Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Journalism meets politics, chaos ensues

A few days ago, I finished a feature on high-k dielectrics. I read about ten technical papers, conducted a few hours of interviews, and distilled it all down to just over 2000 words. I probably did a pretty decent job, though I won't know for sure until it's published and I hear feedback from readers.

But is my article the definitive word on high-k dielectrics? No. There were people I would have liked to interview, but couldn't in the time I had available. There were papers I should have read, but didn't have time or didn't even know about. This was a 2000 word article for a general audience, not a comprehensive review for specialists. I'd encourage anyone in the field to use it as a starting point for further research, not as their only source.

The same is true of most political coverage. Most journalists do the best they can, and try hard to capture the nuances of policy positions, but they're human. They have their own biases, which they may or may not be self-aware enough to see. They have limited time to do the research, limited access to sources, and limited space to explain what they learn. Most would readily admit that they can't give the definitive last word on a subject at the time. Maybe in the book they hope to write once the campaign is over...

And so, sometime in the last few days, a reporter for the (London) TimesOnline had a conversation with the Obama campaign. They probably talked about the various unfounded rumors spreading about Obama, and how it appears that a substantial fraction of the American public actually believes them. The reporter probably asked something like, "Wow, that's definitely a problem. Is there anything you can do?" Then the campaign spokesman probably said something like, "We hope so. We're setting up a team of people to find sites that post this stuff and try to get the facts out there."

The reporter wrote his story, and gave it this lead:
A crack team of cybernauts will form a rapid response internet “war room” to track and respond aggressively to online rumours that Barack Obama is unpatriotic and a Muslim.

The article goes on to discuss what some of the problematic rumors are, the impact they may have had on polling data, and public statements that the candidate has made. It includes no further details on the proposed war room. Nothing about how many people it involves, which particular sites the campaign is likely to track, how it decides which rumors to counter, or exactly how it plans to respond.

I read the article, shrugged, and thought, "Yeah, I can see why they would need to counter some of the sludge that's going around."

Holly read the article, and went ballistic, using phrases like "thought police" and "intimidating bloggers." In the lengthy threads that ensued, both yesterday and today , she clarified that her primary objection was to the squelching of rumors that Obama is "unpatriotic."
Who defines that? Who defines what is a negative statement, and what is or is not a rumor of being unpatriotic?

“Unpatriotic” can mean anything the candidate doesn’t like. It is not, as Shakespeare would have said, “an ever-fix’d mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…”

It is, instead, a wide-open field perfect for what the military would define as “mission creep.”

And THAT is where I drew my line.

I've never met Holly personally, but I've known her online for a long time. I think it's fair to say that I have a more generally benign view of government than she does. Maybe I'm being complacent in seeing nothing more than a politically savvy attempt to deal with damaging rumors. Maybe her use of terms like "thought police" is justified, maybe it's paranoid.

Based on the evidence of the article alone, it's impossible to tell. The article contains no details beyond the lead I quoted above. We don't know what other details are in the reporter's notebook and didn't make it into the article. Since the war room doesn't actually exist yet, we don't have any independent evidence of what it's actually doing, either. Without more information than is provided here, any comment about the war room's activities has more to do with the commenter's views than with what the campaign is (or is not) actually doing.

But the point is not the righteousness (or not) of the Obama campaign's rumor-debunking efforts. The point is that no piece of political journalism (or any journalism) should be seen as more than a starting point for further research. Read journalism from multiple sources, especially those with whom you disagree. When primary sources are available, as they often are for government agencies and political campaigns, see what they have to say. The more important the question is, the more careful you should be. No one cares if you are wrong about Britney Spears, but a one-sentence lead in a British paper is a pretty shaky hook for an opinion (positive or negative) about a candidate for President of the United States.

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