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

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. Clearly we're witnessing the latter -- today, in real time.

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.


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.