My work in the Time-Life Book Division was not exactly onerous, since the manuscript was in good shape and whenever one of the researchers asked me, “What is your authority for this statement,” I would look at her firmly and reply, “I am.” So while Man and Space progressed fairly smoothly thirty-two floors above the Avenue of the Americas, I had ample energy for moonlighting with Stanley Kubrick.
—Arthur C. Clarke on his visit to New York in 1964, which led to his co-writing a little super-8 home movie four years later called 2001: A Space Odyssey, as described in Clarke’s 1972 book, Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations.
But unless you actually invented the communications satellite and co-wrote a epoch-shattering movie with Stanley Kubrick, citing yourself as your own source of authority can lead to trouble if you hold yourself out as an objective journalist. At the Federalist today, Matthew Schmitz describes what can go wrong “When [the] Critics A Reporter Cites Are The Reporter:”
When it comes to reporting on contentious issues, perhaps no journalistic shortcut is more prone to misuse than the phrase “critics say.” Used well, it usually precedes a quotation from one of those critics that allows the reader to judge them in their own words. Used poorly, it becomes an opportunity for the writer to put words in the mouths of people he doesn’t like in order to discredit their position or insert his own view into the story. All of a sudden, “critics say” just what the reporter happens to think.
Usually, reporters are careful enough there’s no way to prove this has happened. Occasionally, they’re sloppy enough that we can see the editorializing at play
When the Critic Is the Reporter
Take a recent story written for Religion News Service by David Gibson on a donation from the Koch brothers to the Catholic University of America. Gibson gives ample space to the view of certain “critics”:
Critics of the CUA gift say it is ironic that the school would seek such massive support from a social liberal when Catholic charities are not allowed to take any money from any person or group that supports abortion rights or gay rights.
Curiously, he does not name any critics or offer any examples of that kind of argument. Why not? If critics said something, there should be critics to name and statements to quote. Did Gibson just make them up?
Well, no, as it happens. There is a critic who has made this exact point about CUA and Gibson has heard him do so. The week before he published his story on the Koch gift, Gibson participated in a debate where one critic had this to say:
For years, conservative Catholics have been arguing the very same thing: that CCHD, Catholic Charities, and Catholic social groups cannot take a dime from somebody who has even the remotest connection to the gay rights agenda or Planned Parenthood. This is like Planned Parenthood funding a Catholic bioethics center.
This is exactly the criticism that Gibson was referring to. It came in a public forum on a radio show that aired the day before his story was published. So why not quote the statement and name the critic?
Perhaps it is because the criticism was offered by Gibson himself. The unnamed and unquoted people in the story weren’t made up—they were the reporter himself. He is the critic who had something to say.
Some say this is a bad journalistic practice. And regarding the similar “some say” tic, a decade ago, Elizabeth Scalia dubbed it the journalistic cliche of the year:
My personal choice: “some say…” Used continually by Katie Couric, David Gregory and oh, basically anyone in the press who wanted to advance their own personal opinion or the general concensus of the fourth estate: “Some say President Bush is trying to undermine our civil liberties,” “Some say Iraq is a quagmire,” “Some say America is a world-bully,” “Some say if only the Kyoto treaty had been recognised…”
Just once, I would like to hear a politician come back with, “WHO says? WHO exactly SAYS, Katie, David, Tim, etc”
They’d never spill the true answer, though, “why, WE say, WE in the press!”
There’s a great clip of Margaret Thatcher pushing back against the “some say” cliche in 1980. I’d like to see more conservative politicians employ this when faced with a critique from a strawman named Mr. Somesay:
[jwplayer config=”pjmedia_eddriscoll” mediaid=”61941″]
Related: “News media’s sloppy week,” Glenn Reynolds on their spectacular cluster-fark last week, though the headline could be recycled 52 times a year. It’s a Scooby Do Mystery Machine-size quandary as to why this keeps happening to the DNC-MSM!