Against its better judgment, The Scrapbook recently found itself combing through the online archives of the Columbia Journalism Review. CJR has a feature where it awards “darts” and “laurels” to media outlets for bad and good coverage respectively. Despite being a feature in a magazine published by Columbia University’s journalism school, Darts & Laurels has the feel of a column from a clubby small-town newspaper, and it reveals a great deal about the priorities of the nation’s most high-profile publication ostensibly dedicated to media criticism.
For starters, not very many darts get tossed. CJR compiled a list of all its darts and laurels election coverage. The final tally? Thirteen laurels were awarded and just three darts. Gallup reported in late September that 60 percent of Americans “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly,” but as far as CJR is concerned the media are doing a bang-up job. It’s Oprah-esque self-esteem building for the media: “You get a laurel! And you get a laurel! And you get . . . a laurel!”
However, CJR’s ladling on of the praise over these last several months has not been without a larger agenda. PolitiFact Florida got a laurel for “push[ing] back against misinformation about Obamacare and small business.” New York Times reporters were commended for citing “the work of FactCheck.org.” The Las Vegas Sun’s Anjeanette Damon got her laurel for a “short, to-the-point factcheck item” that criticized Mitt Romney for taking Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment out of its harmless, not-at-all-upsetting context. Atlantic editor Garance Franke-Ruta got a laurel for a column on how “dedicated factchecking sites are insufficient” and editors need to start inserting boilerplate in stories calling out politicians for the use of arguments editors deem unfactual. The Associated Press got a laurel for “fact-checking speeches.” Another laurel went to “FlackCheck.org, which recently released a guide for video factchecking on air and online.” Investment site Motley Fool got the nod from CJR for “5 Huge Myths About Social Security” (the program’s doing just fine, no problems, in case you were wondering). New Yorker writer Jill Lepore got a laurel for a piece on political consulting called “The Lie Factory.” And so on.
You can go ahead and hazard a guess as to what side of the political fence the overwhelming majority of these “fact checks” being lauded by CJR came down on. The sudden obsession with the veracity of political rhetoric—and this is hardly a problem unique to the last few election cycles—again coincides with the mainstream media’s desperate attempts to keep a stranglehold on political discourse. Rather than do any sort of meaningful introspection about why the media are loathed by so many Americans, the premier journal of media criticism seems to suggest the answer is to tear apart politicians and hope the media look good by comparison.
Of course, the brazenly partisan nature of media fact checking makes this strategy likely to accelerate the distaste for the mainstream media felt by an increasing number of news consumers. Unless the media establishment improbably regains some perspective on its own blind spots, “fact checking” will mainly serve to help it avoid facing the facts about its own failings.