Another Factchecking Fiasco: Journalistic failure in coverage of Harry Reid and his mysterious source
A week ago, The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein and Ryan Grim published an article repeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s claim that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for ten years. Though Reid provided no evidence other than hearsay about what he was told by an unnamed Bain investor (which HuffPost clarified in the ninth paragraph of the story), the story set in motion a controversy that exemplifies how partisans and ideologues exploit the structural weaknesses of journalism and factchecking.
Politicians exploiting “he said,” “she said” reporting
For many political reporters, journalism is largely a matter of writing down what powerful people say and do and analyzing why they say or do those things. Within that framework, the accuracy of the claims that powerful people make is rarely the focus of coverage. Instead, the claims of mainstream public figures are typically reported in a “he said,” “she said” style that maintains the supposed objectivity of the reporter and media outlet while avoiding complex factual debates that could alienate readers.
When so many reporters are practicing this style of journalism, it should not be surprising that politicians have become adept at targeting its weaknesses. In All the President’s Spin, my Spinsanity co-editors Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and I documented how the Bush administration relied on misleading half-truths and strategically ambiguous language to promote its agenda. Because few of these claims were outright falsehoods and debunking them often required detours into policy specifics, they were typically reported without challenge or in a “Bush says X, Democrats say Y” framework.
The conclusion to the book warns that Democrats were starting to embrace similar tactics. Reid’s attacks on Romney are a case in point. The Nevada senator is a canny politician who wants to help Democrats keep the media and public focused on Romney’s wealth. One angle of attack is Romney’s refusal to provide tax returns before 2010, which breaks a longstanding norm in presidential politics. Though many reporters pressed the GOP nominee for more information, Romney held fast and the story was starting to die down due to a lack of day-to-day news developments. The controversy over Reid’s claim has put it back in the news.