Naked spin and false balance: What's the media for?

I think American newspapers have a lot of customs that get in the way of serving readers. One such custom is seeking “balance” on issues where there is none — and, similarly, putting qualifiers like “critics argue” before statements of verifiable fact. One symptom of this problem: articles that seek balance by quoting vacuous partisan drivel from professional spinmeisters.

Today, I think, the misplaced balance showed up in a couple of ways.

Here's a Reuters story (via Tim Lee on Twitter) about an immigration protest that resulted in arrests. Check this passage:

The arrested were part of a larger protest by groups which say that under President Barack Obama's watch, more people have been deported than under any other president.

It seems that the matter at hand is pretty verifiable. From the numbers I can gather, Obama's annual rate of deportation is certainly the highest, and whether he has surpassed Bush's total yet is not clear. So, maybe the reporter could clarify in just which ways Obama is the leading deporter, but leaving it as just one viewpoint is pretty unhelpful to the reader.

The other item getting my media-critic-juices flowing comes from an important story by Binyamin Appelbaum in the New York Times. Appelbaum explores a theme I find important: the often countervailing pulls within the GOP of the Chamber of Commerce (pro-business) vs the Tea Party (pro-free market, limited government). Appelbaum states the issue well:

The tension highlights the distance between the pro-business stalwarts of the traditional Republican Party and the populism of its newer representatives, many of whom seem to view Wall Street and Washington with equal suspicion.

For some reason, though, he turns to White House political operative David Axelrod for “analysis.” Here's the most naked bit of spin:

I just think that there was, at least on the part of the chamber, a reluctance to tangle with, or pressure, the same group in the House that they’re depending on to gut financial reform and undo environmental regulation and so on. But I think the gravity of the situation is now clear.

This resembles a decently fair analysis, and, in fact, Appelbaum had paraphrased the argument the paragraph before:

Mr. Axelrod said business groups were constrained by their desire to win the support of House freshmen on other issues, including the trade agreements and efforts to roll back regulation.

So the above Axelrod quote added exactly one thing to this article, as far as I can tell: loaded language and partisan talking points. If this were an article about the Democrats' election strategy (and we don't need more meta-politics articles, thank you), it would make more sense.

Every day in the media there are dozens of similar examples far worse than this. Editors demand quotes from both sides (neglecting the fact that often there are more than two sides), but if politicos want to stay on message, these quotes don't educate, they simply provide another platform for empty spin.

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