Jay Rosen has a piece on the once-standard, but now increasingly in disfavor “he-said, she-said” approach to journalism: when some politician or interest group gets up and lies, and the journalist’s response is not to point this out but to blandly quote someone from the “other side” of the argument and stop there. The problem with this is that it implicitly assumes what everyone now knows to be wrong: that public figures make statements that can be taken at face value, and the truth can be ascertained by juxtaposing contradictory statements.
It’s been obvious for some time that this is unworkable because the public “conversation” is too splintered, its participants too practiced and manipulative. Nobody agrees on what the terms of the conversation are. Public figures aren’t merely shilling for themselves, but for multiple, layered economic and cultural interests. They are embedded in intricate communications networks. For instance, a member of Congress once had to pay attention chiefly to what was happening in his/her district, what the local Chamber of Commerce and unions thought, what kind of complaints were coming into the district office. Today, though, all issues are to some degree “nationalized.” If the member is a Republican, his public utterances will also be shaped by Fox News’s and Rush Limbaugh’s interpretation of the day’s events; by interest groups such as the Club for Growth or the Family Research Council. All of these sources are force multipliers, highly useful in political messaging. But of course they’re BS multipliers too.
As a result there are competing narratives for everything. There is also an ironic narrative that comments on the competing narratives. There are insane narratives that are popular because of their insanity. And nobody ever admits error because there is little incentive to do so – your followers, who have invested in your narrative, may desert you.
So, journalists should be ready to call BS when they see it. That capacity, after all, is an important engine of journalistic credibility. And, put simply, it goes with the territory today. It’s necessary to understand a complex and often dishonest conversation. Sometimes, it requires making value judgments that journalists aren’t comfortable (or even good at) making. But the alternative is getting left out of the conversation entirely, as Jay notes:
At a certain point in this dynamic, he said, she said journalism loses its utility and becomes one of the things dragging the news business down. But as the industry sheds people and newsrooms thin out, there could be greater reliance on a more and more bankrupt and trust-rotting practice. That’s a downward spiral.