Obama, Romney offer thoughts on news coverage

Thursday, April 5, 2012

WASHINGTON — This week President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney offered some constructive criticism to America’s news media.

On April 3, Obama addressed the joint convention of the American Society of News Editors and the Newspaper Association of America at an Associated Press luncheon. Mitt Romney addressed the same audience 24 hours later. (Full disclosure: I am the immediate past president of ASNE.)

Obama urged news organizations to take a critical look at issues and not fall into the trap of the perceived “equivalence” of points of view.

“I guess another way of thinking about this is — and this bears on your reporting: I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally,” Obama said.

The next day, Romney offered a critique and a quip:

“In just the few years since my last campaign, the changes in your industry are striking. Then, I looked to Drudge or FOX or CNN online to see what stories were developing. Hours after a speech, it was being dissected on the Internet. Now, it’s Twitter, and instantaneous reaction. In 2008, the coverage was about what I said in my speech. These days, it’s about what brand of jeans I am wearing and what I ate for lunch.

“Most people in my position are convinced that you are biased against us. We identify with LBJ’s famous quip that if he were to walk on water, your headline would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’

“Some people thus welcome the tumult in your industry, heralding the new voices and the unfiltered or supposedly unbiased sources. Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story — when at least one source was actually named.”

The criticisms from both Obama and Romney were valid. In the face of shrinking audiences and declining revenues, the news media too often embrace heat rather than light, focusing on controversy rather than common ground. It’s also true that the news media have embraced entertainment and lighter stories so enthusiastically that many “news” broadcasts are not very substantive.

And yet while both Obama and Romney offered brief tips of the hat to the importance of American journalism, there was little acknowledgement by either of the critically important watchdog role news organizations play in a free society.

That lack was most apparent in a Q&A session with Romney. I asked him whether he, like Sen. John McCain four years earlier, would support a federal shield law that protects reporters’ sources.

His answer surprised me. Romney said he was not familiar with the legislation and would like to get a range of opinions before reaching his own conclusion.

That was fair enough, but it was surprising that a candidate running for president would not be familiar with the specifics of shield-law proposals, particularly given the audience he was about to address. There have been legislative efforts on behalf of a shield law for years and the debate often comes down to balancing the First Amendment with national-security concerns, which are president-worthy concerns.

I did ask a follow-up question of Romney about whether confidential sources can be a positive force. He responded that confidential sources can be valuable, but that he also could imagine circumstances under which a source might need to be revealed.

The irony is that some of the most important stories in U.S. journalism history, many revealing corruption and injustice, have come about because whistleblowers felt confident that their identities would be protected. That kind of journalism is the exact opposite of the kind of fluff and sensationalism candidates deride.

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