This week we talked about two articles that took a critical approach to modern political reporting. Barnhurst extended his long journalism hypothesis to cover NPR, and Didion analyzed how complicit political reporters were in perpetuating a candidate’s PR campaign.
Barnhurst’s long journalism hypothesis states that journalism has become more focused on a journalist’s opinion and analysis than on the facts, that at the same time these longer interpretive stories have become more negative and less local.
I would have to agree with Barnhurst’s hypothesis, and what I would like to do in this post is show how one counter-example does, in fact, prove the trend.
Politifact is “an independent fact-checking journalism website aimed at bringing you the truth in politics” that analyzes individual factual statements by politicians and tells you, in one simple (and at times entertaining) graphic how accurate that “fact” actually is. Ratings range from “True” to “Pants on Fire” and each rating is accompanied by a detailed analysis and justification for their rating. The analysis usually goes to experts when an expert opinion is required.
Politifact is a Pulitzer-Prize winning website (earned for its coverage of the 2008 election), earned because it separated “rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters.” How does this counter-example to the long journalism hypothesis help to prove it? Because what Politifact does is considered rare and exceptional, when in fact it is providing a basic service that any news institution should be doing.
What Politifact does is simple. A reporter hears a statement during a speech that sounds questionable. They then do research and talk to experts to determine if the factual claim made (not an opinionated claim) is in fact true. And then they rate the truthfulness of the statement and provide a detailed explanation of their rating. Taking out the catchy ratings system, this is a simple process that is well within the capabilities of any reporter.
To explain why Politifact is so unique, I turn to a fantastic series of anecdotes in Didion’s story that are still largely applicable today. Would a Politifact reporter care that a candidate thinks he’s “tough” for tossing around a ball? No, because there is no factual statement there to analyze. What does a Politifact reporter care about? The latest “Pant’s on Fire” rating went to Duncan Hunter, for claiming that “At least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas and there are dozens more that did not get caught by the Border Patrol.”
Right now on CNN’s political page, the top story is “Obama’s midterm malaise.” It’s got alliteration, and a very opinionated lead: “At pricey fundraisers — where there’s plenty of freedom to offer an unvarnished view of the world away from the cameras — President Barack Obama is sounding increasingly pessimistic about his party’s chances in the midterm elections.”
CNN follows the long journalism trend, and directly comparing these two latest stories from a major broadcast news outlet and a local newspaper’s web project shows just how much journalism has suffered as a result of this trend.
Politifact also demonstrates another one of the trends Didion identifies, again by being the counterexample. Didion stated in her story that people were growing increasingly disconnected from politicians and the media due to this PR servicing, since normal political discourse disconnects voters from “the process.”
So what does a normal layperson care more about – midterm malaise or a claim that ISIS fighters have crossed the border into the US? By focusing on the facts, Politifact is not only keeping politicians honest, but they are bringing the political discourse down to a level that normal people care about and can understand. I don’t know what exactly “mid-term malaise” is or if it’s unique to the current president, but it doesn’t really effect my everyday life. The fact that this is the CNN’s top political story shows how the long journalism trend effects readers in a way that Didion predicted a couple decades ago.
KEVIN G. BARNHURST (2003): The Makers of Meaning: National Public Radio and the New Long Journalism, 1980-2000, Political Communication, 20:1, 1-22
Joan Didion. (October 27, 1988). “Insider Baseball.” The New York Review of Books. Available online at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1988/oct/27/insider- baseball/
“Pants on Fire: Duncan Hunter Makes Unconfirmed Claim Border Patrol Caught at Least 10 ISIS Fighters.” @politifact. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Acosta, Jim. “Obama’s Midterm Malaise.” CNN. Cable News Network, 10 Oct. 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.