One of the toughest questions in journalism (or advertising)

The split-second in question.

The split-second in question.

This intrigued me, because it poses one of the toughest questions I used to deal with as an editor:

In a self-congratulatory ad marking his first 100 days in office, President Trump labels major television networks “fake news.” So CNN is refusing to sell the president airtime to show the commercial.

“CNN requested that the advertiser remove the false graphic that the mainstream media is ‘fake news,’” the cable channel said in a statement. “The mainstream media is not fake news, and therefore the ad is false and per policy will be accepted only if that graphic is deleted.”…

I’ve been there. But as an editor, rather than as a gatekeeper for ads.

As editorial page editor, a substantial portion of the space I was in charge of was devoted to copy generated by people who didn’t work for me — op-eds, and letters to the editor. We always had a lot of copy to choose from in filling that limited space, and we gave priority to fresh views, and particularly those that disagreed with something we had said.

If we had just criticized someone editorially, and that person asked for some of our space to respond, that response went to the front of the line.

But sometimes, there was a problem. Sometimes in answering us, the writer said things that weren’t true. And we weren’t going to let our limited space be used to say things that weren’t true.

We especially weren’t going to let people use our space to mischaracterize what we had said. We went to a lot of trouble to shape the positions we presented to readers and we agonized over exactly how to present them — we weren’t about to let people claim we’d said something we hadn’t said, and give the lie credence by publishing it on our pages. We wouldn’t let a writer say, “They called me a big, fat idiot” when we had not even implied that the gentleman was big, fat, or any kind of idiot.

Trouble is, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes you write X and someone reads Y, no matter how hard you worked to make your point clear. Still, we weren’t going to let people waste our space arguing with Y when no one had said or even suggested Y. Which quite often they wanted to do.

This led to some pretty intense discussions with the writers, and on occasion to an impasse in which the writer withdrew the piece and went around telling anyone who would listen that those jerks at The State refused to publish a dissenting opinion.

Which of course was another lie. We very much wanted alternative, and especially dissenting, opinions. We just weren’t going to allow alternative facts.

Argue all you want with what we said. But don’t waste everyone’s time (and more to the point, our valuable space) arguing with what we did not say.

Not that facts and opinions are always easy to separate. We had some pretty intense arguments among us editors over that. I’d be reading a proof, and stride into the office of the editor who had allowed the piece onto the page and say, “He can’t say this; it’s not true.” And my colleague would say, “It’s an opinion, not an assertion of fact.” And we’d go ’round and ’round, and I’d generally err on the side of letting the reader have his say. And the next day kick myself when another reader would point out that something false had been said on my page, and that we had a sacred duty not to allow that. And I’d be like, Yeah, but he really thinks it’s true, and he and a lot of other people act and vote on that assumption, and if I’m going to educate all readers as to how such people think so that we can all understand each other, they need to be able to present their arguments… And sometimes I’d convince myself, and sometimes not.

Anyway, these kinds of questions are not easy. Telling truth, and making sure what others say on your medium is true, isn’t easy…

16 thoughts on “One of the toughest questions in journalism (or advertising)

  1. bud

    Is it fair to say based on your comments that you agree with CNN in denying the fake news ad?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I do — but my opinion about an ad situation isn’t worth quite as much as speaking to a news or editorial decision.

      That’s a business-side decision.

      But were I advising the business side, I would tell them this: Your credibility as a source of information is all you have to sell. You are in no way obliged to sell somebody time on your platform when he’s going to use it to tear down the value of that platform. Especially when he doesn’t have a credible argument on his side, or evidence to support his position. He’s trying to harm you and what you do by repeating a lie often enough to have a certain gullible portion of the population believe it. You are under no obligation to let him use you and your medium to keep repeating it…

      1. Doug Ross

        “You are in no way obliged to sell somebody time on your platform when he’s going to use it to tear down the value of that platform. ”

        But they are certainly open to selling lots and lots of media time to politicians and special interest groups to disseminate ads that are as questionable as this “fake news” ads. Attack someone else? Sure, here’s your bill. Attack us? Let me climb up on my holier than thou pedestal.

        These decisions are driven by money, not the quest for the truth.

          1. bud

            Isn’t the press required to run political ads? Dougs follow the money approach to EVERY issue frequently doesn’t even make sense.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              The press isn’t required to do ANYTHING. And it’s not forbidden to do much — there’s just libel, and in the case of private citizens, invasion of privacy.

              Broadcast media, however — since they use the public airwaves — do have certain regulations affecting them. Equal Time and the like.

              But as for TV ads — I don’t know enough about that to answer your question…

          2. Doug Ross

            I didn’t claim you were ignorant (on this topic) – just that there is a whiff of hypocrisy in not allowing a Trump ad that attacks CNN but going all in on every possible revenue dollar on (for example) Hillary ads that attacked Trump using what could at best be called half-truths and mischaracterizations. The bar is set a whole lot lower in that case.

            As long as McClatchey and CNN are part of publicly traded companies, I guarantee you the influence of money will drive their decisions. They aren’t non-profits or charities. Whether the editorial page has some level of “moral purity” doesn’t pay the bills.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              My objection is to your failing to make a distinction.

              I can’t think of an instance in my career in which money was a driver in a decision made by an editor. I can think of an instance or two where it LOOKED that way to outsiders, but that’s because the editors didn’t bend over backwards to avoid the appearance. Bending over backwards to avoid the appearance, interestingly, can be a way of letting money affect your decision — but that’s a longer discussion.

              We were forbidden to consider how news would affect, say, an advertiser. That was an easy ban for someone like me to obey, since it wouldn’t occur to me to consider it to start with.

              You have no idea how fiercely journalists — in my experience — valued the “moral purity” that you mock. I knew a guy once who told me of having worked at a paper in Arkansas where the city editor kept a gun in his desk drawer, and if anyone asked him what it was for, he said it was in case anyone from advertising tried to enter the newsroom. I was certainly never that hostile to the business-side folks — without them, there was no us — but as an extreme expression of the ethic, the story drew a smile from journalist.

              The business side is another matter entirely.

              You’ll notice that after saying I was no expert at what they did, if they asked for my advice, I’d tell them to reject the ad. And the reason I gave was an economic one. The main thing the network has to sell is its credibility, so why would they allow their airtime to be used by someone lying in order to damage that very resource? THAT is a business decision.

              As for your claim that there’s a double standard — you claim I would allow advertisers to lie about other people, just not the medium. Well, first, you don’t know what I’d do in such an advertising gatekeeping role, because I’ve never been in such a role.

              But you know what? I would say there IS a double standard, and it’s not what you think it is.

              The double standard is that, in the case of questionable things being said about someone else, whether it is a lie or not is debatable. I touched on that in my original post. On the editorial board, we would frequently disagree amongst ourselves what constituted a fact and what was a matter of opinion. (And think about it for a moment: Most offensive political ads are offensive NOT because they lie, but because of the twisted, selective way they present facts.)

              But when the ad is about YOU — the editorial board, or the television network, or whatever — you are in a unique position to KNOW whether what is being said about you is true or not. You KNOW why you ran that editorial, or why you didn’t run something else. You KNOW you were telling the truth to the best of your ability to discern the truth. You KNOW you weren’t lying.

              So you know when an ad is lying about you and what you do.

              So yeah, in that sense, there would be a double standard.

  2. Karen Pearson

    Perhaps it would be a great idea if broadcast media refused to run political ads that contained patently false assertions. That wouldn’t stop the candidates from speaking lies, but perhaps the media could respond to that by pointing out the lies, and stating the truth. I know it gets confusing and shady at times. but at least obvious lies could be countered.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      With more and more people in politics asserting that they are entitled to their own facts (which is what the whole Trump “fake news” thing is about), you’ve seen more media outlets turn to overt fact-checking of what newsmakers say.

      Such as The Washington Post’s regular Fact Checker feature.

      You may say, “Duh, why didn’t they do that all along?”

      Well, some did. But it wasn’t as widespread as now, I think, for a couple of reasons:
      — We used to have a stronger consensus in society as to what facts were. Another way to put it is that people didn’t lie so much and so obviously. And if they did, there wasn’t a huge contingent of people out there ready to believe them.

      — News people were humbler, and had a humbler ambition. Their job was to REPORT. If a candidate said, “I can fly,” the reporter’s duty was to get the quote right, and spell the candidate’s name right. It was other people’s concern whether he could really fly or not.

      Also… it’s harder than it looks. As I’ve said before, it’s often difficult to separate a fact from an opinion so that two people agree about the separation.

      Consequently, sometimes I’ll read the Fact Checker feature in the Post and think that they didn’t QUITE get it right. Sometimes I’ll feel like they were a little too rough, or not rough enough, on the statement they’re checking. There’s more subjective interpretation involved than a lot of people realize, something that the Post acknowledges by indicating degrees of falsehood, from zero to four “Pinocchios.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, from Fact Checker on the occasion of the end of Trump’s first 100 days:

        President Trump is the most fact-challenged politician that The Fact Checker has ever encountered. He earned 59 Four-Pinocchio ratings during his campaign as president. Since then, he’s earned 16 more Four-Pinocchio ratings.

        But those numbers obscure the fact that the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements means that we cannot possibly keep up. The president’s speeches and interviews are so chock full of false and misleading claims that The Fact Checker often must resort to roundups that offer a brief summary of the facts that the president has gotten wrong….

  3. Bart

    Why would CNN accept an ad that would in essence label the network as being hypocritical? Since the nomination of Trump and his swearing in, CNN’s fortunes have made a dramatic reversal based solely on going after Trump. Nothing else changed for CNN except Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office that has provided them with what amounts to the discovery of a 1,000 carat diamond they have been shaping and polishing since November 8, 2016.

    If anything, maybe CNN should consider changing their call letters to CNN/GAT, Going After Trump. Hey, if it works, go for it. No doubt the Time Warner stockholders are happy with the improved performance of CNN.

  4. Burl Burlingame

    As a journalist, you try and try and try to make reporting as clear and as unambiguous as possible, and many people still think your piece is a Rorschach Test.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And every time, they’ll look at it and conclude you are a portion of female anatomy.

      Sorry… a bit of Rorschach humor there…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’ve never taken a Rorschach test, although I studied them a bit in school (at one point, I thought of minoring in psychology, but drifted away from it, and ended up with a second major, history).

        I’ve always thought that if I DID take one, I’d have to ask the tester whether it would be OK if I answer with the SECOND thing that comes to mind when I see them, for the sake of variety in my answers.

        By the way, the one thing I remember learning about the test is that it’s less about what you see than it is HOW you perceive things. For instance, do you see the image as a whole, or do you focus on the crenellations at the edges…?

        1. Claus2

          Rorschach test answers: “black splotch”, “black splotch”, “black splotch”…

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