NYT: It's not our job to tell you when McConnell lies about FinReg

The New York Times yesterday published an article that illustrates as obviously as is possible the phenomenon of “stenography journalism,” to the extent that it almost borders on parody.  You know the Bush-era joke about Bush claiming the Sun rises in the West, Democrats correcting him, and the next day’s headline reading “Dems Claim Sun Rises In East”?  Well, our press is still that broken.

Yesterday’s headline reads “Republicans Block Start Of Debate On Financial Reform,” which is fine.  Much better than the name the Times‘ website gives the article — “Start Of Debate Blocked On Financial Bill.”  How wonderfully passive, Times‘ website.

The piece begins well enough, but the fifth paragraph is an actual example of the “rising sun” joke above:

At the Capitol, Senate Democratic leaders stepped up pressure on Republicans, and at an unusual news conference, they showed video clips of Republican leaders leveling what the Democrats said were false criticisms of the bill.

What!?  The Democrats said the Republicans were lying!?!?!?  WELL.  That sounds like the same old Washington Bickering that I’m sick of hearing about.  If only there were some sort of institution that would tell me who — if anyone! — was telling the truth.  Someone who could, URM, investigate the competing claims and evaluate their truth value.  Boy, I would pay money for a service like that.

Oh, hello, the Internet.  Is there any way to discern whether or not the Republicans were actually lying?  Yes, there is, and yes, they were.  The GOP was lying, and although it’s technically true that the Democrats accused them of that, it’s far more correct to use just three words: Republicans were lying.

Here’s how MSNBC reported the press conference:

One clip featured Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that “this bill not only allows for taxpayer bailouts; it institutionalizes them.”

(As a quick side note, their headline was “Dems accuse GOP of ‘lies’ on bill,” which, as I mentioned above, is completely misleading.  But OMG MSNBC is so liberal, guys. )

So, McConnell says the bill institutionalizes bailouts.  He was referring to a provision in the bill that would tax large banks to create a fund that would give the government capital to use to liquidate the bank in the event that it failed.  Put simply: bill would tax banks so that if they failed, there would be some money set aside to use to shut them down.  McConnell’s characterization that the bill institutionalizes bailouts is completely false.

Which is exactly what the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact reported a full two days — years in Internet time — before the Times piece was published.  They conclude:

In ruling on McConnell’s statement, that financial reform “actually guarantees future bailouts of Wall Street banks,” we base our ruling primarily on the legislation. It clearly states that the intention is to liquidate failing companies, not bail them out. To do that, it creates a fund with contributions from financial firms, not from taxpayer funds. We do not see any element of the bill that expressly permits ongoing, “endless” outlays from the federal treasury. Is it possible that liquidation may cost the government money, potentially more money than is allowed for in the bill? Yes. But even so, McConnell is using seriously overheated rhetoric. Nothing in the bill “guarantees” future bailouts of Wall Street banks. We rate his statement False. [emphasis added.]

After reading that, does the Times’ framing — that Democrats said Republicans had “false criticisms of the bill” — seem adequate?  Not in the least.  That framing is just as helpful as writing “Dems claim gravity reason for falling objects,” as though it’s just another example of that partisan bickering that everyone in Washington claims to hate so much.

The casual reader would take away from the Times‘ piece that the GOP and the Democrats disagreed on the bill, not that the GOP were making false claims and the Democrats were calling them out on it — which is also what the Times should be doing to both parties.

Further down, the Times quotes a back and forth between McConnell and Dick Durbin in which Durbin accuses McConnell of misrepresenting the bill, but, again, the Times give the reader to idea which party is being forthcoming.

Then, just to show that they are capable of wild speculation, the Times gives us this wonderfully unhinged prediction:

Voters, often frustrated by the acrimony in Washington, could decide that Democrats, who control Congress and the White House, are being arrogant by refusing to make concessions. [emphasis added.]

Hahahah, what?  Now, I find the Democratic Party, as an institution, to be vile, corrupt, and more concerned with maintaining power than helping its constituents.  BUT.  When they start to play a little bit of hardball, rhetorically at least, that should be praised as welcome change from the standard roll-over-and-play-dead approach that party is used to.  Indeed, the GOP strategy of weakening this already weak bill appears to be working.  So for the Times to speculate, without quoting any sources, that the Democrats finding a spine is a bad thing is bizarre and amateurish on the paper’s part.

That’s why unhelpful framing from the Paper of Record is so damaging.  These lies — death panels, permanent bailouts — get lodged in our collective consciousness like a sesame seed in a bicuspid, or better yet, like an occupying power in a Middle Eastern country, and removing the lies proves to be next to impossible.  And for anyone out there still operating from a “the media is so liberal” mindset, this event should show how false that is.  Yes, Krugman has an Op-Ed in the Times today, and that’s very influential, but their “objective reporting” still suffers from the same idiotic “he said, she said,” laziness that got us into the Iraq war, and continues to make any progressive change in this country virtually impossible.

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5 Responses to NYT: It's not our job to tell you when McConnell lies about FinReg

  1. Mr. Knefel,

    Until fairly recently I was in agreement with you on the whole issue of “stenography journalism”. I had concluded that the corporate press had simply been bullied by the Right in this journalistic passivism. However I am not sure that that is the whole story.

    While I am still sure that these businesses who sell news were, and remain, bullied, I think now that that is just a reflection of the larger issues affecting the news industry.

    In the past “the press” provided two or three different products to their customers, news (stenography), analysis (fact checking), and opinion (interpretation). These were not always so neatly and cleanly divided but they were there.

    What has happened over the last 20 or 30 years is that there is the market place for news has been transformed. While the balance of supply and demand for news / facts / stenography has remained about the same, there has been an explosion in the supply of analysis and opinion while the demand has remained the same (or at least not risen in proportion to supply). As a result the price that can be charged for analysis and opinion has plummeted, as of course have profits.

    This has meant that corporations that had in the past supplied all three products are now providing the only product that can still generate a profit – stenography. The NTY cannot make profit offering analysis and opinion, no one is buying that product from them. However, by being Joe Friday and just providing the facts, they can still make a buck. They can, conveniently but co-incidentally, get the right off of their back a little bit.

    It is really just a business decision. They are selling the only product that customers are willing to pay them for, stenography.

    • jessemulert says:

      I take issue with two points. The first — and who knows, this may be established journalistic theory, in which case, excuse me — but it seems as though fact checking and analysis aren’t the same, neither can basic fact checking be separated from what you call the stenographic act. To get really trivial here: what decides, for example, the accuracy of a statement like “the sun rises from the West”? The seemingly automatic reaction, “of course it doesn’t”, is actually an internal process of fact-checking. My point is that fact checking is an initial stage of stenography, not seperate or subsequent, else we wouldn’t know a fact was a fact. This is neither here nor there, I just disagree with that classification as part of your argument.

      The second point I’d like to make is that a business decision is not “just a business decision” when in violates the stated mission and values of the business. At that point it is unethical and a violation of trust, as we’ve consumed these goods with a shared understanding. The first core corporate value of the New York Times Company is production of “content of the highest quality and integrity. This is the basis for the Company’s reputation and the means by which it fulfills the public trust and its customers’ expectations.” John’s point seems to be that these articles do not represent the highest in quality or integrity. I believe it is totally appropriate to criticize a company for such an internal faltering and totally inappropriate to dismiss it as merely a business decision. This is to say nothing of the role of journalism or “all the news that’s fit to print”.

      • Hello jessemulert,

        No, this is not any established theory. I just thought it was a useful way to describe things. The only point I was trying bring forth is that what we have historically considered the news business actually delivers a variety of different products, “news”, the delivery of facts, is only one.

        The only purpose of any business is the make a profit, that includes the news business. The only measure of customer satisfaction is if they pay for the product (in a non-monopoly situation of course). I am neither criticizing nor praising the NYT, or any other news outlet, I am just stating the business facts. Core values mean nothing if a company is bankrupt.

        I simply believe that in the past, news, analysis, and opinion were a “bundled” service (like cable TV and DSL internet access) but now they are unbundled. The only one those three services that is still profitable for a company like the NYT is “news”. The internet is awash with free opinion and analysis, like this right here. Why get the NYT’s analysis when you can get analysis that suits you better – or make your own – as we are now.

        I believe that this new dichotomy between the deliver of bare facts as a service, or something close to that, and opinion and analysis will grow bigger and be more obvious as time goes on.

        NYT is simply responding to the market place. If you doubt me, just ask the folks at the Tribune Company. They own eight daily newspapers (including The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and The Baltimore Sun) and twenty three TV stations. They filed for bankruptcy.

        Good or bad, right or wrong it is simply how the news industry works now.

      • jessemulert says:


        Alright, brass tacks here friend. If we want to say that economic factors have shifted by an unusually large degree in recent years, fair. If we want to say that the way media is produced and consumed has changed in recent years, fair. The way it’s paid for has changed? Fine by me. That many media companies have faltered or failed, again, fair. As per your argument, that the monetary aspect of consumption influences modes of production, in this example relative to the “news” industry? I think that is a valid argument. I think we can call these things facts.

        However, what we cannot call facts are statements like, “the only purpose of any business is [to] make a profit. The only measure of customer satisfaction is if they pay for the product (emphasis mine).” These are not “business facts,” merely opinions on how to best run a business, and in my eyes a deeply flawed ideal. These are assertions that there is no ethic save avarice and that there are two clean halves of the world, those in business and those not, as though past five we all just slept in our cubicles, never to join the world which we have consequenced. In fact, this is very timely, because what you are implying is that a company like, say, Goldman Sachs, not only should be free of moral and legal consequence, but that we should laud the leaders of this company as exemplars of capitalist virtue. Here are some questions which this model has trouble with: At what point does legality matter? At which point does employee morale affect production? At what point does your own quality of life as a business leader affect the quality of your company? At what point are your methods unsustainable? At what point does displeasing your customers affect your ability to generate profit, and at what point is that damage irrevocable; what is an acceptable level of risk? At which point have you exhausted your demographic pool? I agree that morality is relative, but we also have the right and responsibility to hold those who exist within this recognized sovereignty to it’s agreed upon laws.

        I’m sorry to open up on you like that, but it seems like a civic duty at this particular juncture, what with all our well meant attempts to reframe the role of business in the post-collapse economy. Plus, its a personal sweet spot of mine: I’ve listened to far too many business owners try to brow beat me with this point, that “it all comes down to the bottom line”, and I even believed it for a second. But no, it doesn’t all come down to the bottom line, that’s absurd. Furthermore, they were all jerks whose employees and customers resented and stole from them.

      • jessemulert,

        You seem to be assuming that I am arguing that “stenography journalism” and “the only purpose of any business is [to] make a profit.” are good things. I do not hold that perspective, I find them to be a source of much difficulty in the world. That being said does not make them untrue.

        You can like gravity or you can hate it, you can find it morally reprehensible or the greatest good. However, no matter how you evaluate it, you have to deal with it, on its terms. The same applies the marketplace, love or hate it, you have to deal with it, on its terms.

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