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It Ain’t Journalism, Folks

Have you noticed those Watchdog websites?

Maybe you have – New Mexico’s got one, after all. The ten state-based sites, which are funded by the free-market group The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, bill themselves as a “network of independent state-based journalists who investigate and report on state and local government.”

Since its launch late last year, many in New Mexico have noted that the reporting on the New Mexico Watchdog is thin and the motives behind the “scoops” it peddles to the  mainstream media have seemed…well…partisan at best.

But it hasn’t stopped the site’s main purveyor, Jim Scarantino, from boasting that he’s the only one with the “guts, determination and courage” to pull off his particular brand of investigation.

Yes, conservative investigative websites are now a trend – one that early on, some government watchdogs had hoped could be a way to keep investigative journalism alive in the face of a declining newspaper industry and the years of professional reporting experience that was disappearing with it.

However, a story in this month’s issue of The Washington Monthly concludes that perhaps the Watchdog clones and a number of other sites just like them could begin to perform that important function…if only the “investigating” on them was up to actual journalistic standards.

Journalist Laura McGann, an assistant editor at the prestigious Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and former editor of the nonprofit news site the Washington Independent, takes an incisive look at the new trend in a piece called “Partisan Hacks: Conservatives Have Discovered the Virtues of Investigative Journalism. But Can Their Reporting Survive Their Politics?” (The Nieman Journalism Lab’s mission is to investigate and chronicle the changing world of journalism in the Internet age through original reporting, analysis and incisive commentary.)

McGann’s lengthy examination of the conservative investigative trend contains an embarrassing deconstruction of the “phantom Congressional district” story so widely heralded late last year by the New Mexico Watchdog.

From her story:

Last November, the New Mexico site reported that millions of stimulus dollars allocated to the state were disappearing into nonexistent congressional districts, a fact editor Jim Scarantino unearthed by poring over data on Recovery.gov, the federal government’s stimulus-tracking Web site. The national Watchdog site followed Scarantino’s lead, reporting that nationwide more than $6.4 billion was going to such “phantom congressional districts.” The story spread from conservative blogs to regional newspapers, and eventually TV news; ABC claimed the scoop was a network “exclusive.”

But the New Mexico Watchdog story, McGann reports, quickly fell apart under the scrutiny of the Associated Press:

The only problem: the story was, at best, misleading. In a “fact check” feature on Watchdog’s scoop, the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo took the step that the Watchdog reporters had not: he checked to see what was happening to the money.

As it turns out, the funds were going exactly where they were supposed to go, not vanishing into black holes as the Watchdog sites had implied. The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database.

In other words, all the fuss had been over a few stray typos. “[T]he ‘phantom congressional districts’ are being used as a phantom issue to suggest that stimulus money has been misspent,” Apuzzo concluded.

McGann’s Washington Monthly story looks at a number of conservative investigative sites and notes that they are part of a concerted and sophisticated effort among conservative think tanks to package their messages in a new, more marketable way.

Writes McGann:

A think tank can turn out heaps of research reports, and most of them will be ignored by the press. But something that looks like reporting, and contains actual news, will get picked up in a hurry, and the ideological leanings of its source will often go unexamined.

Just because an investigation is done by a conservative think tank doesn’t by definition mean the work is not valid, McGann asserts. But it has to be good work.

Unfortunately, she concludes, most of the muckraking done by the conservative think tanks is “thin,” “missing context” and “occasionally leads to gross distortions.”

Her assessment takes on an especially critical tone when talking about The Franklin Center, which funds the Watchdogs sites and attempts to recruit and train fledgling investigative reporters at secretive sessions, including some in New Mexico.

She writes:

But when the drive to score partisan points swamps normal journalistic considerations, like accuracy and ethics, it can lead to cherry picking, distortion, or worse.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of the promise and peril of the new breed of conservative muckraking is the Franklin Center and its Watchdog network.

Her story goes on to describe several other instances of other non-scoops and dishonest reporting on the various Watchdog sites and concludes:

“This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy.”

Given all that, does anyone still consider what Washington Monthly describes in “Partisan Hacks” to be the future of journalism?

I sure hope not.

12 thoughts on “It Ain’t Journalism, Folks

  1. The site also censors comments they don’t agree with. If you criticize Scarantino’s reporting, there is a good chance your comment will be deleted within the hour.

  2. Gee, the Washington Monthly must never have actually read Matt Apuzzo’s article because he confirmed my reporting. Here’s what he said:
    “THE FACTS: Scarantino’s original report was correct, and his analysis was the latest discovery of problems in the massive database of stimulus spending.”
    Here’s the link to Apuzzo’s story for the AP. I suggest that Tracy read the original AP report on my work instead of relying on a sloppy secondary source. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/news/ap/politics/2009/Nov/18/fact_check__stimulus_money_to__phantom__districts_.html

  3. Apuzzo’s conclusion:
    “There are problems with the stimulus data being reported, problems that call into question how accurate the job count is. But the “phantom congressional districts” are being used as a phantom issue to suggest that stimulus money has been misspent.”

  4. Tracy: You are being dishonest. Apuzzo found that what I reported was correct. He explicitly said so, as I quote above. That is, that the recovery.gov website was reporting millions of dollars going to and jobs created in nonexistent congressional districts. I never claimed the money was being stolen, or anything like that. I reported only that the Obama administration’s tracking of stimulus dollars was grossly inaccurate by showing money going to nonexistent congressional districts, and even they admitted that fact. That’s why they corrected the recovery.gov website. In the AP article, I was quoted as criticizing those people who were distorting my reporting by claiming the money was being stolen. I said, “they should do their own investigation.” The Associated Press concluded my reports were accurate but that others were making more out of them than was warranted. So get it straight. I know you want to take a shot at me. We’re both fair game since we’re in the public eye. But next time try finding fault with facts I report instead of resorting to name-calling. You were a reporter once, so report facts for a change. The public needs more facts, fewer unsupported opinions. Break your own story of facts about what government is doing, instead of tearing down other journalists and bloggers all the time. It’s a waste of your talents.

  5. Great write up. I remember when those “phantom congressional district” stories started showing up in the local news and some anchors were reporting on it like it was legitimately confirmed “breaking news,” only to have to back track a few news cycles later. But the damage had been done and the right wing noise machine had done their job. They’re experts at floating dishonest BS as God’s truth and then acting all offended when they’re called on their blatant distortions.

  6. Jim, will you answer to censoring comments that you don’t like? The author of this article is brave enough to respond to your comment (albeit to completely refute what you wrote), but you or your webmaster instead delete comments you disagree with on New Mexico Watchdog. Why?

    Obviously you are reading this story and following these comments.

  7. Also, Jim, even you admit there that it is a clerical error rather than a governmental error. If you are a real journalist I’m sure that you will be able to point out where you wrote this in your stories on the false “phantom districts.”

    It should be easy if you truly believed this and not only if it was pointed out to you when real journalists pointed out your story’s holes.

  8. Gee, I would think that a real “investigative” reporter after discovering $ 6.4 Billion missing would have followed up to discover where those funds had gone. Some so-called investigative reporters should be honest with their readers and refer to themselves as PR hacks.

  9. Jim,
    I am sorry you’ve chosen to make this personal, but my point is verified.

    My research shows that when Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity trumpeted the Watchdog story as proof that stimulus money was being misspent, the Watchdog did absolutely nothing to correct or clarify the obvious and gross distortion of the story. I have linked to two instances where that was done; there are many more.
    Glenn Beck: http://rawstory.com/2010/02/beck-barks-dog-protest-stimulus/
    Sean Hannity: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,581993,00.html

    At every chance, the Watchdog failed to take the opportunity to contextualize the story, instead choosing to push it relentlessly and publicize every mainstream media hit it got.

    Here is one instance where that was done; there are many more.

    If the Watchdog is truly dedicated to journalism, why didn’t it correct the wholesale co-opting of the story?

    Finally, Jim, I have no desire to take a shot at you personally. I don’t know where you would have gotten that idea.

  10. Jim- when you go after where Allen Weh got all his contracts and money you will have integrity. Funny how there is never any real investigative journalism on the true thieves of our culture.

  11. Just so innocent. Why, Jim had no idea that his shallowly researched data would be used to further the cause of the right-wing noise machine – despite the fact that a political operative of the right-wing noise machine was paying him to do it. Just how naive do you think we are, Jim?