“Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.”
One of the unanticipated benefits of the presidency of Donald Trump is that it has required the press to ask some difficult questions about how to cover the news. Simply repeating statements that are false, unproven, or badly misleading because of the status of the speaker is no longer acceptable. For thoughtful discussions of this I offer the following links in addition to the one above:
“The Death of He Said she Said Journalism” by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic Monthly
“’He Said She Said’ Journalism: Are We Done With That Yet” by Jay Rosen at the HuffPost
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the December 23 story by Wendy Liberatore that the Times Union was apparently so impressed with that they published it on their front page.
In her article Ms. Liberatore offers two opposing narratives to her readers. This is reflected right from the beginning of her article which described Mayor Kelly’s swearing in ceremony and the state of the city message.
The first narrative has the Mayor seeking to create an environment which is meant to create trust and collegiality in the interest of developing a working legislative body.
The other narrative, given the same status and credibility, presents Mayor Kelly as sharing the event because she is “weak” and an easy victim of manipulation by unnamed colleagues. The text uses terms like “abdication” and warns the reader of a mayor “ceding” her authority to the “senior members of the council.” Ms. Liberatore repeats the “critic’s” accusation that these same unnamed persons had spent years “repressing (Ms. Liberatore’s term) Joanne Yepsen” prior to Mayor Kelly’s election. This latter narrative is supported by quoting former mayor Ray Watkin [JK: Ms. Liberatore misspells Mr. Watkin’s name as Watkins].
The beginning of her piece:
Mayor Meg Kelly made it clear at her first state of the city address that she was unlike previous city leaders. After her message to the people, she stepped aside to allow each member of the City Council to give their own speech.
The unusual move was hailed by some as an olive branch to her fellow elected officials, who have been locked in a 3-2 divide on City Council for years. Ellen Kiehl, a member of the city’s Democratic Committee, said the gesture led to a governing body where “a high degree of comity and civility is on display.”
But critics of Kelly saw it as a gesture of abdication, a ceding of authority to the senior council members who spent years repressing Kelly’s predecessor Joanne Yepsen.
One former mayor, Ray Watkins [sic], said that it is an example of how she is not acting independently. “The council members are steering her actions, not the people,” he said.
Not that those of us who follow city politics do not know who the “critics” might be but it would have been helpful to know more specifically who she is referring to. I assume she is referring to the most zealous advocates of the city manager charter. I say “most zealous” because being in support of the city manager charter does not necessarily place you in a camp that attacks Mayor Meg Kelly. I do not presume to be a journalist but as a reader of the TU I would have liked to know more precisely who she is talking about.
Her story certainly begins dramatically. It may very well sell newspapers and generate lots of clicks on the Times Union website but no one should confuse this with quality journalism. To put this in context, see if you can imagine a story like this running in the New York Times or the Washington Post, or for a local example, the Daily Gazette.
By Ms. Liberatore’s standards it is unnecessary for Mr. Watkin to offer any evidence of his accusation. He is free to use the Times Union as his platform to make this kind of unsubstantiated attack.
In a similar vein Dr. Robert Turner, past chair of the 2017 Charter Review Commission, asserts, without any supporting evidence, that Mayor Kelly created her own 2018 Charter Review Commission in order to keep the supporters of the city manager option from putting their proposal up for referendum in the next election. The creation of the 2018 Charter Commission did delay Mr. Turner’s group and it is understandable that he should not be pleased but how does he know that she did it simply to frustrate his group? After all she publicly endorsed his proposal last year and even appeared on LookTV in support of it.
Someone named Anne Trainor is allowed to attack the mayor in even more lurid terms. She characterizes the mayor as “sneaky.” She accuses the mayor as having gone over to “the other side” [JK: In this Manichean world there are only two sides]. Ms. Liberatore allows Ms. Trainor to conjecture, “I think she must have felt bullied by the council.”
Later in the piece Ray Watkin asserts that the 2018 Charter proposal’s defeat “…was a referendum on her (Mayor Kelly’s) leadership.” One might have expected Ms. Liberatore to either not publish such a statement or at least ask Mr. Watkin how he determined that people who voted against the proposal did so to express their opposition to Mayor Kelly.
I know that the readers of this blog represent a broad spectrum. I speculate [JK: I am not a journalist] that whichever way they voted on the 2018 charter they did not do so to express their feelings about the mayor, one way or the other.
Mr. Watikin asserts that her actions were “undemocratic.” Maybe he was referring to the controversial make up of the mayor’s commission which was comprised of council members, their deputies, and the city attorney. Some in our community believed that it should have included people outside of our government. I don’t agree with this but it is a valid point that deserves consideration. Unfortunately this kind of issue oriented argument was not part of her article. It seems axiomatic that since the final decision was made by the voters in a referendum, Mayor Kelly can hardly be attacked for being undemocratic.
As if all of this was not enough. Ms. Liberatore goes on to quote Mr. Watkin as saying, “Evidently, someone got to her and she got frightened.” To Ms. Liberatore’s credit she does offer in the following paragraph that “It’s hard to imagine Kelly frightened.”
In December the City Council unanimously endorsed a resolution opposing the Saratoga Springs School Board’s decision to disarm it’s school monitors. Ms. Liberatore writes, “Barbara Thomas of the League of Women Voters told the mayor and the City Council that ‘It’s not appropriate to try to tell the school board that covers a much wider area than the city of Saratoga Springs what to do.’”
I know that some of my readers may consider me a nitpicker but I took the time to watch the video of the meeting in question. When Barbara Thomas spoke she did not identify herself as associated with the League of Women Voters. When I read Ms. Liberatore’s article I assumed, based on her attribution, that Ms. Thomas spoke on behalf of the League. In order to further her narrative about opposition to the mayor, the opposition of the League would be important which is clearly not the case. I would also note that as the children of Saratoga Springs attend the school district it seems more than a stretch to argue that the City Council should not take a position on the question.
It is important to point out that Ms. Liberatore’s article included voices that offered strong praise for the mayor as the opening paragraph above demonstrates. The issue here is that this does not absolve Ms. Liberatore of the problem with her standards of journalism. “He said/She said” is a problem because it provides a platform for unsubstantiated pronouncements that are not journalisticly appropriate.
Ms. Liberatore is a bright and thoughtful person. In her previous job as the arts reporter for the Daily Gazette she wrote many lively and informative pieces on theater, music, and dance which I very much enjoyed. This TU article was dramatic. I expect that was why the Times Union ran it on the front page of their Sunday edition. I am sure the electronic version got many clicks. Still this is tabloid journalism in the Rupert Murdoch tradition.
Ms. Liberatore, in the same article, informs her readers that Mayor Kelly declined to be interviewed for her article. It should come as no surprise to anyone, Ms. Liberatore in particular, that Mayor Kelly would refuse to participate in this kind of newspaper coverage.
In the end the most troubling product of this kind of article is the coarsening of public discourse. Most people in our community want a thoughtful discussion of public policy. Invective only serves to alienate them. One of the things Mayor Kelly has done at the City Council table is to put issues and civil discourse rather than animosity as a priority. It is all too easy humanly to want to defend oneself from attack. It is to the mayor’s credit that she has chosen not to engage in this kind of thing.
Ms. Liberatore and I exchanged a series of emails on her article. I will be reprinting and discussing them in my next post.