NYT D.C. Bureau: still yearning for moderation and compromise

Press Criticism | By Craig Gurian |

Sept. 7, 2011 — National political reporters for the New York Times are still having difficulty writing news stories that avoid the lure of conveying the political center (or bipartisanship, or compromise) as that which is always “reasonable” and “practical.” And it impairs their work.

We began illustrating the phenomenon back in the spring, starting with an emphasis on the practice of having reporter opinions and assumptions neatly tucked into a story as though they were facts. As you’ll see when you mouse over the highlighted selections, there are other recurring problems that are hard to ignore: for example, refusing to characterize something directly for fear of being seen as “taking sides,” and presenting false equivalences.  There are also some classic he-said, she-said pieces and tactic-obsessed stories — both types reported without regard to truth value, morality, or legality. There are also numerous examples of what might be described as miscellaneous “centrism-philia.”

The newest category: holding back information during a debate because it doesn’t fit the chosen narrative.

These are all practices that help shape what is and is not debated, and thus — regardless of any protestations to the contrary — are thus deeply political (in effect if not in intent).

Note: the text of this story has been revised and supplemented since the publication of initial selections on May 19, 2011, and the publication of additional selections thereafter.

Research assistance: Alyssa Ratledge


Key to annotations

Presenting as fact what is actually the reporter’s adoption of unsupported assumptions.

Refusing to characterize directly.

“He said, she said.”


False equivalence

Miscellaneous centrism-philia.

Holding back information during a debate because it doesn’t fit the chosen narrative


“Obama Moves Jobs Speech After Skirmish with Boehner”

Helene Cooper and Jackie Calmes, Aug. 31, 2011

Any hopes that a kinder, gentler bipartisan Washington would surface once Congress returns after Labor Day were summarily dashed on Wednesday when President Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner clashed over, of all things, the date and time of the president’s much-awaited speech to the nation about his proposal to increase jobs and fix the economy…

The scheduling clash came at a time when public confidence in Washington to move beyond partisan bickering is at historic lows. The fracas also had the potential to rattle already jittery markets…

Still, the political gamesmanship and the maneuvering over the optics of the speech left little hope of compromise once the speech takes place and Mr. Obama lays out his promised job growth proposals and plans to get the economy moving.

Just Tuesday, the president, speaking before the annual convention of the American Legion, criticized the Washington gridlock and said that he hoped the Congressional recess, during which time lawmakers returned home and presumably got an earful on voter frustration over partisan bickering, would usher in repentant Congressional representatives ready to compromise…

“G.O.P. on Defensive as Analysts Question Party’s Fiscal Policy”

Jackie Calmes, Aug. 12, 2011

The boasts of Congressional Republicans about their cost-cutting victories are ringing hollow to some well-known economists, financial analysts and corporate leaders, including some Republicans, who are expressing increasing alarm over Washington’s new austerity and antitax orthodoxy.

Their critiques have grown sharper since last week, when President Obama signed his deficit reduction deal with Republicans and, a few days later, when Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of the United States.

But even before that, macroeconomists and private sector forecasters were warning that the direction in which the new House Republican majority had pushed the White House and Congress this year — for immediate spending cuts, no further stimulus measures and no tax increases, ever — was wrong for addressing the nation’s two main ills, a weak economy now and projections of unsustainably high federal debt in coming years.

Instead, these critics say, Washington should be focusing on stimulating the economy in the near term to induce people to spend money and create jobs, while settling on a long-term plan for spending cuts and tax increases to take effect only after the economy recovers…

In short, there were many voices warning that ignoring the perilous state of the economy — especially the appalling jobs picture — was incredibly misguided. Yet, this perspective was not integrated into the same author’s news analysis from just three week prior — in the heat of the debate — when the reportorial focus was all-debt, and when the headline on the failure to reach a “grand bargain” was A ‘Unique Opportunity’ on the Debt Ceiling, Lost.

It is not as though miscellaneous “hope was in the air.” Such “hope” as there was came from particular people and interests, looking for particular policy decisions to be made. The all-we-need-is-bipartisanship view — that deep policy differences are “silly” or childish, and that everyone should grow up and agree on Simpson/Bowles-type changes to the social safety net — are a specialty of both politicians and reporters who promote themselves as centrists or neutrals, and who wish not to acknowledge that other policy choices are possible.

The reader is told that strong political and philosophical differences between factions in Congress are no more than “partisan bickering” (again, the province of children, not adults), and is given the strong sense that the fact of an impasse (as opposed to the fact that one side or the other can’t prevail) is causing the public great distress. Reporters are welcome to have these views; they just label them as such.

If there were not the obsession with compromise, there would be more room to explore the evidence and reasoning behind apparently irreconcilable views.

A reprise of the assumption that voters are frustrated by “both sides,” and that real political differences should be made to disappear because those differences are mere bickering.

“Bachmann Opens Campaign as Expectations Grow”

Jeff Zeleny, June 28, 2011

…As she returned to her childhood home in Waterloo, where she lived until the age of 12, Mrs. Bachmann asked voters to “make a bold choice” as they weigh the Republican contenders. She presented herself as a forceful conservative, unafraid to confront the party establishment and unwilling to compromise on its principles in her quest to win the nomination to challenge President Obama…

On the eve of her announcement, she was locked in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney in The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll, the first survey of voters who say they plan to attend the Republican caucuses that open the presidential nominating contest early next year. Her name recognition and high visibility contributed to her rapid rise, advisers said, and her challenge now is to build a campaign structure that can capture the grass-roots enthusiasm surrounding her…

She introduced herself as a candidate with broad appeal, acknowledging the spirit of Tea Party activists, but pointing out that she also hails from a long line of Democrats. (Yes, she conceded, she once volunteered for the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter.)

…A wide circle of relatives and friends surrounded Mrs. Bachmann, including Bruce Munson, a cousin, who joined for a family picture after her speech. Mr. Munson said the nation would grow to love her tenacity, adding, “If anyone can break the glass ceiling, it will be Michele.”

Mrs. Bachmann, who rose to prominence with her evocative quips and spirited presence in television interviews and appearances at Tea Party rallies last year, has also experienced a string of gaffes…

Even accepting the terms of a “who is up and who is down story,” wouldn’t one want to get more than advisor spin? Perhaps even a comment from someone pointing out that the rise of candidates may have something to do with the common tendency in the press to dub a candidate a rising star and then focus on following that star, rather than subject the candidate to substantive scrutiny.

Actually, this story only contains one perspective — the candidate’s — but the problem is similar: giving something weight because it has been stated, not subjecting it to any reality testing. The colloquial tone of the follow-on parenthetical about having once worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign may give the story a little spice, but it would have been better to contrast the “broad appeal” assertion with the “forceful conservative” who is “unwilling to compromise” assertions reported at the top of the story.

The Times can really afford to be more probing on substance than to quote a cheerleading cousin.

Could this refer to misleading statements designed to be provocative, statements made heedless of whether or not they were true? The answer is not to be found here, with the story instead valuing (and enabling) putatively successful political tactics and robbing the reader of the ability to assess the accuracy of the statements.

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