Dan McGowan (@danmcgowan): News Editor, GoLocalProv.com
Tim Murphy (@politifactri): Assistant Managing Editor, Public Policy Desk, Providence Journal; Editor, Politifact RI
David Scharfenberg (@d_scharfenberg): News Editor, Providence Phoenix
Erika Niedowski (@eniedowski): Reporter, Associated Press, Providence Bureau
Ian Donnis (@IanDon): Political Reporter, Rhode Island Public Radio
Ted Nesi (@tednesi): Digital Reporter, WPRI
Tim White (@white_tim): Investigative Reporter, WPRI
John T: On this next topic, I'd like to start with the man who’s got his hand over the “pants on fire” button. There's the concept of false equivalence, with respect to presenting both sides equally on every story, or saying on particular stories, “Look, this side is lying; this side is not equal to the other side of the debate.” How do you balance those decisions? What do you think your role is there?
Tim M: That's an interesting and difficult question. Traditionally we have said, let's present this side, let's present that side, let the reader make up his or her own mind. That does work in a lot of cases, but Politifact was created for those occasions where it just doesn't work, where you can present two sides of a complex argument and the reader's totally befuddled and unsatisfied. The reporters who created Politifact knew that there were times when this was absolutely not true. It's just not true and there was no form or outlet in traditional balanced he-said/she-said journalism to make that declaration.
I was up in New Hampshire backpacking over the weekend and I was at one of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts. There was a woman from Canada who started talking about global warming and she was adamantly convinced that there was no such thing and it was a total conspiracy of the media. It was a very difficult conversation, because I think the consensus is now, and the media is – well, we're not going to pretend there isn't global warming. We're not going to pretend there are two sides here and that we have to treat both of those sides equally. You can debate the causes and what the man-made contribution is, but the scientific evidence is pretty clear. There's no real benefit to the readers to keep saying, “There's one side that says there is none, and then there is another side that says there is.” I think there's still value to balanced, he-said/she-said reporting, but we do find occasions where that just doesn't work.
Dan M: I think it's helpful to have Politifact, particularly when you're just getting press release after press release, or people are having press conference after press conference. The one that comes to mind, that all of us covered, of course, was Anthony Gemma and the voter fraud accusations. It was made into an event that we all had to attend and give it credence, in the sense that there were huge accusations being made. We're willing to cover it initially, but… Tim was early in doing shoe-leather reporting that one part of it was a little bit false or stretched. Then Politifact and the reporters at the Journal had something about how people who were making these accusations had been accused of voter fraud themselves. It's strange – you kind of had to cover that, it was the story of the day, but at the same time you needed to go out and say, “Well, maybe this is a stretch.” The benefit of Politifact is when a congressional candidate sends out a press release that makes some sort of accusation, it's good to have you there to say, “Pants on fire.”
Ted N: [to Dave] You wrote a column about that, didn't you? The truth with the Gemma, the question of lies and what is true in Rhode Island politics and how it was a weird moment.
Dave S: Yeah, I think that's sort of a weird moment that's all about the truth and whether it even matters anymore. The refereeing in media is becoming less and less important. People are going to their partisan sources and the truth is becoming, in part, irrelevant.
Erika N: That story's a really good example of the he-said/she-said conundrum because I was frankly uncomfortable with a lot of the coverage that came out of that story. Anthony Gemma did not substantiate his claims. I think most people at the table, if not everyone, would agree that he did not present evidence to back up some of the sweeping claims that he made. I don't have a great solution for that, because you're right, we did have to cover it. But the thing is that not everybody gets around to reading Politifact. What they see is the headline – the initial story comes out and there are claims of voter fraud.
Dave S: I don't know. I feel like the skepticism came through pretty strongly.
Ian D: Yeah, look at Gemma's campaign. I hear what you're saying, but I think a lot of voters made up their minds that he was not the most credible candidate, and how he fared in the primary was a reflection.
Erika N: Maybe. But I don't think we should leave it up to, “I hope they can figure out that Gemma didn't have any evidence.”
Dave S: I think the Projo's stories very clearly said, up top, “unsubstantiated claims.”
Erika N: I just think that there's a danger with people consuming bits of news as they do – and like I said, I don't have a great answer to that one.
Tim W: That story stressed me out. We could all see it coming like a train, because he announced it a few weeks in advance that this press conference was coming. I said to Ted two days before, “I don't like this story because it's going to be a he-said/she-said story, and we need to do some gumshoeing.” That initial story's a very important one. You’ve got to put that language in there – we all did – and I think that language does have impact. But then it was our job to go out there and literally knock on doors for these voters that are registered at wrong addresses, which we did, but not every news organization is going to devote the resources to do that. That's what scared me about that story. Of course we have to cover that carnival of a press conference, but then it's the weeks after, the sort of stuff we have to do. Politifact is successful because it pisses so many people off.
Ted N: It's referenced a lot. Politicians say, “Don't Politifact me on this, but...” – which almost is like saying, “I'm going to lie.”
Tim W: People are reading it and that's important. And the standard isn’t different. You still have to get it right. There's no difference – just doing this side of the story, that side of the story – you're just adding a meter to it.
Dan M: It's important, the fact that there's a meter. That's something that people can understand; they see it.
Tim W: I work in TV; I love gimmicks.
Dave S: With the Gemma story, I wonder if there was a flipside to this, too. After he got crushed for having the ridiculous press conference, five days later, one pretty credible person was interviewed in the Projo talking about voter fraud with the Cicilline campaign, but by that point it had almost no impact. Did the media really pursue this story? Anthony Gemma, say what you will about him, he said, “Go into this neighborhood and find people.” Did we go into the neighborhoods and find people?
Dan M: The Gemma stories did come out of it. The Journal reports on a Saturday about this video of mail ballots and it's mysterious and everybody went and watched it. By Monday, we reported that this former campaign volunteer got a loan that he didn't pay back from the Cicilline administration during his time in Providence. That's a legitimate story: campaign volunteer getting money and not paying it back.
Dave S: Gemma just blew his presentation. If he had and presented that one credible witness on the podium and said nothing else, this would have been a completely different scenario.
Ted N: Something I've thought about a lot in the last couple years – where reporters fell down in the past, and I think might be getting better – is that we have a responsibility to really understand policy. Part of why you get into he-said/she-said is because reporters aren't confident enough on the issues being debated to be able to call balls and strikes. It's not easy; I put a lot of time into trying to get better at that. During the pension debate that was key, because people will just throw things at the wall and see what sticks. The more we don't feel comfortable with the basic level of policy that's being debated, the harder it will be for us to say, “Okay, that's way out there,” or, “Wait, that was contradicted by this study.”
38 Studios is a good example. That was a time where a lot of people fell down on the job. I don't think there was nearly enough skeptical coverage of the original deal back in 2010. I think there was some sort of, “This seems weird” – curious coverage, like, “Curt Schilling’s here and we're giving him all this money; that's so crazy.” But I did two stories that I'm proud of because I called up a bunch of video game analysts all over the country and they said just what ended up happening. They said, “This is the most risky type of game to make.” They didn't say, “This will fail.” I can't claim that my story says, “38 Studios will collapse in 2012.” But they did say, “This is the most risky kind of game to make, it's incredibly expensive, the gaming industry is going in a different direction right now.” We also had other stories that said the regulations hadn't been written yet when they handed that money out. The bond documents were written in a way that the company was set up to fail – this was not a scandal that no one could find. This was not hidden by Carcieri. They brought us in for briefings. That's a time where I think it was right in front of our faces, but there just wasn't enough close scrutiny at the actual policy decision that had been made.