Last week I told you how surprised I was when an Associated Press “analysis” piece published locally in the Albuquerque Journal on Aug. 24 resembled a John McCain press release. It was like finding out that your churchy maiden aunt pushes cocaine the AP, sometimes dull, was above suspicion, its stock in trade the straight scoop. This week, after hours of googling, I can report the joke’s on me I was ignorant. I had no idea there’s a new AP.
Here is some of what I have learned after visiting Editor and Publisher, the Huffington Post, the Washington Monthly and, most importantly, Politico.com.
First, it’s not just about Ron Fournier, author of the questionable story. It’s also about the reporters in the AP Washington bureau he leads.
Secondly and here’s where I was way out of touch their stories reflect AP’s considered new approach to political reporting.
Specifically, the old conventions of news writing no longer apply. Reporters may call it as they see it, personally, with emotion. Which may explain, from a Fournier lead paragraph in January 2008, “Obama is bordering on arrogance.”
Back on July 14, Michael Calderone reported the AP turnabout at length for Politico.com. He wrote that Fournier rejects the old, balanced approach because that’s “what prevented the media from challenging the Bush administration more aggressively on the Iraq war and other issues.”
“Others warn,” Calderone continues, “that what Fournier and other proponents see as truth-telling can easily bleed into opinionizing exactly the opposite of the AP’s mission of ‘delivering fast, unbiased news’.”
Of the Fournier approach, James Taranto, Wall Street Journal Best of the Web columnist and a frequent critic of what he sees as AP’s liberal bias, told Calderone, “It seems to me there’s a conscious effort to inject bias in the story, though obviously Fournier would see it differently. It’s a conscious move in the direction of advocacy journalism.”
Significantly, the AP’s big brass is defending Fournier against criticism from liberal blogs.
So there we have it. What I stumbled on is bigger than bias, it’s the Associated Press’s reinvention of self.
Understand I don’t think Fournier is entirely wrong. Journalism does need to improve upon that old “objective” model. “He said, she said” doesn’t help readers sort out truths. In fact, to the extent we pretend to objectivity (impossible, except for the gods), we distort reality. But what are the new rules?
The Fournier “analysis” that grabbed my attention passed off opinion as fact. And AP writer Tom Raum adduced as evidence that McCain and the President aren’t very close on policy get this that McCain avoids Bush on the campaign trail. Silliness. (The story, in the Albuquerque Journal August 22, cited some real differences, too.)
And the AP’s new beat goes on. After Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, which most commentators (including neo-con Bill Kristol and conservative Pat Buchanan) agreed contained specifics, AP’s Charles Babington wrote it was lacking in specifics.
So where does this leave us? Newspapers and broadcasters can and do select what they use from the Associated Press. They can edit, too. So the buck stops with the editors at our local news businesses. I guess they know what I didn’t, that they can no longer assume AP copy is the straight scoop.
How unfortunate! Thanks to the Web and cable, we have a surfeit of opinion. What’s in short supply is what AP seems to be turning its back on trustworthy basic information. Makes me sad. Probably makes a lot of AP staffers sad, too.