Monday, December 08, 2008

Neutrality, the "mushy middle," and "false-balance" journalism

I've previously described myself as "not neutral" regarding Atlantic Yards, given that I'm "often skeptical of the claims made by the developer and the supporters of the project."

But maybe the problem is the concept of neutrality. The act of fact-checking should spur skepticism of supporters' claims, given that neutrality should be pursuit of the truth, as Laurie Becklund comments below. (Thus claims by AY opponents or other critics should not be taken as gospel, either.)

False-balance problem

Dean Starkman, in an article in the September/October 2008 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, headlined Boiler Room: The business press is missing the crooked heart of the credit crisis, argues that "needlessly tentative coverage has led to a serious false-balance problem."

He writes:
Worse, from a tedium standpoint, the failure to assemble an easily gettable record has perpetuated a particularly sterile argument over who’s to blame. David Brooks, George Will, and other cultural conservatives—let’s call them behavioralists—have felt free to blame the unraveling of the financial system on some sort of spontaneous mass deterioration of public morals. Structuralists like myself, meanwhile, argue that people didn’t change, the marketplace did. Most journalists, I would argue, retreat to the mushy middle: the there-is-plenty-of-blame-to-go-around school, a theory of more generalized cultural decay that includes undisciplined lenders as well as irresponsible borrowers.

The trouble with this debate is that all the evidence is on my side...

And by the way, the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve agree with me...

The Federal Bureau of Investigation also suspects I’m right, having opened criminal probes of lending practices at twenty-one companies, including Countrywide, IndyMac, and other market leaders.

(Emphasis added)

In other words, is Atlantic Yards simply a question of jobs and housing versus traffic and other environmental impacts? Or is it, more fundamentally, an example of a planning and approval process that is increasingly difficult to defend?

(Remember, even former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff concedes that Atlantic Yards should've gone through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, or ULURP, which would've required local votes and added legitimacy. And city housing official Holly Leicht acknowledges that “ULURP is awfully late to start a conversation about a large project.")

The problem with neutrality

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Laurie Becklund, co-author of two books and winner of a team Pulitzer, commented:
It has always seemed to me that one of the most dangerous errors of American journalism is mistaking the center for neutral. The center is a mid-point on a sliding scale. Its place is determined by opinions and prevailing winds.

Neutral is, or should be, the radical willingness to find and communicate what's true, no matter whether that truth lies in the middle or to one side.

This is hardly a novel notion, and no decent journalist wants to be unfair or wrong. Often, we don't know the facts. But, when was the last time you read a "for the record" from a news organization apologizing for tacitly reassuring the public, often over and over again, even after the facts were in, that it had missed reporting the very heart of the matter?


For example, why hasn't the New York Daily News explained that taxpayers paid for the front-page Bonanza it claimed developer Forest City Ratners was offering homeowners in the Atlantic Yards footprint? And why hasn't the New York Times explained that taxpayers paid for helping former footprint residents find "greener grass"?

Deciding what matters

Becklund muses:
Especially when resources are so limited, I hope reporters ask themselves each day, what am I writing today that truly matters? Stories aren't written by packs. Each one is the result of decisions an individual human being makes with each phone call and each keystroke, and which individual editors either validate or question at the end of the day. When we do not think clearly, or when we are not bold enough to find and put forward the facts, regardless of public opinion, we may be safe, but our readers and viewers may well wind up losing their savings, their homes, or even their lives.


Why exactly did the Daily News publish a news story last May based entirely on Bruce Ratner's self-serving op-ed regarding the project's timeline, without offering any shred of skepticism?

If someone is bold enough to decide, say, Forest City Ratner's bailout of ACORN story is worth covering, they'll write it. I think it's an easy call.

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