Ron Fournier was one of many Beltway journalists calling for President Obama to fire someone in the wake of the initial Healthcare.gov failures. But what would it take to get failing Beltway journalists fired? (More)

A Year of Media Failure, Part III: Fire Somebody … Except Us (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at the year’s media failures. Thursday we began with ScandalFest 2013, a series of falsely-hyped and long-debunked partisan attacks, and two policy disputes that the media reported as “scandals.” Yesterday we saw broken news, from shoddy reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation to shoddier reporting on the Healthcare.gov website. Today we conclude with how the media claim a mission to hold government accountable, while largely rejecting accountability for themselves.

“President Obama needs to fire himself”

So declared Ron Fournier earlier this month, in a column titled Fire Your Team, Mr. President:

President Obama needs to fire himself. Not literally, of course, but practically: He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.

A series of self-inflicted wounds during his fifth year in office, capped by the botched launch of the Affordable Care Act, have Americans questioning the president’s competence and credibility. History suggests that second-term presidents rarely recover after their approval ratings fall as much as Obama’s have this year.

History also suggests that there are two types of White House shake-ups. The first is mostly cosmetic and is aimed at sending a signal that the president is serious. He fires somebody, anybody, as a sacrificial lamb. The second is deep cleansing – that rare occasion when a president rebuilds his team to change himself.

The latter is what Obama must do.

The “self-inflicted wounds” are a series of faux scandals, a very complex software project that required debugging, and self-styled fact-checkers helping the health insurance industry use the Affordable Care Act as political cover. In other words, the Beltway media turned their sights on the president and – while they have nothing to justify demanding his resignation – they want President Obama to effectively resign by firing his senior staff and bringing in people who will make him govern to their liking.

“Begging the question”

The phrase “begging the question” has both vernacular and technical meanings:

  • In the vernacular, “begging the question” means to invite but avoid a question, such as “Americans are drinking more coffee than ever, which begs the question: how will we ever sleep?”
  • In the technical sense, “begging the question” is rephrasing a conclusion as proof of itself, or circular reasoning, such as “caffeine keeps you awake because caffeine is a stimulant.” The second italicized clause doesn’t prove the first italicized clause; it merely rephrases it.

As it happens, Fournier’s claim about the White House’s “lack of accountability” begs the question in both meanings of the phrase. He equates “accountability” with firing people, and the absence of firings as proof of a “lack of accountability.”

But that also begs a question in the vernacular sense: are the Beltway media held accountable for their own blunders?

“At a minimum, the U.S. should use standoff weapons and airpower”

In August, as news emerged that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians, William Kristol called for a military response:

At a minimum, the United States, along with willing allies and partners, should use standoff weapons and airpower to target the Syrian dictatorship’s military units that were involved in the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons. It should also provide vetted moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition with the military support required to identify and strike regime units armed with chemical weapons.

As it happened, President Obama also called for a military strike, even while he had already begun talking with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a diplomatic solution. Secretary of State John Kerry’s so-called “gaffe” brought those private talks out in the public, an agreement was reached, and Syria has destroyed her chemical weapons production facilities and will soon turn over existing stocks for destruction.

President Obama and other world leaders also reached an interim agreement with Iran to halt that nation’s nuclear weapons program. Predictably, William Kristol was not pleased. And equally predictably, Kristol was invited on Sunday morning news shows to criticize the Iran agreement. And the Beltway media continue this despite Kristol’s long record of failure.

“Accountability journalism” vs. “journalistic accountability”

When Fournier took over as AP’s Washington Bureau Chief, he promised a return to “accountability journalism.” Of course, he meant accountability for government officials. But not for journalists. In a 2004 email exchange with White House advisor Karl Rove, for example, Fournier urged the Bush team to “Keep up the fight.” When asked about that later, he dismissed that boosterism as “the breezy nature of the correspondence.”

Yes, a few journalists are sometimes held accountable for mistakes. For example, Martin Bashir resigned from MSNBC after insulting Sarah Palin. In terms of journalistic accountability, it seems that Insulted Sarah Palin weighs more heavily than Shilled Iraq War. Indeed to even call for a journalist to be fired – despite repeated mistakes – is guaranteed to raise calls of censorship. Meanwhile, labor markets are inefficient at identifying new talent, and thus allow connected insiders to “fail up.”

The result is Beltway pundits whose predictions are no better than tossing a coin, yet who claim the mantle of “watchdogs” and badger the president with oh-so-insightful questions like “Has this been the worst year of your presidency?” …

… ignoring a surprising record of foreign and domestic policy accomplishments – Syria and Iran, strengthening economic growth, facing down Republican hostage-taking, enabling hundreds of thousands of Americans to get better access to health care, and securing a two-year federal budget agreement – despite unprecedented partisan opposition.

We have “accountability journalism.” We also need “journalistic accountability.”

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Happy Saturday!