Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Standards Matter

Rem Rieder has written an exceedingly shrill column on the controversy over Deborah Howell. Before addressing his main points, I want to quote an earlier Rieder column on the responsibility of journalists to nail down their stories:

Journalism is journalism. You don't go with the story until you've got it nailed down, and that rule applies regardless of how you plan to disseminate it....Standards matter, particularly in the whirlwind of contemporary journalism. It's a message we can't hear too often.
With that in mind, here's Rieder on Howell:
Now there's no doubt Howell made a mistake. She said both Republicans and Democrats had received "Abramoff campaign money." Technically that isn't correct. Abramoff didn't make any personal donations to Democrats. But he did direct his Indian tribe clients to give money to both parties, albeit far more to the Republicans. It's a distinction without a difference.
No, it isn't. The difference is the change in the amount of donations. After Abramoff got involved, donations to Democrats decreased. Further, Abramoff's Indian clients were the only major tribal donors who gave more money to Republicans than Democrats. That's not a "distinction without a difference" by any stretch of the imagination. Does Rieder think that Abramoff would've wanted to ensure, somehow, that every penny of his clients' money would go to Republicans, even though that would be a radical change in donation patterns? Even though it might've set off alarm bells and invited scrutiny of his criminal activities?

Between 2001 and 2004, the Saginaw Chippewas donated more to the GOP than they donated to Republicans and Democrats combined in the previous four years. In doing so, they more than tripled donations to the GOP, while cutting donations to Democrats. That's a dramatic change, and the reason for it is obvious: Abramoff "directed" his clients to start giving more money to the GOP, and less to the Democrats.
Howell should have been more precise. But the point she was trying to make was correct. And she never suggested that this was a bipartisan scandal.
If you mention that Abramoff's clients donated money to Democrats without mentioning that they donated less to Democrats than usual, and more to the GOP than other tribes, you're missing the point entirely, and inviting serious misunderstandings by design or default. To put it another way, standards matter.

Rieder argues that the Left's anti-media "fury and vitriol" matches that of the Right. For purposes of comparison, here's what Rieder previously had to say about the right-wing blogosphere's takedown of Dan Rather:
While there's no doubt some of the right-wing bloggers' expressions of self-satisfaction would draw penalty flags for excessive celebration from NFL officials, this clearly was an impressive display of might. Of course the blogs didn't bring down these media giants by themselves, but there's no question they played a critical role in both episodes.

(It should be added that the smug satisfaction factor is strictly bipartisan. Equally over-the-top were the bloggers on the left who did in faux journalist/male escort Jeff Gannon, er, James Dale Guckert, of White House press credentials and softball questions fame.)
That's admirably fair language, I'd say. Instead of trying to paint the Right's longstanding hatred for Rather as unhinged (perhaps by dwelling exclusively on the rhetoric of extremists who suggested that Rather should be executed for treason), Rieder simply rebukes their self-satisfaction, without letting it get in the way of his admiration for their can-do spirit. But in Howell's case, left-wing incivility is so "incredibly vicious" that it justifies collective punishment, even if this stifles voices that are neither abusive nor crude:
The onslaught was such that the Post felt compelled to shut down an area of earmarked for comments about the ombudsman. The Web site drew fire, not surprisingly, for that decision. But I don't have a problem with it.
So according to Rieder, the media can't hear too often that "standards matter." But if that message is communicated in a way its recipient doesn't like, all bets are off. If you're not confused yet, Rieder praises Howell for coming up with this daring solution to her woes:
"I'll read every e-mail and answer as many legitimate complaints as I can... But I will reject abuse and all that it stands for."
In other words, Howell is now apparently proposing to do her job; she'll address the substance of her readers' complaints, and take invective in stride like an adult. Rieder calls this modest plan "sensible," while intimating that she could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by adhering to it in the first place. So everything's settled: Howell's right even when she's wrong, lefty media critics are wrong even when they're right, and the GOP's talking points on Abramoff stay on life support for another day.


Cervantes said...

I haven't been able to get anybody else to pay attention to this, so I'll just mention it here. The Boston Globe did exactly the same thing. Michael Kranish's story on l'affaire Abramoff stated that Abramoff "gave generously to both Democrats and Republicans." I wrote to both Kranish and the "ombudsman." The "ombudsman" wrote back that there was no need to print a correction because of a second Kranish story the next day.

This story was all about Democratic politicians deciding whether to disgorge money from Abramoff's tribal clients. It included, without comment, Chimpy's quote on Fox News about how Abramoff gave to both parties and this had nothing to do with the Republican Party. It did nothing to correct the falsehood in the original story.

They still refuse to acknowledge that this was an error, or to consider correcting it. So why should I believe anything I read in the Boston Globe?

Phila said...


Have you considered sending that little anecdote to Atrios or Kos or Media Matters? It seems like it'd be worth a shot. Public humiliation seems to be the only thing these people care about at all.