It would be a mistake to say Candy Crowley of CNN moderated the most recent presidential debate because, at one point in particular, she mistook herself as a participant, interrupting Mitt Romney to tell him he was wrong when he wasn’t. President Barack Obama — interrupted by her far less and given three more minutes to speak overall — beamed.
He should have. It was great to have an onstage assistant just as it has been a boon worth multi-millions in advertising to have huge portions of the press cheering him on in his re-election campaign. The liberal bias of much of the media was a major factor putting Obama in the White House in the first place, one social scientist has said, and while that may make some people happy, the continued crumbling of standards poses a threat to both journalism and democracy.
Journalism is in a stage of great transition, with newspapers especially in steep decline: Just 23 percent of Americans said in a recent Pew survey that they read a print version of a newspaper yesterday. The Internet is shoving itself to the front of the line to such an extent that Newsweek magazine just announced it is turning to an all-digital format in 2013. Broadcast TV faces problems, as does CNN, Crowley’s home: It just got its lowest ratings since 1991. On top of all of this comes a Gallup poll telling us that 60 percent of Americans distrust news reporting to be fair, accurate and complete.
We could be at a tipping point, and we could end up more and more of a partisan press leaving Americans with few places to turn for balanced news presentation. That brings us back to Crowley.
She shallowly blamed George W. Bush for much of our economic problems on top of diminishing the debate with varied unjustified interventions. Her worst intrusion came when Romney was saying Obama had not proclaimed in a Rose Garden talk that the Sept. 11 killings at our Libyan embassy were an act of terrorism.
She said Obama did make the point. He didn’t. He used the word “terror” in his remarks without specifically saying that the attack was an act of terrorism. And, as Crowley herself indicated during the debate and talked about at greater length later on, his administration mostly hid out from that truth for two weeks.
After the debate, some journalists calling themselves fact checkers did their own best Crowley imitation. There are pluses in “fact checking” — some very smart people doing diligent work — but it is a charade to imply it’s purely an exercise in verifying the verifiable. Fact checkers find some facts, they don’t find others, they miss obvious distinctions, may misapprehend context, participate with the rest of us in understandings short of absolute knowledge and sometimes bend to their predispositions. What they really are up to most of the time is voicing opinions.
One of those opinions told as fact by some checkers was that the Romney tax plan would cut $5 trillion in revenue unless it soaked the middle class. Harvey Rosen at Princeton is among respected economists making plausible arguments that’s not so. Some fact checkers say the originator of the anti-Romney claim — the Tax Policy Center — is “nonpartisan,” as if it has no ideological roots. One of its sponsors is the decisively liberal Urban Institute, and one author of the center’s report is a former Obama adviser.
I think news outlets should drop the term “fact checkers” and call these people commentators, and do the same with some reporters. Too many of them overreach with subjective interpretation, and, yes, there is a way to be more nearly objective — play by the old rules that disallowed all this editorializing in news stories and shed the arrogance that says wisdom superior to vying experts resides within journalistic skulls. Our journalism, which still has greatness in it, is less good than it once was, and if the worst offenders don’t reform, the media transition could be to something far worse.
Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers.