People like me often complain about "he said/she said" reporting, which treats all claims by competing political actors as having equal validity, and doesn't bother to determine whether one side or the other might not be telling the truth. There are lots of reasons why that kind of reporting is harmful, but it's important to understand that it doesn't just keep people soaking in a lukewarm bath of ignorance, it can actively misinform them, leading them to believe things that are false.
Today's New York Times has a textbook example of what happens when political reporters can do when they refuse to adjudicate a factual dispute between candidates. In the story, Michael Barbaro doesn't just allow Mitt Romney to deceive, he actively abets that deception in the way he constructs his narrative. Here's the key excerpt:
In a speech here in Orlando, Mr. Romney seized on a statement that the president made on Monday about the Affordable Care Act.
In an interview, a television reporter had asked the president about a small business in Iowa, whose owner claimed that the president's health care legislation had contributed to its closing in the state. Mr. Obama said that such an assertion of cause and effect was "kind of hard to explain."
"Because the only folks that have been impacted in terms of the health care bill are insurance companies who are required to make sure that they're providing preventive care, or they're not dropping your coverage when you get sick," Mr. Obama said. "And so, this particular company probably wouldn't have been impacted by that."
A gaffe? Mr. Romney treated it that way, and in his speech at a factory that makes air filters, he called the statement "something else that shows just how much out of touch" the president is. "He said he didn't understand that Obamacare was hurting small business," Mr. Romney said. "You have to scratch your head about that."
Mr. Romney cited an online survey of almost 1,500 small-business owners, performed last July for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which found that three-quarters of them said they would be less likely to hire because of the burdens of the Affordable Care Act.
The candidates disagree about things many, many times a day, but because Barbaro's whole story is about "gaffes," his inclusion of this particular disagreement implies that Obama's statement must belong in that category. After all, if what Obama said was a plainly accurate description of the Affordable Care Act, then not only wouldn't it be a "gaffe," the disagreement would actually be an example of Mitt Romney being dishonest. But Barbaro classifies it as a gaffe (and don't tell me the inclusion of a question mark gets him off the hook for doing so), which can only mean that Romney is right, or at the very least that Romney has a reasonable case to make.
But of course, that's not true. Not even remotely. Obama was absolutely accurate in what he said. First of all, there are no provisions of the ACA that have already taken effect that affect small businesses. Secondly, the provisions that will take effect in 2014 will benefit small businesses. So if there's a business owner in Iowa who says he closed his business because of the Affordable Care Act, there are only two possibilities: either he's crazy, or he's lying. It's as simple as that. It would make no more sense to ask the president, "Mr. President, there's a guy in Iowa who says his business shut down because the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act mandated that he spend eight hours every day building life-size butter sculptures of Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, and that left him no time to balance his books. Doesn't this show that the law is imposing impossible burdens on small business?"
I don't doubt that many small business owners believe that the Affordable Care Act is one day going to impose some terrible, as-yet-to-be-specified burdens on them. After all, they've been told that many times by Republicans, by conservative media figures, and by pro-Republican groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I'm also sure that many small business owners believe that they've been abducted by anal-probing aliens, or that astrology is a science. But that belief doesn't make it true. There is an objective reality here, and it isn't a complicated one to figure out.
If the candidates have a disagreement about how the ACA affects small businesses, and a political reporter isn't actually familiar enough with it to determine who's telling the truth, he has a few choices. He could use that secret trick known to only the most experienced journalists, called "picking up the phone," and call someone who knows what the Affordable Care Act does, and ask that person how it affects small businesses. There are a few hundred people in Washington who'd be happy to take his call and explain things. The reporter could also go to this thing called "the Internet," which can prove quite helpful on matters like this one. If you type "Affordable Care Act provisions affecting small businesses" into Google, you get this handy fact sheet from the Kaiser Family Foundation as your first result. Read it and you'll learn that most of the provisions relating to small businesses will make the coverage they obtain more comprehensive, and probably less expensive. You'll also learn, if you didn't know it before, that companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the Act's requirement to carry health coverage. It's true that companies with over 50 employees will have to offer insurance to their employees, but the fact sheet will tell you, intrepid reporter, that 92 percent of companies with between 50 and 100 employees already do, as do 97 percent of companies with over 100 employees.
These aren't complicated things to learn. You don't need a public policy degree to grasp them and incorporate them into your reporting. You could even ask Romney or his representatives exactly what burdens they believe the ACA imposes on small business, and when they say, "Um, regulation and stuff!" ask them again to be specific, and when they can't actually come up with anything, relate that fact in your story. Or there's a final option available to you, one that this reporter chose, and many other reporters do every day: You can just not bother to find out the truth and share it with your readers. Why do they deserve it, anyway? Better to just wait for the next exciting "gaffe" and write four or five stories about that.