Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Classic: When Reporters Fail to Inform, We Lose

As I wrote my column for this week, I felt I was hitting tangentially some items I had discussed before. This is a reprint of a column I wrote in 2005, which bemoans the lack of a news media willing to present the hard truths of campaign advertising.

I have been somewhat encouraged by some recent editorials which have done some of this hard work.

When I first wrote this column, the paper rejected it because they were afraid to publish my facts I had collected about some false advertising. That's when I got the idea to make the column about the news media rather than candidates.

Unfortunately, in the back-and-forth trying to get the column past the editors, they published a preliminary version of the column I had sent them to see if I was getting to where they'd accept it. The original column as published can be found here, "PUBLISHED VERSION".

Here's the way it was supposed to run, from October 2005, "When Reporters fail to inform, we all lose":

Critically Thinking
By Charles Reichley

When Reporters Fail to Inform, We Lose

Political campaigns involve a certain amount of deception. Anyone who receives a flier, or sees a campaign commercial, has to wonder how truthful they are. But many people assume the press wouldn’t let a campaign get away with anything too inaccurate or misleading. We count on reporters to keep campaigns honest. But too often they don’t – and we all lose.

A good example can be found in a recent flier the Barg for Delegate campaign sent out attacking her opponent, Delegate Jeff Frederick. In the flier, the campaign claims that Frederick “voted to allow illegal immigrants to attend Virginia colleges, putting them ahead of legal residents”. The campaign wants you to believe he support illegal immigrants.

There was in fact a vote in 2004 (HB 156 Higher educational institutions; prohibits admission of illegal aliens), and in 2005 (HB 2910 Higher education; prohibits admission of illegal aliens to any public institutions in State). But the official Virginia web site (
http://leg1.state.va.us) says Frederick voted FOR each bill, both in committee and on the floor of the House. In other words, he voted to PROHIBIT illegal immigrants, not ALLOW them. To say otherwise misleads voters.

But, so far as I can tell, no reporter covering this campaign has mentioned these bills or Frederick’s votes, even though they quote him as saying Barg is lying about his record. The information is publicly available. The press should know this, but they have not shared it with the voters.

It seems they treat campaign coverage as less than “real news”. Instead of taking it seriously, they see it as some sort of game, of which they are observers, not referees. They simply provide play-by-play. Maybe they are afraid to inject themselves into the process. So, rather than provide information which would help voters understand the issues, and reveal who is playing fast-and-loose with the truth, they perpetuate the cycle of half-truths and misleading campaign ads.

It’s like a pick-up basketball game with no referee. If a team plays by the rules, but the opponent breaks the rules, the opponent wins. The honest team can’t compete without someone calling the fouls, unless they too start fouling. But then it’s not a basketball game, it’s a brawl. In a political race where one campaign is willing to say anything to win, an honest candidate is at a serious disadvantage if the press is not there to police the truth.

A campaign can put out fliers refuting inaccurate claims, but that just fuels the “he-said, she-said” nature of the contest. Like a mother whose children come running to give their version of how the cookie jar fell to the floor, voters are left wondering which campaign is telling the truth. Sometimes there is no way to know, but often there are facts that the press could report. And if they did, people could see which campaigns were deceiving them, and judge their other claims accordingly.

Sometimes facts are presented in a dishonest way. For example, the Barg campaign flier said that Frederick voted against funding for transportation, education, and more police. Their “proof” is his vote against the 2004 budget. He did vote against the budget, because it included a huge unnecessary tax increase. But he voted for alternate budgets with similar funding. And in 2005, when we had a large surplus because of the tax increase, he voted to return some of the money in a sales tax cut, and to use the rest for transportation, instead of letting it be frittered away in wasteful spending. You could say he voted to de-fund the entire government – but that wouldn’t reflect reality.

Sometimes the press contributes to the problem. A Potomac News article on Saturday quotes Barg: “My opponent has taken tens of thousands of dollars from developers”. A check of the facts (see
www.vpap.org) shows only a single $1000 donation to the Frederick campaign from a developer, in January of 2004. But the reporter doesn’t tell us that, even though he cites the web site to get the total donations for the two candidates. Because he doesn’t give the facts, readers are left with the wrong impression.

This past week I talked to campaign consultants, candidates, and other elected officials. Many expressed difficulty getting the press to report “the facts”. It’s easy to dismiss this as sour grapes. But it seems to me that even those who use deceptive advertising wish the press would police the field better. Doing so would create a powerful incentive for campaigns to be more honest with the voters.

If the press won’t do the job, voters have to do it themselves. Read the fine print. Get educated. Don’t base your votes on sound-bites and glossy fliers. And when you read a story that doesn’t give you the facts you need, write the paper and tell them you expect better.

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