Bearing in mind that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, or any number of other proverbs suggesting at once the merit of and annoyance caused by speaking out, and recalling that in normal cases the question is not so much liberal or conservative news media bias as it is a preference toward advert revenues, one might not be surprised, then, to learn how much of the bluster and noise coming from Congress is actually nothing more than hot, rancid vapor.
Or perhaps that is the wrong way to express it; even those who presume the national political discourse so broken as to hold themselves aloof generally also presuppose a tremendous amount of putrid hot air in the Beltway chatter.
Still, though, something seems amiss. It is one thing for pundits and bloggers to argue about the editorial points of a story, but the number of times some find themselves wondering about the alleged factual coverage is itself striking. Consider Steve Benen’s note on the Scandal of the Week:
It started with an Associated Press headline that wasn’t true: “Emails: IRS Official Sought Audit of GOP Senator.” From there, conservative and mainstream media outlets went berserk on Wednesday, reporting that former IRS official Lois Lerner tried to audit Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as part of some kind of partisan vendetta.
“Lerner Asked IRS to Audit Republican Senator,” one headline read. “Lerner Set IRS Sights on Sen. Grassley,” said another. A third abandoned subtlety altogether: “Lois Lerner’s Threats To Investigate Grassley Should Terrify You.”
All of this, it turns out, wasn’t true. The reality is unambiguous: “[Grassley] wasn’t ‘targeted’ at all. Instead, Lerner asked a colleague if it made sense to examine whether an outside group had made Grassley an inappropriate offer. Her colleague dismissed the idea, and that was the end of it.”
At least in theory, reporters, Republican officials, and conservative activists who ran with this story on Wednesday had a decision to make: they could either correct their mistake or pretend they hadn’t made the mistake.
Of course, this is the IRS “scandal,” which naturally led conservatives to choose Door #3: keep repeating the inaccuracy as if it were true.
But it is also important to remember that in reporting these merry tales of politics, it is not the journalists’ job to actually consider whether the facts they are reporting are true†. As such, it is occasionally worth a moment to actually pause and sniff the excrement, tally up the morbid score, and figure out just where the political discourse actually is compared to reality.
† As the estimable Jim Lehrer once expressed, “I would never do that. That’s not my function to do that.” Or, as Rob Corddry explained nearly a decade ago: “Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.”
Benen, Steve. “Repeating a falsehood doesn’t make it true”. msnbc. 27 June 2014.
Cox Barrett, Liz. “Jim Lehrer on Billy Bob, Reports of Rain and Stenography As Journalism”. Columbia Journalism Review. 2 June 2006
Corddry Rob and Jon Stewart. “Kerry Controversy”. The Daily Show. 23 August 2004.