Once again, Josh Marshall and his cohorts at Talking Points Memo have proven themselves the kings of the conceptual scoop. Something didn’t smell right about the bizarre disappearance of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and they stuck with the story until the rotting corpse was uncovered.
But the same can’t be said for many in the legacy press, who if they didn’t entirely swallow the “hiking the Appalachian Trail” story hook, line and sinker, seemed lazily happy to take the bait. TPM joyously outlines some of the most credulous coverage in respectable outlets such as Politico, NBC and the Wall Street Journal, but perhaps the most embarrassing “reporting” came from the pages of our nation’s political paper of record:
The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza — in a Tuesday morning post hilariously headlined “Sanford Returns!” — reported that Sanford “will return to the state tomorrow after spending the last five days hiking the Appalachian Trail, according to a statement released by his office this morning.”
In fact, the Post fell so hard for the Appalachian Trail line that they even ran a story — “For the Gov, A Little Me Time,” by reporter Will Haygood, highlighting the quirkiness of Sanford’s decision to “trek off into the woods,” without ever stopping to ask whether tale was true. For good measure, the story reported: “The governor, it should be noted, is quite happily married” — something it had no way of knowing.
But as TPM’s Zachary Roth explains, there’s a larger point here than just taunting the legacy press. “It’s fair to say you didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to think there might be something fishy going on here,” Roth wrote, yet the general lack of skepticism displayed by many in the mainstream press reveals a flaw in the medium itself.
None of these are the biggest crimes in the world, but still: It feels absurd to have to point this out, but politicians and their staffers frequently have reason to dissemble, about issues far more important than an extra-marital affair. Too often, though, the press treats public statements from elected officials’ offices — especially those purporting simply to provide information, like the Appalachian Trail line — as self-evidently accurate. It’s as if, despite everything, some in the press can’t quite bring themselves to believe that politicians might try to mislead people.
Part of this is structural. There’s almost no acceptable way for a mainstream reporter to explicitly tell readers that the information being put out by a powerful office-holder may be false or misleading. But the only way that this structural flaw will change is if individual reporters are willing to stick out their neck to change it.
Until then, people will read blog for stories like these.
HA is no TPM, and I’m no Josh Marshall (though both are certainly worthy of aspiration), but I do believe that some of my biggest contributions as a blogger, recognized or not, have come in a similar vein.
Yeah, I’ve broken my share of important stories, but I’m not a reporter in the traditional sense, in that I don’t get up every morning and pound a beat. Nor do I want to. Instead, like many bloggers, I mostly consume the reporting of others, looking for patterns they’ve missed or concepts they’ve misunderstood, attempting to fit the raw data of the daily news into a broader and, I hope, a more informative and engaging context. I’m not so much interested in reporting facts, as I am in uncovering the truth about the facts.
Some call this lazy. Whatever. Lazy or not, it still consumes the bulk of my waking day. And besides, it’s what bloggers like me do.
And it is this contribution to the public debate that is exactly what keeps readers coming back to blogs like mine.