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Friday, October 14, 2005

Paul Krugman: Questions of Character

This is only a small part of the original, but I think it captures the essence of what Paul Krugman says in his latest column discussing the failure of the media in their role as journalists:

Questions of Character, by Paul Krugman, Commentry, NY Times: ...[M]any ... in the news media ... claim, at least implicitly, to be experts at discerning character - and their judgments play a large ... role in our political life. The 2000 election would have ended in a ... victory for Al Gore if many reporters hadn't taken a dislike to Mr. Gore, while portraying Mr. Bush as an honest, likable guy. ... So it's important to ask why those judgments are often so wrong. ... A large part of the answer is that the news business places great weight on "up close and personal" interviews with important people,... But such interviews are rarely revealing. ... most people ... are pretty bad at using personal impressions to judge character. Psychologists find ... that most people do little better than chance in distinguishing liars from truth-tellers. More broadly, the big problem ... is that there ...[is] ... no way for a reporter to be proved wrong. If a reporter tells you about the steely resolve of a politician who turns out ... unwilling to make hard choices, you've been misled, but not in a way that requires a formal correction. And that makes it all too easy for coverage to be shaped by what reporters feel they can safely say, rather than what they actually ... know. Now that Mr. Bush's approval ratings are in the 30's, we're hearing about his ... bad temper, about how aides are afraid to tell him bad news. Does anyone think that journalists ... just discovered these personal characteristics? ... Those who wrote puff pieces about Mr. Bush ... have been rewarded with career-boosting access. Those who raised questions about his character found themselves under personal attack ... Only now, with Mr. Bush in ... trouble, has the structure of rewards shifted. So what's the answer? ... What we really need is political journalism based less on perceptions of personalities and more on actual facts. ... Think ... how different the world would be today if, during the 2000 campaign, reporting had focused on the candidates' fiscal policies instead of their wardrobes.

Let's come at this from both sides. Bruce Bartlett recently made similar points:

Brad DeLong: Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Cable News Department):   Bruce Bartlett is not a happy camper. He's also completely right on this:

Poynter Online - Forums: From Bruce Bartlett, senior fellow, National Center for Policy Analysis: Once again, I just got off the phone with a booker for one of the cable news channels who wanted me to play the role of the knee-jerk Bush supporter and I had to decline. Although I am a conservative who generally supports Republican policies and generally opposes those that come from Democrats, I am uncomfortable being locked into that position. I also don’t think it makes for very good television. I understand that news shows want to show both sides -- or perhaps I should say two sides -- to controversial issues, lest they appear biased towards one position. But why must this always take the form of a debate? Why can’t they interview a person with one position separately and then interview someone else with another position in another segment? Wouldn’t this be a better way of achieving balance than by always having a debate? It’s hard enough to make one’s point in sound-bite form without being distracted by the debating tactics of one’s opponent. And, unfortunately, everyone is now trained to know that when one has the camera and microphone they are pretty much free to say what they like, even if it is totally off topic and even untrue. On one occasion, my opponent called me a liar on air at the end of the segment, so that I could not respond. Afterwards, off camera, he conceded that I was right. But no one watching the exchange ever knew that.... The fact is -- and everyone knows this -- that few issues are black-and-white. There are always nuances that are impossible to discuss in a debate format. But the debate format creates the illusion that there is always a simple answer to every complex problem and encourages average television viewers to assume that those of us in the Washington policymaking community are all idiots totally beholden to our party, without a lick of common sense or integrity...

    Posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005 at 12:36 AM in Politics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (12)


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