Modern media has adopted the curious practice of reporting claims, rather than facts. (I say “modern” not because I know that it wasn’t always like this, but because I have no idea.) I don’t mean to pick on either this guy or this outlet, but AP writer Anthony McCartney’s story about Jackson Browne’s lawsuit against John McCain is a good example of this.
As perhaps you’ve heard, the Ohio Republican Party ran a TV ad attacking Obama using Browne’s “Running on Empty” as the background music. Browne has filed suit against the party (as well as McCain and the RNC), charging them with copyright infringement and misappropriation of his likeness in a manner implying an endorsement. McCartney writes:
The suit says Browne is a lifelong liberal who is as well-known for his music as for being “an advocate for social and environmental justice.”
Only the suit says that? That may well be so, but why wouldn’t McCartney just do the legwork to determine if a) Browne is a lifelong liberal and b) if he’s well-known as an advocate for social and environmental justice? The author continues:
According to the suit, “Running on Empty” plays in the background of the ad criticizing the remarks.
“According to the suit?” Really? McCartney couldn’t have just watched the ad and told us whether or not the song is playing? Because if it’s not, that would really change this whole story. And if it is, we ought to know that. Abdicating that to the text of the lawsuit is pretty weak.
The suit notes that other musicians, including ABBA and John Cougar Mellencamp, have asked McCain to stop using their work.
Well? Have they? This is the height of laziness. Surely the author has access to the AP’s own database — a query for “McCain ABBA” and “McCain Mellencamp” would have immediately revealed the answer. I conducted the same searches on Google and found that Mellencamp did ask McCain to stop using his work, while McCain was simply unwilling to pay licensing fees to ABBA. So bringing up ABBA here doesn’t make sense—that was a matter of finance, not politics. Had the author relied on something other than the text of a lawsuit, he’d know that. (Incidentally, I despise ABBA’s music. The notion that anybody likes their music is totally incomprehensible to me.)
Browne released “Running on Empty” – the song and an album by the same name – in 1977. According to the lawsuit, the album has sold more than 7 million copies.
Oh, come on. It took me 45 seconds to verify this (and, yes, it’s true) on the RIAA’s website.
This AP story has been picked up by media outlets around the world, surely read by many thousands of people. McCartney’s failure to do his job as a reporter—to verify facts, rather than just parrot them—is a disservice to those readers and to the AP. Again, my goal isn’t actually to pick on this guy. I read stories like this every day, from every media outlet, on every topic. Heck, I don’t even particularly care about this story.
It’s when this sort of reporting shows up in important matters that I get frustrated. Stories on global climate change, for instance, will quote two people: a climatologist who says “the planet is heating up,” and a spokesman for a right-wing think-tank who says “no it’s not.” Reporters will seldom acknowledge that the climatologist is speaking for science, who is unified in their understanding of climate trends, and that the spokesman is saying what the energy industry pays him to say. They likewise seldom acknowledge that the topic is settled science, and simply present the two sides as if they’re even, leaving the reader to sort out which is true. That might just be lazy journalism (and no doubt underfunded, resource-starved journalism), but the inadvertent result is totally dishonest coverage that does nobody any favors.