By Arthur Alpert
I run as fast as I can but cannot keep up.
Let me explain my routine. After spending a few hours shaping a piece on Albuquerque Journal management’s malfeasance, I save it and go about some other business. Tomorrow, I figure, I’ll double-check, proof and give it a final rewrite.
But tomorrow always brings a new insult to journalism – and once again, I’m behind the curve.
It just happened again.
I was almost finished with a post focusing on the issue dated Monday, August 20 when then I picked up the Wednesday, August 22 paper and there, featured on the Business page, was a story headlined (in the print edition) “Regulatory Repercussions”.
Nice alliteration, I thought, even if not a lot of information.
The sub-head said more:
“As new federal rules continue to accrue, they weigh on economy at ever-expanding rate.”
The head on the B3 jump was similarly straightforward. It said, “Federal Rules Weigh on Economy”.
This Washington Post story by Peter Whoriskey was not outstanding journalism (more on that below), but his lead made perfectly clear the source of that declarative statement.
It was an industry group.
In fact, Whoriskey’s lead graph ended, “according to a report released Tuesday by an industry group.” And a couple of paragraphs down, he specified that NERA Consulting prepared it for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.
Does that make the report invalid? Of course not; in fact, I thought it made some valid points. But in the normal course of journalism, practitioners recognize the possibility that an interested party in a big debate may not be the source of the whole truth.
So they attribute the argument to that interested party.
Attribution tells readers where information or opinion comes from. Its purpose varies with the type of story, but generally attribution’s virtues include clarifying who’s responsible for what and helping the reader distinguish between speakers.
Attribution also signals to the reader that the reporter is not vouching for the accuracy of the observation or conclusion.
So the Washington Post reporter attributed the argument in his lead. And the Journal headline writer didn’t.
The piece had a big head and sub-head and a large photo, so lack of space didn’t prevent them from writing something like this:
“Business Alliance: Regulations Weigh on Economy”.
That it wasn’t done becomes even more questionable because down near the end of the story we learn the report “doesn’t tally the benefits of regulations.”
Several paragraphs on the benefits followed. Too bad the reporter didn’t indicate near the top that he’d get to that topic eventually.
Not that the editors needed his permission to put the benefits in a sub-head. As regular readers know, our local newspaper is not reluctant to reach deep into stories to pluck material for a rubric.
They didn’t this time, though.
Of course, the failure here could mean somebody empowered to write headlines doesn’t understand attribution.
It’s also possible that editor X seized an opportunity to promote the newspaper’s anti-regulatory narrative in the headline.
I would prefer the first explanation, but it’s unlikely.
Now, I would like to quit right here but this post, remember, replaces one I’d planned to write about the August 20 Journal. That issue contained three or four journalistic insults; if you will indulge me, I must rescue the first from oblivion.
The editors front-paged a story headlined “Sooner is Better With SS Changes” from Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press Washington Bureau.
His byline makes my antennae quiver but this piece wasn’t all bad. Here’s his lead:
“Despite Social Security’s long-term problems, the massive retirement and disability program could be preserved for generations to come with modest but politically difficult changes to benefits or taxes or a combination of both.”
That tells us, first, that he’s written a backgrounder; nothing new has transpired, there’s no event or new development.
Which raises the question “Why Page One?”
Before answering that, observe that the editors ignored the lead when writing the headline. Instead of “Social Security Needs Only Tweaks” they hit the “we need to hurry up” angle, which was prominent in the think piece.
I smiled. There you go again, as Ronald Reagan might say, putting a “nothing new” story on the cover and giving it a slightly misleading rubric to distract readers from Ohlemacher’s first point – it isn’t hard to bolster the insurance program.
This couldn’t be an effort to create urgency about Social Security, could it?
The editors couldn’t have put it on page one, could they, because the Journal’s narrative calls for demonizing Social Security and other programs aimed at the middle and lower classes?
And to distract from the costs of, say, corporate welfare or the purchase of our democracy by corporate oligarchs?
And might this strange editing connect to the never-ending stream of Robert Samuelson’s obsessive attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid while the editors effectively ban demand-side economists from their pages?
While you answer those questions, I will ponder Journal management’s difficulty in understanding the word, fairness.
And then, soon, I’ll start running again to catch up, no matter that I’ll always be behind the curve.