Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Post-Dispatch Allows Itself to Be Used By Ed Martin

There are a lot of factors at work impairing the quality of modern journalism. Many of them have to do with the dire financial situation media outlets find themselves in, but I think there also are a lot of problems that should be fixable:

  • There's a distorted notion of "objectivity" that prevents reporters from calling out blatantly false claims.
  • There's a fear of angry right-wing commenters and bloggers who will inevitably accuse media outlets of "liberal bias."
  • There's an idea of "giving both sides equal time" that is applied in irrational ways and continuously exploited by the Right.
  • There's an over-emphasis on getting information from conversations with political insiders rather than careful analysis of on-record statements.

  • It's hard to know what exact proportions of these and other vices were at work in yesterday's Post-Dispatch article about Ed Martin's false attack on Russ Carnahan, but something definitely was seriously wrong. Over the years, I've seen a lot of articles that in my opinion badly explained a situation, but what struck me as amazing about this one is that the reporter was passing on false information, knew it was false, knew that it was being pushed for the most cynical of reasons, yet passed it on nonetheless. It was almost as if the article was lamenting the decline of journalism while simultaneously participating in it.

    Let me explain.

    First, the article was based on an outright lie from Ed Martin: his press release titled "Complaint Shows Carnahan Violated Federal Laws."

    In fact, Carnahan did not violate any laws, and Jake Wagman, the reporter covering the story, knew that Carnahan didn't violate any laws. Here's what Wagman had to say:
    The payments, however, do not seem to violate campaign finance laws. While corporations are prohibited from donating to federal campaigns, LLCs -- which the FEC views as partnerships -- are allowed to donate.

    Campaigns may also rent part of an office building owned by the candidate, as long as it doesn't pay more than market value.
    Furthermore, not only did Wagman know that Martin's claim was false, he also knew that Martin was just sending out this crap to keep Carnahan on the defensive by making him respond to ridiculous attacks in the media. Here's Wagman again:
    But Martin, who is seeking to gain momentum in his bid to seize from Democrats the seat once held by Dick Gephardt, is engaging in an intriguing cat-and-mouse game with Carnahan.

    The more time he forces Carnahan to spend on this and simliar complaints, the less time Carnahan has to focus on his own campaign message.
    In other words, Wagman knows the claims are false, knows that they are just being put out to take Carnahan away from his campaign message, yet nevertheless writes a story about it and forces Carnahan to respond to ridiculous charges. In other words, he is knowingly being used as a pawn in a ridiculously cynical exercise of spreading blatant falsehoods. And all of this for a guy who called the Post-Dispatch "judas" and predicted it would be the first major American newspaper to fold. Is this what journalism has come to?

    Now I suppose you could say that it's better that Wagman pointed out that Ed Martin's claims were false and that Martin was clearly engaged in "cat and mouse." Wagman could have just passed on the information with no comment whatsoever, which clearly would have been worse than adding the commentary. But the real question is: why print this garbage in the first place? If a candidate is sharing a blatantly false story that no other media outlet is picking up on (other than the least influential of the tea party blogs), why would you choose to make it into a news story? It truly boggles the mind.

    Now Wagman did post a story today picking up on the insane comments by Ed Martin captured by FiredUp Missouri, so in a sense you could claim that the "one story for this side, one story for that side" superficial criteria of objectivity has been met. But on any respectful definition of journalism, it has no place allowing itself to be used to pass on false information. If Ed Martin wants to get free press in the Post-Dispatch, at least make him say something true!

    Update: like clockwork, the same bloggers who screamed at Wagman to report on this false story are now claiming that Wagman has a "librul bias" because he reported on Ed Martin making ridiculous claims that Obama wants to turn everyone into godless heathens. The blogger alleges that Wagman must be biased for reporting this, despite the fact that everyone from KMOX to Mediaite to Talking Points Memo to MSNBC all recognized that is was an extreme comment. I think it demonstrates quite nicely that trying to appease the tea party is doomed from the start: they won't be happy or even satisfied with any media outlet unless it falls completely off the right-wing deep end.


    1. By reporting this non-story, Martin has succeeded in getting the meme out to his bloc of voters.

      All they'll remember is the headline and the charges made in the story. Not the part that said "The payments, however, do not seem to violate campaign finance laws." It's guilt by assertion, something the Teabaggerz are really good at creating.

    2. Exactly. You hit the nail on the head, Russ.