October 5th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

From "You Have the Power," the Real Reason Dean Lost?

OK, before I got distracted I mentioned that there were three interesting things to me about Howard Dean's book You Have the Power that makes me half-want to buy a crate of copies and give them away to everybody for Christmas. One was his very fierce defense of "the 50-state strategy," which I think is exactly what the Democratic Party needs and why the whole country's in trouble if we don't pursue it. Another was the very moving chapter 1 which so thoroughly captured the anger and despair of those of us who see everything we think of as "real America" being torn down and replaced by a much scarier country that we barely recognize. Okay, those are the positives. The third thing that really struck me about the book, that is just as interesting and thought-provoking, actually turns out to be (at least arguably) a major negative about Howard Dean himself.

Towards the end of the 2004 Democratic party Presidential primary season, it had long been obvious that reporters had pigeon-holed Dean as "the angry candidate." The pigeon-holing itself isn't all that controversial. In a crowded election, no matter how nuanced you want to make your case to those who are paying attention, it really helps not just reporters but the whole country if every candidate has a short-hand phrase to help you remember which name goes with which personality: Gephardt the labor candidate, Kerry the war hero, Liebermann the "family values" Democrat, and so on. But I thought it was really unfair that Dean's shorthand description was "the angry candidate" because I'd never seen any evidence of him ever saying anything that sounded angry. So what I speculated in writing at the time was that the press were projecting something onto him that wasn't there, that they were speculating about how he "must" be feeling. After all, by the end of the primaries, his signature issues all revolved around opposition to the the way the Bush was handling the war on Iraq. So, I speculated, they were all trying to bait him into saying he was angry at Bush, and even though Dean never rose to the bait, they went ahead and painted him as driven by anger about George Bush.

It turns out that there may have been something important that I didn't know, and that Dean himself didn't even realize about himself in time, and that's that the reporters were seeing a side of him that the rest of us weren't. Dean wasn't angry all the time. He wasn't angry at George Bush, just determined to defeat him for the good of the country. He was never angry at the voters, not even the voters for the other side. He just wasn't an angry man ... except under one circumstance. The man really, really hates journalists. And he did, by his own admission in this book, a terrible job of hiding that fact from them. He only barely tolerated the presence of journalists, and what they did for a living more routinely made him angry than it does George Bush. I did not know that.

The roots of the anger go a long way back before the media fake-up we all know as "the Dean scream." In his book, Dean portrays the Dean scream not as an isolated incident but as emblematic of his decades-long problem with the media, with why he hates reporters so much. Fundamental to Dean's criticism of journalism is that within at most 8 hours of the story of "the Dean scream" breaking as news, everybody reporting on the story had at least one contact with a journalist, reporter, or other source who was in the room at the time of the supposed "Dean scream." And he demonstrates that every single one of those journalists told their editors, and told other reporters, that there was no "Dean scream," that what the cable networks were broadcasting was an audio glitch, based on the way they had their microphones set up, and was in no way a fair or honest representation of what Dean sounded like in that room. But, Dean points out, nearly all of them kept reporting on it. He has lots of examples of older grievances he has with the media that center around the same problem. On many, many occasions his political opponents made up lies, fictional stories to attack him with. On each occasion, it was easy work for a reporter to find out that the stories just weren't true. But rather than decline to report the lies, and rather than report that the other side was lying, the reporters all went ahead and printed the lies anyway, with only a tiny space buried deep in the article for a rebuttal. And even then, not a rebuttal by the reporter or the editor, but a rebuttal printed as just another side to the story, as an opinion no better or worse, no more or less accurate, than the original lying attack.

I've asked this question before, because it cuts to the heart of how journalism is taught and practiced in America under the prevailing "Columbia school" model of professional journalism. What is the responsibility of a reporter, not a commentator but an ordinary working journalist, when rudimentary research proves beyond all shadow of a doubt that one side in a set of charges and counter-charges is telling the truth and the other side is lying?

Poll #837359 Honest Journalism Means What?

When a reporter has two conflicting accounts and more than enough evidence to prove one of them is lying, which of these is "honest journalism"?

Report the truth and only the truth. Don't dignify the lie by letting the liars use you as a free forum.
Report the truth. Also report that the lie was told, by whom, and prove that it's a lie. The public has a right to know.
Report both sides, but give the side that's telling the truth more room to make their case. Balance the need to appear impartial with the need to protect the public.
Report both sides. Give each side equal room. Take no sides, because since when are journalists qualified to decide truth or falsehood about anything? Let the readers decide for themselves who's the liar.
Other (explain in comments).

Because right now, what they're teaching journalists, and what editors and publishers and producers are requiring of them, is that 4th option. Dr. Dean thinks that it stinks, and I'm inclined to agree with him about that part. But if he can't control his anger over that, that probably does disqualify him from any job that involves dealing with the press ... and that probably includes President, and may include chair of the Democratic National Committee no matter what he's right about and no matter how wrong everybody else is.