Digital Journalism is Destroying Accuracy for the Sake of Being Fast and First

This week marks two new low points in journalism. As we’ve reported over the last couple of days, they are, 1) Glenn Greenwald’s effort to conflate malicious hackers with political activism via a leaked Snowden document, and 2) the broadly misreported analysis of the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) report on the economic impact of the Affordable Care Act.

Regarding the latter, nearly every major online publication reported that Obamacare would cost the economy more than two million jobs over the next ten years. Nearly all of them. As of this writing, very few have corrected their headlines, while others changed the wording but preserved the overall panic-inducing idea that the ACA is a jobs killer.

The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza, whose CBO article was titled “The worst headline for Democrats this year,” defended his headline yesterday, explaining that he was merely reporting on how the Republicans would use the CBO’s (distorted) findings against the Democrats in the midterms. In his original post from Tuesday Cillizza went so far as to write up a mock GOP campaign commercial.

Close your eyes for a minute and fast forward to October. And imagine yourself sitting in a Charlotte hotel room watching TV. And this ad comes on: “Kay Hagan voted for Obamacare, a law whose rollout was so botched that a million people decided to not even sign up for health coverage. And the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says Obamacare will cost America 2 million jobs. Kay Hagan voted wrong. Now it’s time to vote her out.” That’s a VERY tough hit on any Democratic incumbent who voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Cute.

Cillizza’s mea culpa is yet another variation of Chuck Todd’s notorious remarks about how it’s not his job to correct the GOP’s talking points about the ACA.

To repeat: the truth is that the ACA will allow many Americans to work fewer hours while retaining their coverage; it will allow people to quit their jobs to find better ones or to start up new businesses and so forth.

On top of all of that, the CBO’s director Doug Elmendorf told Congress yesterday that the ACA will reduce unemployment. The CBO report indicated that the ACA will increase “overall demand for goods and services over the next few years” and this boost “will in turn boost demand for labor over the next few years.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) asked Elmendorf to confirm whether this means the unemployment rate will go down. Elmendorf’s reply:

“Yes, that’s right,” Elmendorf said.

Elmendorf added that the factor Van Hollen had identified was something CBO thinks “spurs employment and would reduce unemployment over the next few years.”

So the Republican meme that the ACA is a “job killing health care law” has been once again debunked.

Back to original mass screw-up. It was symptomatic of a press that’s too focused on being first over being right, driven by the hyperspeed flailing of the internet and social media, which subsequently spreads misinformation and outrage like the Ebola virus.

The other side of the coin is how political journalism is too often focused on merely reflecting how people are reacting, however falsely, to news rather than explaining the truth. This is how, in 2012, Mitt Romney was able to repeatedly get away with accusing President Obama of “doubling the deficit,” when he, in fact, has significantly reduced it. The political press busily repeated the accusation, while speculating about how the Obama campaign would react and how that reaction would impact the polls rather than simply saying, “No. That’s not true.”

Fast forward to this week when, instead of telling us the truth, Cillizza, Chuck Todd and Luke Russert, among others, told us how the (entirely false) news from the CBO report would be exploited by the Republicans. This lends legitimacy to the misreported story while short-attention span readers on Twitter and elsewhere very likely took it as a confirmation of the misinformation.

I can’t say this enough: we’re at a potentially dangerous crossroads in American journalism. Digital journalism has the potential to greatly benefit the American debate, or it will derail it. I’m afraid we’re witnessing the latter — today, in real time.

Whether or not you happen to be in the business of digital journalism, I urge you to (re)watch the great 1994 Ron Howard movie The Paper. The salient lesson of the movie, for news reporting at least, is that there’s a temptation to run what’s expedient rather than what’s accurate. Michael Keaton’s metro-editor character tenaciously pursued the truth about two teenagers who were wrongly accused of gunning down a pair of mobsters. During the climax of the movie he even “stopped the presses” (“Ya’ gotta say it!”) in order to prevent the publishing of a ridiculous “Gotcha!” headline about the arrest of the teens.

There needs to be more of that. In the digital age, there needs to be more of a willingness to lose a few hits or be second or third on a story in the pursuit of accuracy. Being first and attracting a lot of views are noble goals for sure, but never at the expense of the truth.

  • waspuppet

    Does anyone else see the enormous tell here?

    “Close your eyes for a minute and fast forward to October. And imagine
    yourself sitting in a Charlotte hotel room watching TV. And this ad
    comes on:”

    If I’m an actual North Carolina resident and voter, I’m not staying in a hotel room in Charlotte – I already live there. And if I live in NC, but far enough away that Charlotte is a weekend-getaway destination, I’m not sitting in the hotel room watching TV – I’m out and about, vacationing.

    The only people who are going to do what Chris Cilizza is describing is Chris Cilizza and his ilk. He’s saying that the ad that he made up is going to be very effective among DC-based political reporters.

    He’s so deeply mired in this worldview that he doesn’t even realize how deep he’s mired in it.

  • Gunnut2600

    This is a joke right? Seriously…this is all a joke?

    If anyone for a moment thinks there was a time when journalists in America cared about “getting it right” over being first or pushing their own agenda…please read a fucking history book. The “Newsroom” is fantasy fiction people.

    If anything, its better now than it was during Hearst’s days as there are many more sources of content than ever before. There are no longer any sacred cows. No Uncle Walter, telling America what to think.

    Is it annoying to see blatantly wrong stories and headlines sweep through like wild fire? Yes. Is now the only time this ever occurred…fuck no. Only difference now is that information is more easily accessed to validate or invalidate a story.

  • Badgerite

    Did anyone notice that the Russians intercepted and published phone calls of two American diplomats discussing the public protests going on in the Ukraine and used it to try to discredit the protesters? Snowden’s Russia. Greenwald and Assange’s idea as to how the world should work when it is ‘tranparent’.

  • Trulyunbelievable2020

    December 14, 2013: The Daily Banter publishes a short piece entitled “Anonymous Targets Japanese Government Over Dolphin Killings” (http://thedailybanter.com/2013/11/anonymous-targets-japanese-government-over-dolphin-killings/)

    The piece begins with a brief, emotionally tinged account of the suffering of dolphins: “The highly intelligent, self aware creatures can hear family members being brutalized while they try to escape their own death, creating a horrific scene of emotional and physical violence.”

    It then casts Anonymous’ response as a natural reaction to Japanese inaction: “Given the Japanese government won’t do anything to stop the slaughter, the hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ has decided to throw its might behind the cause, releasing the following warning.”

    Not only does the piece describe Anonymous as a “hacktivist group,” it also doesn’t include a single line that could even be construed as criticizing Anonymous.

    Verdict: Business as usual at The Daily Banter.

    Feb. 5, 2014: NBC publishes a story entitled “War on Anonymous: British Spies Attacked Hackers, Snowden Docs Show (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/war-anonymous-british-spies-attacked-hackers-snowden-docs-show-n21361)

    The article describes a range of reactions to Anonymous, including both sympathetic and critical voices. It also includes several details that clearly don’t cast Anonymous in a positive light. Like the Daily Banter piece—and hundreds, if not thousands, of earlier reports in other media outlets—it describes Anonymous as a “hacktivist” collective.

    Verdict: “A new low in journalism” that “conflate[s]malicious hackers with political activism!”

    The difference: The first story was written by Ben Cohen,who we all know is a good guy. The second was written by, among others, Glenn Greenwald, who we all know is a no-good rascal and a poor reporter.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      We’re not a hive mind here. I didn’t write the dolphin story. Nice try, though, and thanks for all the clicks.

  • Trulyunbelievable2020

    “…1) Glenn Greenwald’s effort to conflate malicious hackers with political activism via a leaked Snowden document”

    I wrote a comment in the article on this, but I’m not sure if anyone is still discussing that one. I’ll briefly restate the central point:

    Describing Anonymous as “hacktivists” is not “conflating malicious hackers with political activism,” since that is precisely what Anonymous is: it is a collective that, among other things, uses hacking as tool for activism.

    Nor is Greenwald the first person to point out that Anonymous includes hackers who use their skills to advance an activist agenda. Many, many people have described Anonymous as a “hacktivist” movement, since that’s a very accurate term. Such descriptions are value-neutral. Calling the members of Anonymous “hacktivists” in no sense signals approval or a desire to “ennoble” the movement. I happen to disagree with Anonymous’ goals and tactics in many, many cases, but I have absolutely no problem calling them “hacktivists.”

    I fail to see how the article in question proves your point about digital journalism in any sense.

    • Trulyunbelievable2020

      A far better example of the problem that you’re discussing would be this posting by your very own Ben Cohen: “http://thedailybanter.com/2014/01/russian-youth-poll-shows-hitler-more-popular-than-vladimir-putin/”

      Cohen presented a completely meaningless voluntary-response survey that popped up on a Russian social network as if it were an actual authoritative poll conducted by a media network. In a comment to the story, he admitted that all that he speaks no Russian and that all of the information that he had on organization in question and the poll came from Wikipedia and a link from Mark Ames, “a highly respected journalist particularly when it comes to Russia.”

  • raina

    It’s not only that- being first at the expense of accuracy, but also that some reporting by so-called journalists…cough…Greenwald…cough…are taken as fact, with no push-back in the MSM on their misrepresentations, exaggerations, etc, and also the kid-glove treatment of Greenwald and other reporters who are pro-Snowden, as well as Snowden himself. Lara Logan, as mentioned, and also Judith Miller are two reasons why you can’t take everything a journalist reports unquestioningly.

  • CygnusX1isaHole

    “…So the Republican meme that the ACA is a “job killing health care law” has been once again debunked.”

    ————-

    With this statement you’re making a sizable contribution to the inaccuracy of digital journalism.

    What’s being debated between D and R media loyalists is the content of the CBO report.

    We won’t know until 2021 whether or not the CBO was correct in their analysis.

    The CBO releases estimates regularly. Some turn out to be correct. Some don’t. As WSWS reported: “Previous CBO estimates placed the labor force impact of the ACA at around 800,000 during this timeframe”.

    Therefore to state that claims that the ACA will be “a job killing health care law” have been “debunked” because the current CBO analysis projects otherwise is a deceptively inaccurate claim.

    The CBO report is an estimate based on projected data, not prophecy guaranteed by contract.

    • JozefAL

      Now, blackhole, why don’t you send your comment, highlighting the last sentence, to all the Rs who are CURRENTLY using that analysis as though it’s fulfilled prophecy?

    • Sabyen91

      The right used it as proof of it being “a job killing health care law”. That has been debunked. Now they have to scramble for other lies to use.

      • CygnusX1isaHole

        Can you explain exactly how you know that the CBO’s estimate for 2021 will be accurate?

        Are you a psychic? Do you have a time machine? Do you ascribe other worldly powers to the people at the CBO?

        For example: The consensus for jobs created for the month of January was 180,000. Instead, it was announced this morning that only 113,000 jobs were created. Estimates are often grossly inaccurate (even short term monthly estimates)!

        Reports from the CBO are not stone tablets from God carried down from a mountain by prophets.

        I was merely correcting Cesca for inaccurately conflating the issue of the wording of the CBO report with the claim that the report is proof that the ACA will have a positive impact on jobs.

    • gescove

      Republicans are not “debating the contents of CBO report”. They are deliberately mischaracterizing the contents of the report to score political points. As Bob points out, Republicans have always framed their criticism of the ACA as a supposed jobs-killing bill. Now they are twisting the CBO’s estimated drop in the labor participation rate by pretending it is the equivalent of a drop in businesses’ demand for labor. It is clear you do not understand this distinction. Regardless, this Republican attack is an outright lie and was thoroughly debunked in testimony by budget office director Douglas Elmendorf before the House Budget Committee. In fact, the CBO report estimates an increase in employment. That this Republican lie has any traction at all is due to the malfeasance of our press. Your claim that this is somehow a debate between “loyalists” (crypto-code for a “he said/she said” argument between hyper-partisans) is ludicrous.

      • villemar

        Cygnus will always side against anything with a -D attached to it or associated with it. The issues are irrelevant to him. Like his hero GG; his sole and exclusive ideology is to destroy the Democratic Party and anything and anyone even tangentially associated with it; any idea, any concept even vaguely associated with Democratic principles.

    • nathkatun7

      WTF do you mean by “prophecy guaranteed by contract…”?

  • i_a_c

    Chris Cillizza used to be one of the decent guys out there in the beltway world. But it seems to me that the more time a journalist spends on TV, the more likely he or she is to spout non-analysis and rightwing talking points disguised as conventional wisdom. Same thing happened to Ezra Klein.

    • Churchlady320

      It’s all a CYA move to ‘prove’ they are not favoring Obama. If you have to point out things in GOP terms, then you are not a reporter but a shill. What happened to the bold reporters who did not care what anyone thought? I have a hard time thinking those at MSNBC are threatened when the night team pretty much speaks factually. So it’s a choice the lesser lights are making about pretending this sort of thing makes them ‘objective’ and trustworthy with conservatives. It doesn’t. They need to stop.

  • missliberties

    I think the Cesca Army should call, tweet and e-mail Mr. C about his insanely bad reporting. Get a clue buddy.

    The stupidity it burns and is so infuriating considering how much is at stake. But golly, it sets up the ‘big showdown’ D vs R in elections, and how will they D’s respond!! More delicious newsie goodness for Caliz to report on. So there is that.

  • muselet

    I agree that news outlets are far too invested in being first rather than being right. It makes for terrible, mistake-riddled reporting that does no one any good.

    However (you knew there was one of those, didn’t you?), to my mind, this is mostly symptomatic of a press that is not only—as Josh Marshall says—wired for Republicans (that is, takes Rs more seriously than Ds, even when doing so is not justified), but is also lazy and nakedly ambitious.

    Lazy: most reporters have no background in or knowledge of their beats. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if they troubled themselves to learn at least the basics, but that would take time and effort (also, they know they’ll be moved to a different beat in six months or a year, so they mostly don’t bother to learn anything). It’s easier simply to ignore what’s actually going on and go trawling for political reaction.

    Nakedly ambitious: most of the superstar reporters—the ones who get invited onto the yak shows and hope some day to become full-fledged Sabbath Gasbags—cover the White House and Congress. Politics, in other words. A CBO report that might take ten minutes to read and thirty seconds (or two paragraphs) to summarize fairly isn’t an obvious ticket onto the gravy train. Why bother when there is so much easily-available partisan spin and entertaining outrage to report on and get famous for?

    I don’t know who to blame most for this sorry state of affairs: journalism schools for not teaching how to learn the basics of a field quickly, the media megacorporations for demanding unreasonable profits from their news divisions, or a public for demanding entertainment above all else. Probably all, with varying degrees of culpability.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now.

    –alopecia

    • drspittle

      Excellent analysis.

      • muselet

        Aw, shucks. *blushes*

        –alopecia

    • JozefAL

      “I don’t know who to blame most for this sorry state of affairs: journalism schools for not teaching how to learn the basics of a field quickly, the media megacorporations for demanding unreasonable profits from their news divisions, or a public for demanding entertainment above all else.”

      I probably wouldn’t lay much blame at the feet of the journalism schools. I’m not aware of many of the current crop of “journalists” who attended, much less graduated, any journalism school before they started their “career in journalism.” As an example, let’s look at Chuck Todd. According to his Wikipedia entry (caveat lector, and all that), he attended George Washington University on a MUSIC scholarship and a declared major in political science–but he didn’t graduate. Now, I ask you: Where is the journalism school background to be blamed? “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, likewise, has no journalism school background (he graduated from American University with a degree in “International Studies”). Brian Williams–the regular host of the NBC Nightly News–dropped out of college (George Washington University being the last one he attended; no major is given).

      And MSNBC’s new hire, Ronan Farrow? No evidence of attending any journalism school is given in his Wiki entry; just that he graduated from Yale Law School and is a member of the New York Bar, and spent time in the US government, focusing on international human rights law.

      Yeah. The rest of your critique is probably right on the mark, but to place blame on journalism schools . . . .well, you shouldn’t really blame them for failing to teach journalism to “journalists” who never attended journalism schools.

      • muselet

        Fair enough. However, I see the same sort of lazy crap being generated by low-profile reporters who did attend J-school.

        I clearly should have included the (lazy, nakedly ambitious) reporters themselves in my summary, even though I flayed them earlier. It’s not like they don’t deserve it.

        And I did say culpability wasn’t uniform.

        –alopecia

    • Badgerite

      They really shouldn’t call them ‘reporters’ any more. Because that implies an Edward R. Murrow type. And they are not that anymore. I think the BBC has it about right when they call them ‘Presenters’.
      New reporting could only benefit from a few more Bill Moyers. He’s one of the few place on TV where you will hear issues discussed in depth and dealing with long term impacts here and abroad.

      • muselet

        Technically, “presenters” are the people on-camera in a studio on any show: Clarkson, Hammond and May are the presenters on Top Gear, for example. On news broadcasts, those in the studio are more usually called “news readers,” and the people out in the field are typically called “correspondents.” [/word_nerd]

        But your point is well taken. Sadly, we do need to find a better job title than “reporter.”

        –alopecia

  • missliberties

    You know what the wing nuts do? They have a horde of folks beat down the bad media reports. They hound, e-mail, tweet, write and call until the story is retracted and corrected.

    We need to hound these fools and embarrass them so they stop being stupid.

    The big ‘get’ media headline. The ‘clash’ of ages. The ‘battle’ ahead. Etc. Replete with false information.

    The so called librul media infatuation with the tea party helped it sprout from a groundswell into a flood. The same media that was titilated by Sarah Palin.

    Irresponsinble journalism is destroying America. Looking at you Chris Cilliza and Chuckie Todd. Neither one can stop asking divisive questions about power battles completely ignoring any effect their stupidity has on real Americans.

    • drspittle

      Any time i read an article which described the Tea Party as “grass roots organization blah blah blah” I closed the article and discounted anything else that person wrote i the article.

  • Ari Belasen

    Too late Bob. The GOP already jumped on Cillizza’s suggestion and made a commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEphpcHEAGM

    • missliberties

      The good news is that knee jerk anti-Obama anything has reached peak and folks are starting to say “OH, there they go again, with their Obama Derangement Syndrome.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Ah hell.

    • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

      Oh crap, this means I’ll be hearing about it in the office in 3….2….

      They all know I was waiting with baited breath the roll out of the ACA and they suspect that I’m a liberal. So they just can’t help themselves.

    • nathkatun7

      And these people (Republicans) claim to be God fearing Christians yet they have absolutely no shame in peddling lies!

  • Christopher Foxx

    There needs to be more of that. In the digital age, there needs to be more of a willingness to lose a few hits or be second or third on a story in the pursuit of accuracy.

    I really don’t get the race for first, particularly when the difference you’re talking about is a few minutes. We’ve seen this for years on broadcast TV. Some story is breaking and regular programming gets interrupted for a talking head who says somethings going on and we have no details.

    Folks watching NBC aren’t going to notice CBS has had a bulletin, they’re not going to suddenly change the station, so why is NBC so quick to rush to trumpet that they don’t know what’s going on?

    Same online. Someone surfing CNN isn’t going to dash over to HuffPo because, what?, someone in the next cubicle over announces folks should all suddenly “tune in” to HuffPo?

    And the site that builds a reputation for being accurate will start to draw hits.

  • sherifffruitfly

    There’s no COST incurred by getting it wrong. Hence, no incentive to get it right.

    • Christopher Foxx

      Journalism: the new Wall St.

  • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

    Whether these journalists are politically motivated (like Logan) or just chasing the almighty dollar (like Todd), they are essentially betraying their country. An informed and educated populace is the only way our democracy can survive and right now they’re feeding us total crap. And the populace is being groomed to eat that crap…our palates are getting ruined by the glut of low quality information that is currently available. Only people with enough time, energy and know-how will be able to sift through the noise to find real news and even those people are struggling to do so now. I honestly don’t know how this descent can be arrested. Maybe if we had someone create a news corp to compete with the big three that did things right. Who has that kind of money, clout, etc? I think this whole “death of real news” thing is what has turned me so cynical in recent years. All the little blogs in the world shouting the truth for an entire year cannot make up for the disinformation that is spread by Fox, CNN, NYT, WSJ, etc in a single day.

    • stacib23

      A thousand upvotes for this one, irishgrrrl.

    • missliberties

      It gives me a headache.

      But I wonder, are people just starting to brush this crap off. I mean the news has been so sensationalized, I think a lot of folks just don’t pay that much attention to it anymore.

      • Badgerite

        Got that right. Why waster your time. The ‘nightly news’ tells you absolutely nothing about the real issues of the day that will affect the future. Even without the propaganda organ for the 1% that is Fox ‘News’,
        in terms of actual information that matters, it’s a nightmare.

    • drspittle

      You know, IrishGrrrl, your post got me to thinking about the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 50′s amd 60′s. Those folks had everthing working against them in the establishment – news media, state and city governments, businesses – but they succeeded in spite of daily threats of physical, mental and emotional intimidation and violence. They used their own media – flyers, door to door, African American radio stations. I know these are different circumstances in a new technological age, but I keep thinking there are valuable lessons about counteracting media and other corrupt entities we can learn.

      • http://drangedinaz.wordpress.com/ IrishGrrrl

        I never thought of it that way and it’s a good line of inquiry. But the thing is…the amount of personal sacrifice that civil rights activists had to deal with…are liberals really going to stand up as a unit and sacrifice like that when the majority of us live pretty cushy lives (myself included)? I’m not trying to be debbie downer just in a negative mood lately.

        • drspittle

          I agree with what you said about sacrifice. I don’t see you as Debbie Downer (you’ll have to fight me for that crown anyway!) Upon further reflection I think my analogy does not hold up well. There’s something there – I just haven’t captured it yet in my mind and in words.

  • WiscoJoe

    Instead of the story being, “Republicans get caught lying. What price will they pay for it?” the story is instead reported as “Republicans get caught lying. What price will Democrats pay for it?”

    This is both a recognition that it’s no longer considered newsworthy to point out that Republicans lie with abandon, but also that it’s now just assumed that no matter the issue the Democrats will always be the party that is expected to do the heavy lifting.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      Yep. Precisely.

  • Frederic Poag

    Lets not forgot that steaming pile of shit Lara Logan did for 60 minutes on Benghazi.

    The mainstream media is getting more and more worthless. There’s a reason most my hard news sources are foreign: BBC, Al Jazeera.

    • Churchlady320

      I was our pushback that got her in trouble, so let’s keep it up. I do that regularly and sometimes pretty forcefully, and it DOES get results.

    • nathkatun7

      I am sorry, but BBC and Al Jazeera, USA are not that much better.

      • villemar

        I don’t know about Al Jazeera (haven’t watched it) but BBC is probably the least biased as far as hard international news. I don’t know how that could be disputed.

        • nathkatun7

          With all due respect, I categorically dispute that.

          • villemar

            Not being argumentative but do you know of a better source for hard international news? I’m genuinely curious. I gave up on Der Schadenfreude, I mean Der Spiegel long ago as it’s pretty much always runs with the Assange/Greenwald narrative. Had high hopes for France24 but that too often jumped on that same bandwagon. Presseurop was good until it lost EU funding. The Guardian, well that’s an obvious no go. Any suggestions?