than it is feeds into the tendency of many national reporters to take an isolated incident and extrapolate national ramifications from it, whether called for or not. And in doing so, reporters help shape the reality they are trying to describe. This time, the conventional wisdom of the pundits is that MoveOn and a host of liberal bloggers have hijacked the Democratic Party, and now Republicans can cash in on the public’s disdain of the “radical left.”