Even as . . .

Add this to your file of what’s wrong with newspaper coverage of presidential campaigns.

Today the Times reported that Hillary Cliinton beat Barack Obama in fundraising — in dollars and people. But they had to get in digs against — that’s what they call balance, you see — and they did it in this bullshit paragraph:

Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising success came even as some Democratic elected officials continue to have concerns about her electability and the possibility that a Clinton candidacy next November would drag down fellow candidates for Congressional and state races.

Name those Democratic elected officials, please. There’s nothing else in the story quoting these people. There are no links online to the stories that say that. There’s no particular reason given why that is relevant in this story. A lot of things are happening “even as” this is happening.

Now I’m trying to get away from blog-v-msm, but I do think that if a blogger wrote this same report, he would likely have said, “I’m still concerned about Hillary’s electablility. . . .” And that where this really came from: the reporter or editor wanting to throw in that dig, believing it’s balance or just not wanting to give Hillary a positive story. So they hide behind those phrases: “even as . . .” and “some officials have . . .”

And then there’s this sentence:

Few analysts or Democratic officials predicted it, and several of them said yesterday that there was new pressure on him — and another top contender, former Senator John Edwards — to compete more aggressively with Mrs. Clinton.

Well, duh. What does that tell us that we couldn’t quite easily figure out ourselves?

And in the end, of course, none of this is about issues or doing the job of president. It’s a horse race story.

: By the way, I wonder why this story was suitable for over-the-fold treatment on page one of the Times but I couldn’t find it on the home page online and it wasn’t even above the fold on the politics page.

: Oh and about that electability, see this from the latest Washington Post poll, which shows stunning results for Clinton:

Despite rivals’ efforts to portray her as too polarizing to win the general election, a clear majority of those surveyed, 57 percent, said Clinton is the Democratic candidate with the best chance on Nov. 4, 2008. The percentage saying Clinton has the best shot at winning is up 14 points since June. By contrast, 20 percent think Edwards is most electable and 16 percent think Obama is, numbers that represent a huge blow to the “electability” argument rivals have sought to use against her.

  • http://chinesepod.com Ken Carroll

    Well observed, Jeff, but haven’t you noticed how they do the same thing, almost as a matter of course, when writing about conservatives?

  • http://www.thefutureofnews.com Steve Boriss

    Jeff, It’s time for all of us to give up on the myth that any newspaper can or should be unbiased. It’s just a formula for frustration. Bring on the competition and let news outlets pick their bias and slug it out, as they have throughout history except for the last, aberrant 80 years. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • http://scripting.com/ Dave Winer

    They may not be unbiased, but they could try a bit harder to serve their readers.

  • http://www.musicthing.co.uk/ Tom

    The thing I hate isn’t the bias or the sourcing, it’s the horrible artificial voice. A blogger would say “I’m still concerned” as would any other human being. What kind of person says “came even as” or “officials continue to have concerns”? It’s this bizarre formula-writing, like a child pretending they’re a grown-up newspaper writer.

  • http://www.thefutureofnews.com Steve Boriss

    Dave Winer, If this is the type of shallow and transparent bias NY Times readers want, let the Times serve their needs. If it isn’t, let a competitor steal their business. Perhaps that’s what Rupert Murdoch has in mind for the WSJ. And if so, we might all want to root for him. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    It is not the phony balance that irks me, it is the blind sourcing. If the sentence had read “…some Democratic elected officials…” such as Sen XXXXX and Rep XXXXX “…continue to have concerns about her electability…” the insertion of the “even as” caveat would not have been troublesome.

    I agree with Jarvis: name those officials please. The New York Times is supposed to insist that its reporters explain why they using unnamed sources when they do so. This example smells suspiciously as if those elected officials exist most vividly in the reporter’s imagination.

  • Marco Lugon

    I agree with Steve Boriss; people have so little historical perspective on news/newspapers, they should stop pretending that they’re ‘objective’ and go back to their roots of openly supporting certain issues/parties.

    As for Rupert, he’s a businessman before he’s a liberal/conservative, his media outlets will take whatever perspective makes him more money, no shame in that, unless there is shame in giving people what they want.

    For those who beleive that Newpapers should ‘challenge people’ or ‘strive to enlighten/educate people'; I ask, says who???

    … and lastly, as Jeff points out … what is this story doing so prominently placed? It’s pure drivel; write a real story or don’t write one at all.

  • http://clearcastdigitalmedia.com Matthew Chamberlin

    Good point, Jeff. That caught my attention this morning, too, even though I had to rush through the paper since the whole house had badly overslept.

    Would it KILL them to attribute an observation like that? Expand on it? Prove it? It is the worst kind of lazy “reporting.” It seems as if “balance” has been reduced to offering up often unattributed opposing views, seemingly by rote. To my mind, the assertion that she has no coat tails would be interesting to explore. How is it even knowable?

    I don’t pretend to know the answer to this but is is POSSIBLE that opinions are taking shape at this early date re: the Dem nominees and perhaps voters are becoming comfortable with Mrs. Clinton? Just a question…

  • http://deleted Tansley – addendum

    They don’t attribute the observation because they CAN’T, and we all know it. This isn’t some ‘observation’ made by ‘officials,’…this is the writer responding to pressure from higher-up in the organization to put a SLANT on the story, pure and simple. There are still a lot of people who have doubts about the electability of a woman, let alone the electability of Hillary Clinton, and they’re trying to stack the deck.

    The pathetically transparent attempts like this one are easy to spot, fortunately. Let’s not forget, however, that Karl Rove is still swimming around out there, ostensibly ‘retired’…yet always HUNGRY…

  • http://www.graphicsplus.info Greg0658

    thats funny Jeff – as I was reading your blog I was thinking how Barack gets the same play on purport

    I’m thinking Sting’s words play out in this election – ‘you find your servant is your master’

    pick the right one msm & sorry wall street

  • http://www.cabearie.blogspot.com Ruth

    True, Jeff, ‘they say’ is still the basic approach to take when no one gives you the line you really believe in. In Hillary’s case, I get the oilmen jokes in the office alla time, and from the proliferation of that kind of whispering campaign against her, she really really scares them. No doubt that makes for a lot of pressure on their friends in the press.

  • Brian O’Connell

    All news stories are fictional in that the reporter writes about a world in which the reporter doesn’t exist. They’re taught to write like that in j-schools. But once you’re in the habit of writing that in that kind of abstract formalism, in which many facts concerning a story are deliberately suppressed, it becomes easier for many other fictions to creep in.

    It reminds me of those old movies and radio shows where everyone talked in that stilted, artificial way that you occasionally see being made fun of today. News seems to be the only part of the mass media where the natural voice is not yet welcome. That’s a big reason why blogs are the breath of fresh air that they are.

  • Justin Chan

    Perhaps these are the Democratic elected officials who have concerns about Clinton’s electability, as per this LATimes story linked to from Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-na-montana30sep30,0,1392485.story?coll=la-home-center

    Yep, the Times should’ve named names or at least linked to such a story.

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    In a Washington Post story about NBC boss Jeff Zucker’s speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today, appears this curious paragraph:

    So today Zucker visits Washington to address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ask lawmakers for tougher penalties for music and video pirates, to keep consumers from pirating copies of “Heroes” and the rest of his shows. Zucker is not asking lawmakers for economic relief to offset industry losses attributed to piracy.

    Please explain the last sentence in that graph? It just hangs out there as a non-sequitur, waiting to either be followed or refuted by something.

    Since this was a “advancer” story, the reporter doubtless got the information from Zucker’s people, who wanted to spin Zucker’s position as the lesser of two evils.

    Is this our job?

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    Justin — thanks for the link to Noam Levey’s LAT article. The only trouble with the link is that it faiuls to refer to any “Democratic elected officials” who are worried about Rodham Clinton’s lack of coattails. Pollsters, operatives, candidates maybe but no officeholding Democrat. The closest to an anti-Hillary soundbite was from Gov Brian Schweitzer (D-MT): “He also champions gun rights and coal — a major Montana export — positions that reflect clear differences from the Democratic Party’s coastal wings.” And that really does not count.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    C’mon folks, do you really think this was made-up? The reason nobody is named is blindingly obvious – IT MAKES THE PERSON A TARGET!

    No sane Democratic elected official is going to want to be quoted saying negative things about the party’s top fund-raiser and potential Presidential nominee, unless they’ve got some agenda that makes it worth it to take that hit of putting themselves out there as the lightning-rod.

    To absolutely insist such a statement must have an on-the-record attribution leads to an absurdity that serves nobody except for rewarding the ability of the powerful to intimidate people.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    Perhaps we should be focusing on why the US now has a permanent election cycle. More rational countries restrict campaigns to a couple of months (at most) before the election.

    This would allow elected officials to do their jobs instead of posturing all the time. Obama has missed many votes as he runs around the country raising money. Another approach would be to require anyone running for a new office to resign from the old one first. If you want to spend all your effort on getting elected then at least be honest about it and take your chances. At a minimum it will show your commitment. Hedging your bets doesn’t give a good impression for someone claiming to want to be president.

    Speaking of which, how about reforming this aspect of elections as well? The amount of money needed to run for office has gotten so large that only the wealthy or those beholding to the wealthy can afford to run. This is not a good thing for a true democracy where people of all stations in life should be able to get elected. Is it any wonder that policies have favored the wealthy over the past 40 years?

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  • http://www.graphicsplus.info Greg0658

    The games that play on the floor of both houses – I would favor a secretary of the Representative to be able to cast the vote.

    I can hear the outcry – this person did not vote the Reps wishes – well what else is new.

  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    Finkelstein — my understanding of The New York Times’ house style is that it would require the following formulation in order to address your concern:

    “…Mrs Clinton’s fundraising success came even as some Democratic elected officials, who were so intimidated by the frontrunner’s clout that they feared saying anything negative about her on the record lest they become a lightning rod for retaliation, continue to have concerns about her electability…”

  • Steve Gorelick

    Let me ask this as a serious question, because reading the passage has left me too dumbfounded to think of anything witty or snide:

    Is there any more fundamental J-School orthodoxy, or for that matter, any more basic rule of high-school composition, than the prohibition against weasel talk?

    I really thought that slipping unsourced wisdom into stories and crediting the all-knowing and ever useful “some” was so scorned that reporters would be embarrassed to try it.

    Apparently that’s not the case. I just looked at a few newspapers and realize that it is still alive and well, albeit done more subtly than the nonsense about Hilary you cite.

    It reminds me of a (now) funny story from grad school. Early on I turned in a paper to a great professor who I desperately wanted to impress. Like many a young aspiring PhD, I threw in an s-load of weasel talk that, 25 years ago, was what I thought passed for gravitas. I pumped that SOB so full of the passive voice that you couldn’t tell who I was, what I was saying, who the sources were, or any damn thing about anything. I might as well have simply written two words on the page like “some say” and ended it right there.

    Her written comments were so brutal that, out of embarrassment, I never looked at her again.

    Looking back, I owe her as much as any teacher I ever had. By nailing my behind to the wall and reigning in an already over-developed bullshit artist, she forever made me wary of passive and weak language that hides or obscures or tries to finesse truth.

    I had a relative who always attributed the supposed efficacy of folk remedies to “they.” “They” was brilliant because “they” had a depth of knowledge that allowed “they” to endorse almost anything.

    And now “they” is alive and well in the paper of record.

    Oy.

  • Guy Love

    I am so sick of the horse race mentality of the traditional media. The first election in the first primary has not even occured and they act as if Hillary is a foregone conclusion to be the next president based on fund raising, polls, rumors, and wishful thinking. It is painful to watch them treat the Clintons like groupies who adore their favorite rock stars. The New York Times article is a drop in the ocean for this type of behavior.

    The Clintons easily get several hundreds of millions of free positive publicity 24 / 7 by the NY / DC news organizations. It is pathetic. Even with that being the case, the voters may pick some one else, so why won’t the media take a break from playing king maker and let the public decide on who they want to be the next president. I truly believe most people see through this stuff and are quite annoyed by the media’s behavior when it comes to elections.

  • H. Browning

    well, i may be the distinct minority of one here but i have to disagree. i think the times’ piece is fine. you guys really spent an awful lot of time ripping – quite unfairly, imho.