In my offline life I do some work with aspiring journalists. This weekend I was talking with one of them who was raising the question of how to defend yourself when you write something that causes controversy or displeasure. This is what I told the kid:
Your best defense is to check with everybody.
Let me explain what I mean by this. When you’re writing an expos, you go back to the subject of that piece again and again and again, asking him or her to comment. Nothing drives me more nuts in seeing journalism depicted on TV than seeing the clich of a guy picking up the newspaper and seeing a story that is (gasp!) all about him! The shock! The horror! It’s total bullshit, I used to say with confidence to my parents or my friends or whoever was unfortunate enough not to have heard this particular gripe of mine before. The people featured in some of the most damning things I ever wrote? They all knew it was coming, they’d all had the chance to comment. Because when you’re exposing somebody else’s ass, you make damn sure to cover your own.
If your story is solid, somebody might complain to you about the views of one or the other people depicted in it, they might quibble with a point or two, they might talk about how much it sucks that people found out they have a predilection for farm animals and a fondness for the song stylings of Yanni but they’ll always know they had a chance to offer up a reasonable explanation because you gave them that chance. You can then weather whatever complaints or controversy results, because you know your facts and you know they know them, too.
You don’t ever want to be out there trying to defend shitty reporting. You don’t want to be Deborah Howell talking about “inartfully worded” or Jeff Dvorkin acting like people pissed in his martini, because all that is is deflection, and it shows. Don’t want to play defense? Don’t fuck up. And the easiest way around a mistake is to check with everybody about everything.
That’s what’s so upsetting about the Kos/TNR/David Brooks nonsense. It’s not so much the back and forth about whether or not Kos is a dick or who the A-list bloggers are or whatever. It’s that some of the fundamental facts are just fucking wrong when it would have been so easy to get them right. Zengerle should have just e-mailed Steve: Hey, did you write this? He should have asked: Hey, did Kos ever threaten to kick you guys off the Advertising Liberally network? Brooks should have talked to some of the bloggers he accuses of dancing to Markos’s tune. It would have saved them both a lot of embarrassment today.
In the long run, no matter how hard it would have been to ask the questions, it would have made whatever stories did result stronger, for having been rounded out, made fair, and based upon the truth.