Why it Takes Years to Spot Fiction in the AP

Also published at AlterNet at http://www.alternet.org and in the Tacoma Reporter.

The Associated Press recently fired a “reporter” named Christopher Newton after learning that he had invented people and institutions for his articles for two-and-a-half years. Imaginary sources at imaginary and real organizations and universities provided quotes so boring that no one paid much attention. As Jack Shafer at Slate has pointed out, it wouldn’t have made much difference if the sources had been real.

I used to work as a reporter, and editors would often ask me to get a quote from a source, specifying to various degrees what the quote should be and who should say it. I currently work as a communications coordinator for an organization, and reporters sometimes call and ask me to agree to a quote. More often they ask questions in order to get the type of quote they want for a preconceived article.

Editors are writing stories based on what they think they already know. Reporters are then pretending to do the research to produce the stories. Sources are pretending to provide the information. Citizens are pretending to read the news. This charade, this systematic avoidance of actual reporting, is being carried out in the name of “objectivity,” or the “balance” of “giving both sides.” And this is the case quite regardless of whether the sources are real.

There is good reporting going on as well. I saw it done and like to think I did some of it as a reporter. And many good reporters now ask me open-minded questions. They are honestly trying to learn something and have not yet determined the shape of a particular article.

I don’t know Newton’s motives. He may have been as much pressed for time as intent on embarrassing his editors at the AP. (Thoughtful reporting is not easy to produce in 20 minutes.) While he didn’t show the creativity of fiction-as-journalism star Stephen Glass or of the novelist Robert Musil who did nature reporting by inventing animals, Newton did show particular in-your-face chutzpah by packing an article on the difficulty of lying with an inordinate number of lies. Can he not have been smirking?

Perhaps (probably not, but it’s nice to imagine) he planned to reveal the deception himself in the way that the scientist and would-be philosopher Alan Sokal some years back revealed in Lingua Franca that he had published what he considered sheer gibberish in a postmodern journal. Whether he meant to or not, I think Newton scored a more significant indictment of journalism than Sokol did of contemporary thought. Postmodernism suffered from such openness to radical creativity that it couldn’t spot nonsense. Journalism suffers from such closedness to insight that it can’t spot utter vacuity.

Look at the tautological headlines that Jay Leno holds up for laughs (“Droughts Result in Low Rain Fall”). Look at the nightly attempts on television to produce “analysis” of daily murders, sports scores, and weather (“Acquaintances believe he was a troubled young man,” “The way I see it, if we could have scored four more points we would have won,” “This was the hottest day recorded on this date, but that’s not really a surprise given the high temperatures we’ve been experiencing.”)

After I worked as a newspaper reporter, for a short time I wrote for two newsletters at a company called the Bureau of National Affairs. One newsletter, called Union Labor Report, was mailed to labor unions. The other, called Bulletin to Management, went to “human resource managers,” which I put in quotes because I refuse to view humans as a resource and refused to adopt many of the viewpoints required by BTM. I was supposed to write up similar stories in two very different ways for these two newsletters, with little concern for new insights or even accuracy, but a lot of concern for “balance,” which meant quoting representatives of more than one union in ULR and more than one manager in BTM, and in no case expressing a personal opinion.

We reported on “studies” and “reports” with no known methodology or one obviously unscientific, “studies” produced with the open and obvious intention of promoting the product sold by the software producer or temp agency or what-have-you that called itself a “market research and solution provider.” My editor on BTM actually had a policy of “don’t ask and don’t tell” with some of these surveys. We didn’t ask where they got their conclusions, so that we could later claim we weren’t really quite aware we were printing baseless assertions.

We interpreted similar data in different ways for the two newsletters. We even gave advice in certain sections pretending to simply be reporting on the law. I was supposed to advise readers of BTM on how to make workplace policies as vague as possible or to include escape clauses, not because that was my own creative advice (it certainly wasn’t, and I ended up quitting my job rather than give it), but because that was the only thing that made objective sense. In other words, it was what my editor himself did as a human resource manager.

Everything I wrote from two radically different perspectives had to be “objective.” This concept is thankfully being attacked in academia by postmodernism and in journalism by the proliferation of columnists and alternative outlets. It deserves to be abandoned completely.

A news report is determined not only by how things are said, but also by what things are included in the first place. And there is no identifiably “objective” selection procedure. We can’t eliminate judgment even by servility and plagiarism. Using the government’s way of thinking about an issue is a choice, and often a bad choice at that. With so many reporters pretending not to use judgment, is it any wonder that the New York Times has hired an “ethicist” to write a column in its weekly magazine, or that the Times’ columnists reach so many more people than its reporters? Is it any wonder that most readers skip the editorials to read the columns, or that the most widely read section of a lot of papers is the letters to the editor (the letters in the New York Times uniquely lack the energy of those in other papers, because the Times won’t print disagreements with its supposedly error-free reporting). Newspaper editorials have come to outdo in meaningless blather the speeches of politicians pretending to denounce the crimes of their own funders.

But what should be done? Surely we need good straight reporting of facts of the sort that some AP and other reporters do produce. Yes, but which facts? When? In what way? If there is no objectivity in the sense of some “external reality” to be discovered by the honest reporter, then what constitutes good reporting? The answer, I think, is openness to surprise and acknowledgment of opinion.

Rather than asking for agreement to a quote (or inventing a source for it), it is more honest to select people to talk to based on anything relevant other than what they are likely to say, and to ask them general, open-ended questions. If they all speak in strong agreement with one another, so be it. If exactly half of them express each of two opinions, so be it. If there appear to be three or five competing views and some questions left unanswered, that’s what you report. You write what you get, instead of getting what you want to write.

The difficulty is that this places good reporting in the hands of the reporter as part of the process. Editors like to look for “objectivity” in the final product, which is supposed to look like what they ordered. Editors need to develop a drastically different idea of what a good article looks like. The key concern needs to cease being whether the article presents what the editor believes, and whether it does so by giving canned nods to two “sides” spaced equidistant from the editor’s position. Instead, the key concern needs to be whether the article honestly and accurately presents information that tells the editor something he or she did not know before. In exchange for mustering this sort of humility, editors would probably get to brag that their readership was skyrocketing.

Open-minded reporting is not the same as mindless reporting. The pretense that reporters have no opinions needs to be dropped as insulting to readers and damaging to reporting — and not dropped only by news anchors swearing their patriotic allegiance to whatever the President claims. Just as I wouldn’t vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee who claimed never to have given any thought to the major issues facing the court, I don’t want to read an article on environmental law by someone who claims never to have thought about the topic.

Of course, I want to be able to read about new events quickly and believe that the facts have been presented accurately and fairly, but I don’t want to see the contorted grammar and passive voice so often used to avoid expressing opinion, and I definitely don’t want to read “opposing” quotes that were too boring even for an editor.