Styles of Bad Reporting: CBS and Weird Journalism

Last night we watched a report by CBS news on the ALEC organization. It’s called Who is ALEC? It’s a good example of how not to do a report on an organization that is objectively controversial and that has seen lots of reportage in other news organs, most of it critical, which is the real news.

The first mistake is that the report doesn’t even talk to ALEC. It interviews Chip Rogers, a Senator from Georgia, who’s obviously a supporter of the organization.

We sat down with Rogers this week for an interview on the floor of the Georgia State Senate, where he is Republican majority leader, to find out what ALEC is really about.

This is a title fumble and a bizarre decision by CBS. How would this logic go: Let’s find out who ALEC is, go to Chip Rogers, he’ll know. He’ll give us the “real skinny.” Pardon my snideness, but what were the editorial and production decisions here? If CBS wanted to know about ALEC, they could have gone to the web site and read the About page. Instead, the interview descended to classic propaganda. CBS could have included at least one critic for the purposes of counter point.

In any event, here’s an extract on the question of Who ALEC IS:

“They look at us and say, ‘Hey, here are the legislators that believe in free markets; here are the legislators that believe in limited government,'” Rogers said. “It really is a shame that companies have to continually look over their shoulders to protect themselves from an onerous government.”

ALEC member companies are a Who’s Who of the Fortune 500: tobacco giants Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) and Reynolds American; telecommunications leaders AT&T and Verizon; energy conglomerates ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Koch Industries; big pharmaceutical firms Bayer and Pfizer; State Farm insurance and United Parcel Service. None of the companies on ALEC’s corporate board would grant us an interview.

What ALEC does for legislators is create model bills mostly on fiscal issues that are templates for 800 to 1,000 bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures every year. ALEC has claimed to members that 20 percent [of] its bills become laws.

All kinds of weird and news worthy conclusions can be drawn from this lift. The Senator: 1) thinks he’s “onerous.” 2) ALEC is his ghost writer 3) ALEC writes 20% of the law. Additionally, consider this quote:

But at least 20 companies cut ties with ALEC this year after it had drifted into non-economic issues such as “stand your ground” self-defense laws and strict photo voter identification laws.

The report never defines what it means by “drifted into” and fails to follow it’s own logic in this quote:

ALEC had no role implementing the stand your ground law in Florida, where teenager Trayvon Martin was allegedly shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who has asserted a “stand your ground” defense. But ALEC did create a similar model bill after Florida’s law.

The report makes no effort to explain the final sentence.

One final note. I think it’s perfectly fine for reporters to ask questions that test a person’s logical points. In this next quote, the interviewer makes no attempt to do this in an illogical response to a question about voter IDs.

“Simply telling the person who is taking your vote who you are is not much of a burden, and at the end of the day, if you’re allowing one person to vote illegally, you’ve just cancelled out my vote,” Rogers said. “It’s really common sense – if you are going to vote, tell us who you are.”

Voter ID was an issue that led Wal-Mart to quit ALEC, telling the group in a letter it had weighed in “on issues that stray from its core mission.” In a statement to CBS News, Wal-Mart mentioned its support of the Voting Rights Act and the company’s efforts to help employees register to vote.

Rogers addressed Wal-Mart’s concern head on: “If I were to go to Wal-Mart, and I were to attempt to buy a bottle a beer, I would assume that Wal-Mart would ask me for identification. If not, they could lose their license to sell that product. I would hope that most Americans cherish the right to vote a little more than they do the right to buy a bottle of beer. So, I think it is a little disingenuous on Wal-Mart’s part in that they’re actively engaged in indentifying people using photo ID to suggest that is a reason they no longer want to be actively engaged with ALEC.”

The Senator is jumping to the conclusion that a voter who has come to the precinct is an illegal voter. On what cause? Where’s the evidence? Voter ID’s aside, the reporter could have asked Senator Rogers why he thinks his analogy is sound, legally and functionally. Maybe everyone could “register to purchase alcohol.” Even I hadn’t thought of that.

CBS should do some serious thinking about editing. This is incompetent.