Alleged Journalism

Yesterday’s All Things Considered featured the following statement by Robert Siegel:

Democrats have accused President-elect Donald Trump of stacking his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires.*

*Oddly this isn’t in the transcript. To hear it click “play” on the linked page.

This phraseology has a much bigger problem than the passive voice it employs. Siegel takes a pure fact, which is that Donald Trump has appointed many millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet, and inserts it into the mouths of a group of anonymous Democrats. This transforms the actual real, true, not #FakeNews fact into a suspect partisan accusation.

Why would he do this instead of clearly stating “President-elect Donald Trump has stacked his cabinet with millionaires and billionaires.” Is it because the word “stacking” implies cheating, as in “stacking the deck?” That makes no sense because this is not a real quote. It’s one of the weakest rhetorical devices in journalism, a generic pseudo-quote. Whoever wrote his pusillanimous introduction chose the word “stacking” when they could have selected a less negative expression like “picked a number of,” or even “picked an unprecedented number of” – if that’s historical fact. (Which would be a cool thing for NPR to research and tell us…)

I believe the explanation is the same over-abundance of “he said/she said” journalistic caution that has hamstrung NPR for years and which helped normalize Donald Trump’s candidacy all the way to the White House. Whenever a journalist, terrified of potential accusations of bias, feels the least bit uncomfortable stating something outright she can simply add “alleged” or, as Siegel did, pseudo-quote a generic speaker, like “disgruntled Star Wars fans.” This quickly develops into a crippling habit. The latter strategy even verges on Blair/Glass-style invention of sources and fits the definition of “conventional wisdom.”

One of the worst recent examples of this same tic involves yet another ostentatiously outrageous Trump nominee, Jeff Sessions. Steve Inskeep, as if with awkward tongs, referred to Jeff Sessions’ “alleged racial comments.” This is a cowardly sort of triple euphemism. He fails to quote a source, even a generic one like “people who don’t like racial comments.” He uses the word “alleged” as a rhetorical blanket for what he’s about to say. Finally, and worst of all, he employs the meaningless-in-this-context term “racial” instead of “racist.” Nobody, allegedly or otherwise, cares if Sessions makes a “racial” comment. I’m not even sure what a “racial” statement is. Maybe it’s something like “many races make up the population of America?” In any case, it’s obviously racist comments critics are concerned about, and Sessions has made them. That’s another fact. I would have preferred Inskeep had simply said “Sessions’ racist comments,” but since he hid behind “alleged” he had no reason not to at least say “racist.” Journalism not achieved.

The day after the election of Donald Trump, which resulted in large part from the worst misprision by news-folks in modern history, African-American novelist Attica Locke appeared on Morning Edition. She was not in the mood for bullshit. The following salty exchange took place:

GREENE: And we should be careful here because there are many Trump supporters who I’ve spoken to over the years who would not consider themselves racists.

LOCKE: You know what though, David? I’m out with that. There’s a part of me that honestly feels like that level of politeness, where we’re not calling things what they are, is how we will never get forward. The fact of the matter is that you have to at best be able to tolerate racism in your president.

It took a novelist, i.e. a professional liar, to tell this truth to Greene. I hope NPR reporters were listening well – the way they claim to think is so important.

NPR “head of news” Michael Oreskes takes the brave stance that facts exist and they matter, and NPR former ombudsman Alicia Shepard agrees. Yet they cannot bring themselves to allow the word “lie” to pass between NPR reporters’ lips even as they play and endless stream of them from the new administration.

Start calling things what they are. We’re waiting.

Postscript: Thanks to composer B.J. “That’s his real name” Leiderman for inspiring me to start blogging again!

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