Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Art of Saying Something When You've Got Nuthin'

Today's Los Angeles Times has an article about some of the people whom Obama might tap to fill David Souter's Supreme Court seat. It mentions Solicitor General Elena Kagan, federal judge Sonia Sotomayor, federal appeals court judge Diane Wood, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

A fascinating list. But where does it come from? The writers never say. In fact, the article and the short trail of articles leading up to it form a case study in wily writing.

The subhead of today's article: "Obama is apparently debating whether to choose a traditional nominee or opt for a 'real world' selection."

The lead sentence: "As President Obama's search for a Supreme Court justice progresses, it appears that the White House has locked in two competing sets of nominees ..."

From the next sentence: " ... much of the speculation about who will succeed (Souter) has centered on candidates such as ..."

The next sentence forms the basis of the whole article: "But the president's own words have made some of the obvious favorites less obvious.

The next sentence is designed to substantiate the prior: "Obama said his choice would possess a 'quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles ...'"

The sentence after that tips the writers' hand: "What Obama meant by 'quality of empathy' has been left to interpretation."

And the next sentence contains perhaps the most sincere attempt to attribute the information that forms the basis of the story: "The White House said the president was seeking a candidate with a diverse set of life experiences."

That's it. That's all they've got. Yet it was enough for them to run a story with prominently placed pictures of the five women.

So I searched for other Times articles that might tell us where the names came from.

I found the May 2 article "Who Will Fill Souter's Shoes," which listed a handful of candidates -- some on today's list, some not. The list is hinged entirely on the opener: "Here are some of the names being mentioned as possible replacements for Justice David H. Souter." (There's that wily passive use again.) I found a May 1 piece with a list of names. Of them, two also appear on today's list: Granholm and Sotomayor. The information is attributed with only: "This list, from NBC's Pete Williams, is making the rounds."

So the nuthin' the Times has is based largely to the paper's own nuthin' and partly on another journalist's nuthin'.

For those not familiar with reporting standards, a competitor's report is usually not a valid source on which to base facts. You can report that the information was reported. But ideally a news organization verifies the information for itself.

I'm troubled by this type of hot-air reporting. But I'm not totally against it. That's because, often, these reports contain much more than hot air. These completely unattributed, based-on-nothing speculations, with surprising frequency, contain solid information. The reporter is trying to share with readers something that, from his vantage point, can be sniffed in the air. And often, his nose knows. There's a good chance one of these people will indeed be tapped. So this brand of B.S. reporting often turns out good information.

What bothers me is that the news agencies aren't more up front with readers. They go to such great lengths to write around the fact that they've got nuthin': "apparently," "speculation has centered on," "appears," "have made less obvious."

Today's LA Times article makes it sound as though the names can be deduced from a few words from Obama and White House staffers. They cannot. Based on what they've got, you could say that Dick Cheney "appears" an "obvious" pick. Cheney is clearly empathetic to his gay daughter to the point of dissenting from his whole party on gay rights issues. You could also deduce that Sarah Palin is a clear choice for the short list. The woman gutted a moose, for heaven's sake. You'd be hard pressed to find in national politics a more "diverse set of life experiences."

I don't like being skeezed. Tell me you've got nuthin'. Tell me you're guessing. Hell, tell me straight up that all you've got are rumors. Just don't tell me that you deduced it logically from solid, sourced public information when clearly you did not.

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