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Why mainstream news reports are fast becoming irrelevant

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By recounting vanilla "facts" in a contextual vacuum, American news reports too often distort political debate and mislead the public.

 It is a point columnist Paul Krugman made eloquently Friday in a column titled "The Centrist Cop-Out."

"The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster," Krugman wrote, referring to country's impending default on its debt. "For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won't punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault."

 Almost on cue, Krugman's newspaper, The New York Times, reaffirms his point today in its coverage. 

The Times long has been considered the gold standard in intelligent and contextual news reporting. But the contrast between its off-lead news story on the debt and its lead editorial makes clear that casual readers, dropping by for a news update, could easily get the facts but misconstrue the underlying meaning unless they also turned to the editorial page. And a lot of readers, cruising leads and headlines, never get that far. 

 Let's look at what that news story said and where it fails.  Here is how it starts:

WASHINGTON -- After a 24-hour delay and concessions to conservatives, the House on Friday narrowly approved a Republican fiscal plan that the Senate quickly rejected in a standoff over the federal debt ceiling that was keeping the government on a path to potential default."
Fact 1: After concessions to conservatives, the House narrowly approves a Republican-led fiscal plan. 

Fact 2: The Senate immediately kills it 

Fact 3: Default nears.

There is nothing here -- nor in the next nine paragraphs that carry the story to an inside page -- to give readers any sense of what this Republican plan would entail. Instead the story continues with these facts:

Fact 1: Despite another Obama call for compromise, the two parties made "no visible progress."

Fact 2: Vote was 218-210, "demonstrating deep partisan divide." All Democrats and 22 Republicans opposed the measure. 

Fact 3: White House condemned it.

Fact 4: Republican Speaker John Boehner says: "I would say we tried our level best."

These facts are followed by several additional paragraphs laying out the next steps in the mind-numbing battle to raise the debt ceiling, which, for the record, has been raised scores of times in the past by Congress without its being held hostage to other budgetary actions. (That, by the way, is not in the story.)

Consider, for a moment, what impact the story that did appear might have on casual readers. They might well assume that the Republicans have tried their darndest. That they finally got a bill passed only to have the Senate block it. It is an interpretation supported by Boehner's quote high in the story.

Certainly the story leaves the impressions that both sides are equally adamant in their viewpoints and won't give an inch. But that is nowhere close to the truth -- supported by facts.

Fact: Democrats have dropped all demands that taxes on anyone be raised or that tax cuts to the wealthy or loopholes to corporations be rescinded.

Fact: The Boehner plan, we learn in paragraph 10, is contingent on the Congress passing and sending to the states a Constitutional Amendment to require a balanced budget.

Certainly the two authors could point out that such legislation is unprecedented; that the last amendment to the Constitution was in 1992; that this amendment, which limited frequency of Congressional pay raises, dates back to the Founding Fathers; and that any bill changing the Constitution would require a two-thirds majority of both Houses just months from now to prevent another severe impasse.

In other words, the facts -- aligned as simple clear context, not as opinion or even interpretation -- can provide a very different perspective on this story than what appears. Editorial pages, of course, do express opinion. And The Times editorial -- not on Page 1, but on Page A-18 -- makes events explicitly clear. It begins like this:

 
It was hard to imagine that the House bill to raise the debt limit, and slash and burn the economy, could get any worse. But on Friday it did.
 The bill, which narrowly passed the House with 218 Republican votes and none from Democrats, would allow the government to keep borrowing only until November or December and then require both the Senate and the House to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before the limit could be raised again.
 That's right, in a bid to win over his recalcitrant caucus, Speaker John Boehner agreed to go through all of this again in just a few months -- and then hold the country hostage to passing an amendment that will never get the two-thirds of each chamber that it would need. The bill was, as it should have been, promptly dismissed by the Senate.
This kind of writing would have no place on the news pages. But the basis of the opinion, the factual foundations that formed it, belong high in the news for readers to make any sense of the vote.

The Republican measure was dead before arrival -- the contextual facts make that clear. And this entire process of holding the debt limit hostage not to fiscal policy, but to fiscal ideology, also is unprecedented.

You wouldn't know that by reading the news. As Krugman says: "... writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties is a big cop-out ..." 

True fairness is not a false balance. It is a marshaling of facts -- fairly -- to show the contextual big picture of narrow events.

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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