Journalists Washing Their Hands of the Truth.
NPR goes all “He Said, She Said” on us. Do they really think that fools anyone?
The audio clip (3:42) is an NPR report about a new set of regulations for abortion clinics that the state of Kansas has tried to put in place. They are currently suspended because of a lawsuit. Among other provisions, the new rules say that procedure rooms must be at least 150 square feet and that storage areas for “janitorial supplies and equipment” must be at least 50 square feet per procedure room. Reuters: “The new law sets minimum sizes for surgery and recovery rooms, has room temperature range parameters for each room, and sets broader equipment and staffing rules.”
Ready for the he said?… In the NPR report, Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri President and CEO Peter Brownlie says ”[The] regulations are riddled with requirements which do nothing to improve the safety and health of women, make it more difficult for women to obtain a service they need and to which they are legally entitled.”
And now for the she said…. But several groups that oppose abortion say the regulations are common sense and necessary. Cheryl Sullenger with Operation Rescue asked the state to consider 2,500 pages of documents that detail what she descibes as abuses across the country. “If abortion clinics close, then that is for the protection of the public. It’s a good thing…”
Which is only one of several examples in the report. Here’s the complaint I sent to the NPR ombudsman about this method of hand-washing.
I would like the ombudsman to listen to this story because I have a complaint about it. My complaint is not the usual one that you probably get: biased reporting. No. This is he said, she said reporting, one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence, in which the NPR reporter washes her hands of determining what is true. The new Kansas regulations may be a form of harassment, intended to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers in that state. Or, alternatively, these rules may be sane, rational, common sense, sound policy: just normal rule-making by responsible public officials.
According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It knows of no way to adjudicate these clashing views. It is simply confused and helpless and the best it can do is pass on that helplessness to listeners of “Morning Edition.” Because there is just no way to know whether these new rules try to make life as difficult as possible for abortion providers, or put common sense public policy goals into practice in Kansas. There is no standard by which to judge. There is no comparison that would help. There is no act of reporting that can tell us who has more of the truth on their side. In a word, there is nothing NPR can do! And so a good professional simply passes the conflict along. Excellent: Now the listeners can be as confused as the journalists.
It is obvious to me that there’s something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. ”He said, she said” does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks. That’s putting your needs—for political refuge—ahead of mine as a listener. I don’t appreciate it. It makes me trust you less. And one more thing, a little lesson in realism. They’re going to attack you anyway, and crow in triumph when your CEO is forced out by those attacks. Ultimately there is no refuge, so you might as well do good journalism.
I think journalists in the mainstream media are largely unaware of how many people are catching on to “he said, she said.” They still think of it as the best way to be trusted when things are dispute, but little by little it’s becoming the opposite: a reason for active mistrust. That’s why I wrote the ombudsman. I want him to know about this shift. And push back against this shit.
UPDATE: Over Twitter, the NPR ombudsman says he will look into it, though he doubts that he said, she said reporting is the lowest form of journalism. Of course, I didn’t say it was the lowest. I said it’s one of the lowest.
In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.