Way back in July, days after the signature deadline, I predicted that “I-912 will fail, if the media does its job.”
I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to see the anti-roads initiative, I-912, turn in 420,000 signatures on Friday. Barring historically massive signature fraud the measure will surely qualify for the November ballot. But I will not join the gloom-and-doom coming from some opponents, for its passage is no sure thing, and there is an attainable strategy towards defeating I-912: the media must simply do its job.
I don’t mean that it is the media’s job to defeat I-912… I mean that their job is telling voters the truth about what the transportation package means to their local communities. It will take a lot of work and a lot of research, but it’s their responsibility as journalists. And if voters across the state understand exactly what their communities will lose if the transportation package is repealed, then I-912 stands a reasonable chance of being defeated.
Well… I-912 did fail, and much of the credit should go to my friends in the MSM, whose coverage was somewhat less thorough than I had hoped for, but considerably more than I had expected. While reporters generally eschewed the emotional angle I had urged, they also avoided relying on the usual political horse race schtick, and in many cases did an admirable job of laying out the facts behind the gas tax increase and what it paid for. Meanwhile, editorial boards throughout the state nearly unanimously opposed the initiative, and were not shy about repeating themselves during the months and weeks leading up to the election.
But no editorial board was more relentless than that of the Seattle P-I, who embraced a Hearst-like crusade against the initiative, publishing daily “no on I-912” editorials during the final two weeks of the campaign. While it can be difficult to measure the effect of editorial endorsements, there can be no question that the P-I had an impact in King County, where the initiative failed by a stunning 33 percent margin.
The P-I should be unabashedly proud of their efforts, but the crusade seemed to have sparked a little crisis of conscience for editorial page editor Mark Trahant, who asks today, “which is a higher journalism value, fairness or truth?”
I start with fairness as a given; it’s deeply embedded in my character. I want to play fair. I often seek dissent or give weight to opinions that challenge what we’ve written in an editorial. In general, the voice of dissent helps me understand my own arguments.
But is that always the right approach — especially when it comes to opinion?
My thinking evolved during this election. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Editorial Board decided to crusade against I-912. We wrote daily “no on I-912” editorials beginning Oct. 23, outlining why we thought the measure was a terrible idea. We tried to keep our readers’ attention focused on this issue.
We did print letters from readers who disagreed with us and printed a couple of opposing views on the Op-Ed pages. But not many. The fact is we were not, strictly, fair. We had an opinion — a strong one at that — that was repeated daily, and countered by faint balance.
I think we did the right thing. It’s also worth remembering that when we started the daily “no,” we thought — at least most of us — that it was a done deal. We had no doubt that the supporters were getting their message out to the public. In fact, we expected voters to pass I-912 easily.
In fact, voters defeated I-912 easily, and part of the reason why is that the P-I did indeed do the right thing.
Trahant goes on to discuss global warming, and the way overwhelming scientific consensus is often overwhelmed in an MSM, that in the interest of fairness and balance, employs a kind of he-said/she-said methodology that tends to give equal weight to dissent, no matter how marginal.
The story becomes one of conflict. The scientists said this, while the critics said that. The conflict overwhelms the research, reducing it to a sentence or two, reported without context.
Perhaps fairness (or what passes for fairness) wins. But what about the truth?
Too often the truth is lost to a tried and true PR strategy that exploits the MSM’s lazy love affair with balance, to create the impression of debate where none exists. This is the strategy the tobacco industry followed for decades, to absurd extremes, producing fake science to refute the obvious dangers of smoking. And this is exactly the strategy that The Discovery Institute has brilliantly executed in their astoundingly successful efforts to use theocratic quackery like “intelligent design” to not only publicly challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting evolution, but as a wedge to undermine the scientific method itself.
It is the MSM’s feigned and futile “objectivity” that is often it’s greatest weakness. It is a weakness that sometimes gives credence to outright lies, in a misguided effort to equally present all sides of an issue. But some sides are simply more credible than others.
Trahant concludes that “the highest journalism value must be truth,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur, but without the same degree of self-reflection… for while I make every effort to be truthful, I have never once claimed to be either fare or balanced.
That of course, is the advantage us bloggers have over traditional journalists. I wear my bias on my sleeve, present the facts as I see them, cite my sources, and then leave it to the reader to make up his or her mind. There is a context to everything I write on HA… that of an aggressively liberal blogger with a distinct political agenda. Those who whine in my comment threads about my lack of objectivity or my refusal to cover Democratic foibles with the same vigor that I cover those of Republicans… are pissing into the wind. It’s not my job to provide balanced news coverage. Indeed, the only balance you should ever expect from me is that with which I countervail my counterparts on the right.
As to Trahant and the rest of the “real” journalists out there, admittedly, they’ve got a much tougher job. And many of them deserve some kudos for performing it so well during their coverage of I-912.