I recently gave a speech organized by the office of Sen. Rand Paul on Capitol Hill that addressed the rise of advocacy journalism and other issues impacting our democratic and constitutional values. It was attended by hundreds of staffers from both parties. Afterward Sen. Paul mentioned an example of why he has objected to the role of media framing news stories. I thought that the conflict with the Associated Press offered an interesting follow up to the speech as a useful context to explore the line between accuracy and advocacy. This dispute captures the issues that arise in our heated politics and why interpretative roles in the media can be fraught with difficulties even when done in good faith. Indeed, I believe both Paul and the AP have valid points to raise on these disputes that could be illustrative and instructive for all of us.
The dispute arose recently when the AP properly sought a response from Sen. Paul to the expected opposition in Democrat Charles Booker. The article quotes Paul as saying “Paul criticized Booker’s stance on policing issues and predicted Kentuckians will reject it.” But that is not what Paul said. However, his actual quote was “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”
The AP explained that it could not confirm that Booker has supported defunding police or reparations.
Paul’s office pointed the AP to past comments where Booker does appear to support those causes. On defunding police, Booker was interviewed by MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt and it had this exchange:
HUNT: Would you echo calls from Black Lives Matter activists to defund the police?
BOOKER: Well, I think now is the time that we actually need to do that work. This is about fully funding public safety. Now, what we’ve seen is continuing budgets increased in law enforcement year after year where — in the city of Louisville, for instance, the budget for law enforcement is more than all the other city agencies combined. And then we see that at the state level and we certainly that at the federal level with our military industrial complex.
Our law enforcement are dressed up as militarized organizations that treat us as enemy combatants. What we’re saying is instead of continuing to put tax dollars into creating this organization or this effort that doesn’t keep us safe that we actually put money spot community, that we do the work of community policing, we do the work of mental health, we do the work of dismantling and disrupting poverty.
And we need men and women in law enforcement to join us in doing that work. And so, you know, I’ve led for that for years. I’ve from poorest zip code in Kentucky. We criminalized poverty in Kentucky.
And the only way we will change that is if we put people at the front of our agenda and not at the bottom of our knee or our foots. And I’m proud to stand with Kentuckians to demand real change.
That would seem express support for defunding police since he is responding directly with an affirmative statement that it is work that needs to be done and that police budgets are too large.
One can certainly quibble with such interpretations with some insisting that shifting funds is not defunding. However, such shifts do result in the reduction or defunding of police operations. The question is whether the media should interject itself the way that social media companies do in reframing news. This strikes me as an example where it is better for the politicians to have it out on their own characterizations of such statements. Again, it is not about whether AP or others agree with Paul’s interpretation but whether it is fair game for candidates to have this debate. Paul’s characterization was well within legitimate political debate in characterizing Booker as supporting the reduction of police budgets. The rest is left to Booker to refute or rebut, not AP.
Again, the question is not whether AP rewrote the Paul comment in bad faith but whether the natural default has changed. I think that the default should be for politicians to debate such interpretations, not for the media to actively reframe their comments. Booker has clearly supported reparations as a factual matter.
There is obviously building bad blood between Paul and AP. Paul has objected to how AP tends to paraphrase him while quoting such opposing voices like Dr. Fauci. His supporters also object to how stories are framed.
For example, Paul’s supporters objected to how the AP covers a chilling mob that harassed Paul and his wife in Washington. The article was titled “Sen. Paul complains about ‘angry mob’ encounter after RNC” does appear to me to unfairly headlined since the mobbing of the couple was obvious and outrageous. However, I disagree with the Paul supporters on the content of the article which has been denounced as taking the view of the mob. I do not see that. It seems to be a fair reporting. As a columnist for three decades, I have had some poor headlines which were ordinarily written by editors, not writers. Moreover, the headline could be an innocent mis-emphasis rather than a biased construction.
Rather than pick sides, the Paul/AP controversies could serve as a context for useful reflection. Many of us have objected to the bias in the media, which I believe is becoming increasingly and dangerously evident. I believe that media bias is posing a serious threat to our democratic process and increasing the levels of rage and alienation in our political system. However, that can also lead to a quick trigger on the bias call. I have had to check my own tendency in that regard on some stories. However, Paul has a valid point on the editing of his statements about his expected political opponent. The media needs to be careful not to go down the road of social media in reframing what are legitimate political disagreements.
AP is one of our premier news organizations and, while other organizations have adopted self-destructive rules or practices allowing advocacy, AP remains committed to traditional principles of neutrality and objectivity. That is going to be hugely important as we head into an election that could be the most divisive and heated in history. We need a neutral media in our political system and that means that media will need to report rather than reframe political exchanges.