Wednesday, October 15, 2008

And Press Critic

Paul Krugman's winning the Nobel Prize for Economics has understandably set off accolades for his work as a columnist for the Times, where he has been a tough and trenchant critic of the Bush administration. Yet Krugman also deserves credit for being an astute press critic who has suggested higher standards of intellectual independence and responsibility for journalists.

In a talk that I heard him give before an audience of Princeton alumni in 2004, he stressed the needs for reporters to get beyond the he said/she said model of reporting that confuses balance with truth telling. Journalists often see this approach as a check against political influence, but in fact it opens up the door to political influence.

As Krugman reminded us, the he said/she said model puts great pressure on reporters to come up with two sides two every question--even when the facts of the situation are not really in dispute. Thus, as Krugman joked, we get stories like this: Most observers believe that the world is round, but critics at the Flat Earth Institute disagree.

In this approach, all you have to do to get your cause into the news is get your people credited as legitimate sources. Once that has happened, cockamamie claims can be presented alongside legitimate ones in the name of being "balanced."

Of course, journalists can't always get at the truth. And whenever you're reporting on a dispute, it is valuable to present the perspectives of all sides.

But journalists also have a responsibility to keep lies out of our public discourse. They serve that best when they pursue the truth--and not a formula that aims for balance but admits lies.

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