One of the most important skills in journalism is easy to state, but hard for reporters to do.
While teaching reporting classes for the past 25 years of so, I have stated it this way: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you. The skill? It is crucial to learn how to accurately report the beliefs of people with whom you disagree.
This is why it's important, every now and then, to read articles in which public figures of various kinds discuss journalism topics from the other side of the reporter's notebook, comparing what they said or believe with what ended up in analog or digital ink.
That's what is happening in the following essay at The Daily Signal by the Jewish conservative Dennis Prager. The headline: "Here Are Some Key Ways the Mainstream Media Distorts the Truth."
Now, there's a lot going on in this essay and some of it is pretty picky, personal and political. However, there's a crucial journalistic point linked to religion-beat issues in the section focusing the New York Times coverage of a recent Prager musical gig for charity. The Times headline: "Santa Monica Symphony Roiled by Conservative Guest Conductor." Here is the top of the music-beat news story:
It was supposed to be a dazzling opportunity for the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra -- a volunteer ensemble of professional and semiprofessional musicians led by Guido Lamell -- to play the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles for a fund-raiser. Mr. Lamell, music director of the orchestra, invited the conservative talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager as guest conductor for the event.
But that decision caused immediate outrage among some members of the symphony, and a number of them are refusing to play the fund-raiser, saying that allowing the orchestra to be conducted by Mr. Prager, who has suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and incest, among other contentious statements, would be tantamount to endorsing and normalizing bigotry.
First of all, it is interesting that the New York Times elected to write a major story on this controversy over on the West Coast. The implication is that Times editors were unusually interested in this topic.
But the key word in that passage is "suggested." Thus, Prager wrote:
Lesson No. 1: When the mainstream media write or say that a conservative “suggested” something that sounds outrageous, it usually means the conservative never actually said it.
After all, why write “suggested” and not “said” or “wrote”? Be suspicious whenever anything attributed to a conservative has no quotation marks and no source.
This is an excellent point. The central claim in this story is not supported by on-the-record information that is framed in direct-quote marks.
This is the crucial material, so here is Prager's argument:
Seven paragraphs later -- long after having mischaracterized my words to prime the readers’ perception -- the Times writer did quote me on the subject. He said, “Mr. Prager suggested that if same-sex marriage were legalized, then ‘there is no plausible argument for denying polygamous relationships, or brothers and sisters, or parents and adult children, the right to marry.'”
Though no context was given, the words quoted are accurate and a source was given. It was a 2014 column I wrote about judges having hubris for overturning voters in state after state who voted to keep marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman.
I was responding to then-District Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as “the union of a man and woman,” was unconstitutional.
One of Walker’s arguments was that “Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis.” I wrote in the column, “If American society has a ‘constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis,’ then there is no plausible argument for denying polygamous relationships, or brothers and sisters, or parents and adult children, the right to marry.”
Had The New York Times author been intellectually honest, he would have written the context and the entire quote. Or, if he had wanted to merely paraphrase me, he could have written, “Prager suggested that if same-sex marriage were legalized, there were no arguments against legalizing polygamy and adult incest.”
But that would have sounded a lot less awful than saying I suggested same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy and incest.
But it's just one news story, right?
Yes, but that "suggested" connection is part of a news story in The New York Times. Thus, it will live on and on:
So, for as long as human beings and the internet exist, people who wish to dismiss me or my views on same-sex marriage will quote The New York Times mischaracterization. Readers will not know that the quote about same-sex marriage and incest is not mine but that of a New York Times writer.
There's another interesting passage in the essay in which Prager dissects a news report in which he is accused of calling "liberalism" a cancer in America life.
In this case, the reporter substituted "liberalism" for "leftism" -- the later being a term Prager intentionally used, noting that "leftism" is usually the precise opposite of historic "liberalism" on issues such as free speech, religious liberty, etc. No effort was made to note that Prager was attacking "leftism" -- which he called a cancer in American life -- because it weakens actual "liberalism."
In other words, his point was turned inside out and there was no way for readers to know. He was misquoted with a vengeance.
But back to the Times use of the term "suggested." At the end of his essay Prager noted:
I will pay a price. The New York Times lied when it wrote that I “suggested that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy and incest.” Yet that will be cited forever as if it were true.
It’s already begun. On the night of the concert, the Fox TV station in Los Angeles reported: "A left-wing attempt to boycott a performance of the Santa Monica Symphony due to a guest appearance by conservative radio host Dennis Prager backfired on Wednesday night; the event was a sellout. … Prager has made controversial comments in the past, saying that he believes gay marriage would lead to incest."
Words matter. Ideas matter. #JournalismMatters
Isn't this the kind of thing that undercuts public trust in mainstream journalism?