Conservative Journalism, Raising the Bar

I'm a longtime critic of the idea that "objectivity" is the true and only path to journalistic truth, and I believe that here at the Prospect, we prove it every day. It's perfectly possible to have a point of view and still produce journalism that is accurate and fair. The temptation to seize on the things that will make your opponents look bad is always there, but if you're mindful of it, you can retain your integrity.

Not everybody is so capable, however. Check out what happened when a reporter at the conservative website The Daily Caller got a hold of what he thought was gold, from a court filing by the Environmental Protection Agency.

It's a story too good to be true for the anti-Obama and anti-regulation crowd: The hated Environmental Protection Agency is looking to spend $21 billion per year to hire an additional 230,000 people to enforce greenhouse gas regulations.

One problem: It's not true

Patient zero for this story is The Daily Caller, which on Monday wrote that the EPA is "asking for taxpayers to shoulder the burden of up to 230,000 new bureaucrats — at a cost of $21 billion — to attempt to implement the rules."

To put that to scale: EPA currently has 17,000 employees at an annual budget of $8.7 billion.

As you might imagine, the story immediately went into heavy rotation on Fox News and conservative blogs. The only trouble was that it derives from a misreading of a statement the EPA made in a court filing, in which they were arguing against a particular interpretation of regulations regarding enforcement of greenhouse-gas regulations because its results would be so absurd. As Jess Zimmerman said at Grist, "It's like they overheard someone saying 'I couldn't possibly take another job, I'd need to grow two more arms and start doing cocaine,' and rushed to print 'LOCAL MOM ENGAGES IN DRUG USE, GENETIC MANIPULATION.' Then everyone picked it up and ran with it."

I don't know anything about the reporter who wrote the story, but if you're going to write about a particular agency based on a reading of a court filing, you should probably know something about court filings, or that agency, or preferably both. I'd wager that anyone of any ideology who actually understood the EPA would have said to him/herself, "Wait a minute, are they actually proposing to increase the size of the agency's personnel by 1,350 percent? That can't be right," and then tried to figure out if it was. But what really gives away the game is the way the Daily Caller reacted when they got found out:

Daily Caller Executive Editor David Martosko said the publication stands by its story.

"The EPA is well-known for expanding its reach, especially regarding greenhouse gas emissions. What's 'comically wrong' is the idea that half of Washington won't admit it. The EPA's own court filing speaks volumes," Martosko said in an email.

"What's more likely: that the Obama administration's EPA wants to limit its own power, or that it's interested in dramatically increasing its reach and budget? Anyone who has spent more than a few months in Washington knows the answer," he added.

"The suggestion that the EPA — this EPA in particular — is going to court to limit its own growth is the funniest thing I've seen since Nancy Grace's nipple-slip."

Our story is right, because everyone knows the people we're falsely alleging to be planning something shocking are a bunch of jerks. That's how real journalists work, all right. By that score you could publish a story titled, "Dick Cheney revealed to be murderer of Biggie, Tupac, and Benazir Bhutto," and defended yourself by saying, "Cheney is well-known for shooting people. What's more likely: that Cheney shot them, or that he was just minding his own business on the days in question?"

Ordinarily, people claiming to be journalists don't report alleged facts because of what's "well-known" and "likely" about a person or agency they don't like. You see, there are things that are true, and there are things we'd like to be true. But some people can't tell the difference.