Remember how, a few weeks ago, the Public Editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, wrote a column inexplicably asking if it should be the job of journalists to be “truth vigilantes,” as though there were other legitimate options to be weighed in this highly-politicized, post-reality world in which we find ourselves today? Well, I just stumbled across a good example of this kind of… let’s not question the absurdities of the right, as, god-forbid, we might be perceived as being less than “fair and balanced”… pseudo-journalism in the paper, and thought that I’d pass it along. Here’s a clip from the New York Times article in question, which is on the subject of tea party “activists”, and their fight against green projects, which they perceive as U.N. plots, followed by a rather level-headed assessment from an individuals on Metafilter calling himself gompa. Here’s some of what the New York Times had to say.
…In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.
“It sounds a little on the weird side, but we’ve found we ignore it at our own peril,” said George Homewood, a vice president of the American Planning Association’s chapter in Virginia.
The protests date to 1992 when the United Nations passed a sweeping, but nonbinding, 100-plus-page resolution called Agenda 21 that was designed to encourage nations to use fewer resources and conserve open land by steering development to already dense areas. They have gained momentum in the past two years because of the emergence of the Tea Party movement, harnessing its suspicion about government power and belief that man-made global warming is a hoax.
In January, the Republican Party adopted its own resolution against what it called “the destructive and insidious nature” of Agenda 21. And Newt Gingrich took aim at it during a Republican debate in November.
Tom DeWeese, the founder of the American Policy Center, a Warrenton, Va.-based foundation that advocates limited government, says he has been a leader in the opposition to Agenda 21 since 1992. Until a few years ago, he had few followers beyond a handful of farmers and ranchers in rural areas. Now, he is a regular speaker at Tea Party events.
Membership is rising, Mr. DeWeese said, because what he sees as tangible Agenda 21-inspired controls on water and energy use are intruding into everyday life. “People may be acting out at some of these meetings, and I do not condone that. But their elected representatives are not listening and they are frustrated”…
Notice that they quote someone as saying that the conspiracy theories of the Tea Party set are, “a little on the weird side,” but they don’t really point out that said theories are complete bullshit. Here, with more on that, is that Metafilter response from gompa that I promised. [note: It begins with a quote from another Metafilterite, by the name of benito.strauss.]
“Interesting choice of the word ‘activist’ in the title. Of course it’s technically true — they are actively opposing certain actions — but by the same logic that guy yelling at the Canadian geese to stop reading his mind is an anti-avian migration activist.”
Yeah, as a journalist, I’m particularly galled by the breach of professional responsibility here. This whole piece reeks of the false balance and misconstrued objectivity that has allowed the news media to become half-witting tools of radical, anti-scientific, fact-deficient zealots (and led the Times into a looking-glass world where it actually asks whether it should be a “truth vigilante” without any apparent awareness of the ridiculousness of the question).
Far from challenging the tinfoil hattery at play here – which would actually be good journalism – this piece legitimizes it. Instead of disputing the most outlandish statements and factchecking the paranoid delusions, our ever-vigilant Times reporters simply quote someone describing them as “a little on the weird side.” Switching to a neolithic diet is a little on the weird side; calling bike lanes a UN plot is dangerously unhinged.
If as a reporter you are going to quote a Fox demagogue saying smart growth measures sound “eerily similar to a U.N. plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one world order,” then it’s your job to make this your next sentence: “There is not a shred of evidence that the simple nonbinding guidelines in Agenda 21, which are broadly shared and independently advocated for by a wide range of professional urban planning associations and municipal planning departments across the nation, could possibly be used as a pretext for the kind of thing this Fox News ideologue is describing.”
If you quote some random Tea Party wingnut saying “The real job of smart meters is to spy on you and control you,” it’s your job as a reporter either to quote an official from a smart meter manufacturer or installer or advocate saying, “What she just said is utterly delusional,” or else to simply state the same thing yourself. (If you insist on po-faced objectivity, you could phrase it like this: “‘The real job of smart meters is to spy on you and control you,’ said some random woman at a meeting, citing no evidence whatsoever because none exists.”)
The insidious thing is that the Times legitimizes tinfoil-hat argurments by giving them such a prominent and even-handed forum. I write and speak on sustainable growth and smart meters and green design and such for a living (for example at the conferences of professional associations like jimmythefish’s), and stuff like really does enter the mainstream conversation this way. “Hey, I read in the Times that smart meters could be used to control my life without my consent and sprawl control is a tool of UN hegemony, could you address that?”
Dear Times journalists: Simply quoting deranged Tea Partiers is not journalism, it’s public relations. It’s your job to actually determine where their arguments come from and whether they hold any water. And if they don’t, it’s your job to say so.
[Today's post is brought to you by Tea Party favorite, Newt Gingrich, who believes that public transportation is for "elitists".]