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Job Description: Yeah, I call out liars

NBC’s Chuck Todd walked into the propeller last week when he implied that it is not the media’s job to cut through the political talking points and report the facts. He was speaking on Morning Joe about whether most Americans are opposed to Obamacare because they have been given incorrect information about it. Todd said, “What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No! It’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.” Whether Todd really meant that the media should give liars a free ride, the comment led to a viral controversy.

Many nerves were hit across the ideological spectrum. From the left, Daily Kos put it this way:

Chuck Todd is the encapsulation of what is wrong with America’s traditional media. His interviews seem serious. He attempts to appear impartial. However he always gets rolled by the Right Wing. He allows them to spew misinformation with ever so little pushback inasmuch as he knows his platform is being used to deceive.

Bernie Madoff entering court. Photo: Screenshot from ABC News

Ponzi scheme operator Bernie Madoff entering court. Photo illustration: ABC News

“The media” is a big world, ranging from the New York Times to Fox News, talk radio and the blogosphere. Americans are more polarized today than any time in decades, if not since the eve of the Civil War. We often live in red or blue enclaves and imbibe media that confirms our biases. So for my purpose today, I am writing about the serious working press, whether delivered digitally or on dead trees, and the business press in particular. It is indeed our solemn obligation to seek our the facts and call our liars. As Carl Bernstein puts it, journalism is the best available version of the truth. Seeking it out is our ongoing job as we report from the leading edge of history.

There are opinions and there are facts. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it best, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.” This is the mine field we navigate daily. And all to often the media do get rolled. To take a prominent example, the vast majority of scientists who actually specialize in climate agree that climate change is real, human caused and getting worse faster than feared. Seeking out climate-change “deniers” in a search for false balance is media malpractice. Particularly in our specialty, there are opinions and facts, but also many layers of ambiguity and evolving understanding. For example, we know labor-force participation is at a low not seen in decades (fact). The whys include retiring baby boomers, mismatch of skills (“structural unemployment”), weak demand and companies doing more with fewer people, offshoring and automation. These latter range from informed supposition to facts that may not entirely explain the phenomenon. There is no serious evidence of low labor-force participation being caused by lazy people mooching off food stamps.

Steve Ballmer wrecked Microsoft. That’s an opinion. As chief executive, he and Chairman Bill Gates did miss search and were late to smart phones and tablets. They will tell you so themselves, and the chronology of events and resulting market-share numbers back this up (facts). How much did the despised “stack ranking” employee evaluation system, increasing bureaucracy and feuding business units contribute to Microsoft’s troubles? Employees and experts can give first-hand accounts and informed speculation. But it’s difficult to know with certainty that these were the culprits. That doesn’t mean you don’t report this. By all means. But identify which is which. Don’t be afraid of complexity. On the other hand, if Ballmer in a moment of exuberance claimed that Microsoft was not late to search, it is our job to point out how Yahoo and then especially Google beat Bing and the results. One needn’t be nasty, merely accurate.

Companies and executives regularly bend the truth or fail to address critical questions. Don’t let them get away with it. “Ms. Smith declined to answer questions about the company’s subcontractors in Bangladesh.” Beware of “think tanks” that are actually advocacy groups, and either steer clear of them or identify them as such. Their “scholarship” is almost always suspect. Beware of being roped into sales lingo: “homebuyers,” “master-planned communities” and  “gated communities” among the worst examples. We don’t know if they are actual communities. A house — the commodity built by house builders — is only a home as a value judgment. Seek neutral language, such as “gated property.”

Once again, beware of one-source stories. Find the gold-standard measurements. Learn the history. Seek out dissenting voices, especially ones that can back up their dissent with compelling facts or raise questions about unknowns. Don’t be afraid to ask, “So what is the downside to _______?” Always ask if an analyst’s investment bank has a position in the stock you’re writing about, or an academic expert has received corporate funding — and let readers know. Context is always your friend.

You have the best job in the world: You get to ask questions. But you are also obliged to seek the truth.


In Basics, Featured.

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