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Friday, December 1, 2006

On Calling Bullshit

posted by on December 1 at 7:52 AM

Every daily paper reporter and editor needs to read this. And then start doing it.

Calling bullshit, of course, used to be central to journalism as well as to comedy. And we happen to be in a period in our history in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. The relentless spinning is enough to make anyone dizzy, and some of our most important political battles are about competing views of reality more than they are about policy choices. Calling bullshit has never been more vital to our democracy.

It also resonates with readers and viewers a lot more than passionless stenography. I’m convinced that my enthusiasm for calling bullshit is the main reason for the considerable success of my White House Briefing column, which has turned into a significant traffic-driver for The Washington Post’s Web site.

I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue in so many newsrooms — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided. There are lots of possible reasons. There’s the increased corporate stultification of our industry, to the point where rocking the boat is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to maintain access to insider sources, even as those sources become ridiculously unrevealing and oversensitive. There’s the fear of being labeled partisan if one’s bullshit-calling isn’t meted out in precisely equal increments along the political spectrum.

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Your coverage of the Viaduct -- including the so-called "surface/transit option" -- could be informed by your post.

"Passionless stenography" may be a bad thing but so is biased & negligent advocacy.

Your paper's coverage of the Viaduct issue (and it is not alone -- the P-I, the Times, KUOW et al have also been blinded and naive) has been negligent because The Stranger is so enthused about its own "vision" that it has refused to consider the Retrofit in any serious manner but dismiss it airily as if you have engineering expertise. It's comical to hear journalists (as well as Peoples Waterfront Coalition buffs) speaking far far outside their own expertise and blithely dismiss the Retrofit as "can't be done."

That's bullshit.

Posted by David Sucher | December 1, 2006 8:12 AM


I agree with everything you say. I also agree with everything that Sucher says.

Posted by ivan | December 1, 2006 8:37 AM

It's because media these days is so full of shit in itself.

Posted by Gomez | December 1, 2006 8:51 AM


Thank you for this post.

So much of what passes for journalism these days involves the perverted editorial belief that balanced coverage means giving equal time and validity to insane liars.

Such is the case with the Bush Administration and well, everything that they do. From the “Healthy Forests” clear cutting initiative to the “Clear Skies” pollution spectacular to the slam dunk Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” it’s just one Orwellian double talk fiesta after another while most “journalists” dutifully copy, spell check and print (see you in Hell, Judy Miller).

It’s crucial that we as a nation return to sanity, reality and common sense.

Posted by Andrew | December 1, 2006 8:52 AM


You should send this out as a memo to your staff, Dan.

Posted by seattle98104 | December 1, 2006 8:52 AM

Debate of popular (or at least controversial) topics is relegated to blogs where no one is paid to think, critique or write.

That way all dissent is sorted, flagged and trashed and
the authors are called a troll and are dismissed.

Posted by patrick C | December 1, 2006 9:07 AM

It's because mainstream journalists are afraid of their own bosses. There are only 5 media conglomerates in this country. It's sick and wrong.

Posted by journalism-student | December 1, 2006 9:08 AM

"Calling bullshit" and "spin" are terms too abstract for my taste.

If you mean questioning people further when they don't make sense, I'm with you, but if you mean adopting an aggressive journalistic style for the sake of it, I'm not. Some of the worst journalists I've known pride themselves on being such fuckers, nobody ever calls them with stories. What's the point, why not send flowers?!

Posted by Matt Davis | December 1, 2006 9:13 AM

i read froomkin's whb every day -- it's a great resource. incidentally i agree w/ david.

Posted by charles | December 1, 2006 9:45 AM

Matt Davis,

What we’re talking about here is holding people accountable for their words and actions, and calling them on it when they don’t make sense.

An excellent example is when Josh Feit called bullshit on the Seattle Times Editorial Board’s disgraceful, self-contradictory and illogical 2006 election endorsements a few weeks ago. If they expect to have an credibility (which they don’t anymore), they should be able to explain why they endorsed Mike McGavick instead of Maria Cantwell when they agreed with her on all of the issues (except the estate tax, of course); to not do so is an insult to our intelligence.

Our country has certain values that we espouse, and when people act in hypocritical contradiction of those values or engage in sound bite politics without anyone calling them out on their behavior, it demeans us all.

It’s not about being a “fucker” with liars and sending them flowers; it’s about making people be honest and authentic and talk in real terms without spin.

Posted by Andrew | December 1, 2006 9:50 AM

When did this phrase "I call bullshit" come into vogue? Who started it? I think it is really obnoxious. What's wrong with "I disagree" or even "You're wrong"?

Posted by cite | December 1, 2006 10:01 AM

You have to "call bullshit." To say "I disagree," implies it is a difference of opinion, rather than fact.

When the media insults your intelligence, you can insult them right back. Turn abouts and such.

Posted by P | December 1, 2006 4:30 PM

I agree that "I disagree" doesn't get at the true meaning of "calling bullshit." However, I think it would be nice to find another phrase that can be used instead of call bullshit. "Bullshit" was one of my favorite card games, but I can't imagine some of my relatives "getting" the phrase. How about "call them out"? Like, reporters need to call Bush out.

Posted by Papayas | December 1, 2006 5:20 PM

Wow, this went meta all of a sudden. You're arguing about which phrase to use, because this word doesn't quite have the right nuance, and that one reminds me of this other thing which I don't want associated with it, blah blah blah.

That's exactly the sort of bullshit spin that we're drowning in. When "hunger" gets renamed to "very low food security", it's time call bullshit.

Posted by Tahn | December 3, 2006 6:11 PM

Working link...

Posted by Tahn | December 3, 2006 6:18 PM

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