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Line between reporting and editorializing continue to blur

September 12, 2000

Have we had enough coverage of George W. Bush’s vulgar comment about New York Times reporter Adam Clymer? For a while there, it seemed impossible to turn on the tube without hearing a bleeped version of the candidate’s one-line outburst into an open mike. But with all the attention, few journalists bothered to address the substance of the issue raised by the naughty word: Does Bush have a legitimate beef about Clymer’s reporting? Mickey Kaus thinks he does. Kaus is a reconstructed liberal (he calls the unreconstructed, reactionary kind “paleo-liberals”). He is also one of the sharpest and most entertaining of the Internet commentators ( Kaus raised the issue of Clymer’s bias on his own, a week before Bush’s remark.

In the Times’ news columns, Clymer had reviewed a Bush TV ad on prescription drugs, calling it “flat wrong in essential elements” and giving it a “zero” score for accuracy. Clymer also told his readers, “Bush does not have a prescription drug plan” (not “Bush hasn’t yet put forward a drug plan,” just a flat statement that Bush doesn’t have one, which turned out to be untrue — Bush had a plan and has since announced it). Kaus reviewed Clymer’s review, calling it “heavily biased against Bush,” and giving it a “poor” rating for accuracy.

Clymer’s assessment of the Republican ad raises an interesting question of journalistic ethics. Should a reporter who is covering a candidate (objectively, let’s say) get into the subjective business of judging the fairness of his political ads? Shouldn’t this be done on the opinion pages by someone else?

Clymer put a lot of attitude into his reports on Dick Cheney’s charitable giving. Over a decade, Cheney reported $209,832 in direct charitable contributions on an adjusted gross income of nearly $21 million — or about 1 percent a year. This isn’t very much. In other media coverage, reporters just listed the facts and let readers and viewers draw their own conclusions. But Clymer felt compelled to badger the candidate: “Asked if he considered that level ‘generous,’ Mr. Cheney replied, ‘I answered your question.’ When a reporter, noting that he is a multimillionaire, asked him, ‘What do you think is a proper level of giving for someone who has millions of dollars, in terms of percentage?’ he replied, ‘I think that’s a choice that individuals have to make …'”

Any sensible copy editor would wince at this stuff and strike it out. Nobody cares whether Adam Clymer thinks Cheney is a cheapskate. Just give us the facts and get out of the way.

Another Internet commentator, Doug Thompson of Capitol Hill Blue, says Bush’s low opinion of Clymer is understandable, since Clymer “has written nonstop about what he sees as Bush’s failings as governor of Texas.” That’s a fair comment, too. One of Clymer’s Page One reports began: “Texas has had one of the nation’s worst public health records for decades. More than a quarter of its residents have no health insurance. Its Mexican border is a hotbed of contagion.” Another Clymer report began: “For all its focus on a nicer, blander image, there is one thing the Bush campaign wants to be negative about — negative campaigning from the other side.”

This kind of writing makes a lot of reporters uncomfortable, to say the least. To me it doesn’t sound like straightforward reporting. It sounds like loud, table-pounding argument in some saloon. Kaus writes of Clymer: “He seems so convinced that all civilized men would agree with him that he doesn’t really bother to hide his viewpoint, which may be why his language is jarringly self-confident and strident.”

There’s another obvious reason why so many reporters don’t bother to hide their viewpoints and political leanings. The gap between editorials and allegedly objective reporting is no longer very large. Many people in the journalism business now think objectivity is an illusion. They think everything is subjective, so instead of papering over or suppressing their opinions, reporters should just come right out and infuse their reporting with what they think is true.

I don’t think Adam Clymer wakes up each morning thinking up new ways to do the Republicans in. But I think he believes that Republican ticket is a disaster and he isn’t shy about letting us know. His political opinions can easily be figured out from his reporting (and from his fawning biography of Ted Kennedy).

The sad truth is that analytical reporting is fusing with ordinary opinion-mongering. Much of what appears on Page One now seems like editorializing lightly disguised as reporting. Crusty old-timers (including myself and some of the editors and reporters I worked with when I was on the Times) do not much like this trend. We think that if readers can easily deduce a reporter’s political or cultural prejudices by reading five or six of his or her articles, an alarm bell should go off in the heads of editors. Then the reporter probably should be gently shipped over to the editorial page or urged to take up some less demanding kind of work. But newsroom trends currently are heading in the opposite direction, so don’t expect this soon.

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