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The Republican War on Journalism

Robert Niles
Published: August 30, 2012 at 2:04 PM (MST)
What's the point of journalism? Reporters and editors ought to ask themselves that question before publishing another story about this year's U.S. Presidential campaign.

Hey, politicians have been lying since long before any of us were born. Elected officials lie to protect soldiers and spies in harm's way. Candidates twist and spin facts to win votes. This isn't new. But, in the past, when writers catch a politician in a lie - when they present actual, physical evidence that what a candidate or elected official said is not true - that politician almost always backed off, at the very least by changing the subject and pretending he or she never said anything wrong.

But that's not what's happening with Mitt Romney's campaign for president this year. Writers have caught in Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, in multiple lies about welfare, lies about Medicare, and even a lie about the closing of a GM plant in Ryan's Congressional district in Wisconsin (same link).

Instead of acknowledging the errors, or just dropping the attacks, the Republicans have doubled down, repeating the same lines in speech after speech, and ordering more runs of television ads repeating their lies. A Romney campaign official said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

So what's the point of journalism, then? Is it to provide a stenography service - to dutifully report what people say, then stay out of the way? Or is it to report truth, using research skills to flag lies and false statements for readers?

Because if the point of journalism is to tell truth, then journalists have no excuse for using the simplest, clearest language possible to call out Romney and Ryan.

This isn't a case of "misstatements" or "false information." Both Romney and Ryan, and their campaign officials, know that these statements are false. Yet they're repeating them anyway, and building their campaign around them. That's lying, pure and simple. And it's conscious, unrepentant lying in an attempt to gain power - the highest elected offices in the country.

Unfortunately, for too many people in business of journalism, reporting doesn't mean investigating facts to find the truth, it means cultivating access to powerful sources who will reward them with leaks and interviews. These publications rarely challenge these sources, because that might cost their reporters that access.

Journalists grew hesitant to call sides in political battles when newspapers had monopolies in their local communities, meaning that their reporters had the loudest voice in town. That's easy to understand. But Romney's brazen lies takes neutrality off the table for news reporters. Either you challenge Romney and Ryan to defend the truth, or you stand aside, copy and paste their quotes, and abet their lying with your silence.

If so, then what's the point of journalism?

If it is, instead, to spread truth, then it's not enough to call out Romney and Ryan. Faithful reporters need to call out other writers whose reporting stands in the way of truth, too. Whether they're active participants in lying, such as Fox News, or passive enablers, such as the editors at Politico and reporters from other papers who have verbally contorted themselves to avoid the "L" word, people spreading lies are as bad for the truth as the people who started them.

Taking a partisan stand in defense of the truth should not be a problem for ethical journalists. Denying the truth in defense of partisanship - that is the problem. As is denying the truth in defense of an impossible neutrality. If journalists want to promote truth-telling, then not only do they have to call out lies and liars, they've got to find ways to convince their readers to punish candidates who lie repeatedly and without remorse.

What's the point of journalism? If it is to protect the truth, then this is a moment when journalism must set aside its ideals of political neutrality, and instead take a strong partisan stand. If journalism is to protect the truth, it must work to defeat the unrepentant liars, Romney and Ryan.

Robert Niles also can be found at

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