“Accountability Journalism,” AP Style

Do as Ron Fournier Says, Not as He Does

The Associated Press’s Ron Fournier drops this little truism into the midst of his “analysis” piece today:

“A political attack doesn’t need to be right to work…”

No, but one thing a political attack does need to work—whether it’s right or wrong—is for reporters to give it a thorough airing, to ensure that it gets proper traction with voters. Which is what Fournier does with today’s piece, headlined: “Analysis: Is Edwards Real or a Phony?”

Turns out, Fournier is probably just following his own “expert advice”, as mapped out in a June 2007 AP “house newsletter on accountability journalism.”

Advised Fournier in said newsletter:

Cultivate sources in campaign and party research departments. Opposition research needs careful vetting, but can be helpful in finding ideas and fleshing them out.

“Helpful,” indeed. Fournier’s piece regurgitates many of oppo research’s greatest hits on John Edwards before, ultimately, leaving it to “discerning voters” to judge “whether [Edwards is] a man of the people or not.”

Luckily, Fournier gives “discerning voters” an assist in deciding how to feel about Edwards (readers are told that Edwards has made “lame excuses for making money,” that after the ‘04 election he “stashed his political team on the payroll of a nonprofit anti-poverty group that kept alive his public profile,” and that he “squeezed millions of dollars out of personal injury and medical malpractice cases”).

But back to Fournier the Accountability Adviser. Turns out Fournier violates some of his own advice, as well.

Back in June Fournier wrote: “A colleague of mine in Washington…has an interesting rule about accountability journalism: Whenever possible, he avoids the phrase ‘critics say.’ More often than not, it’s a crutch to hide lazy reporting or uncourageous writing…” Apparently, “rivals say” is okay (“Is the Democratic presidential candidate a man of the people, as he says, or the fake his rivals call him?”).

As is “some” say. Reports Fournier: “Some who call Edwards a hypocrite assume that a multimillionaire trial lawyer can’t be an authentic advocate for the poor and working people. That’s nonsense.” That’s nonsense! This is, one imagines, what Fournier considers “courageous” reporting, telling readers that what “some” say is “nonsense!” (And it’s “nonsense” because, as Fournier observes, “You don’t need to be…crippled to aid those who can’t walk.”) Yes, readers, it’s nonsense to assume that a rich lawyer can’t be an authentic advocate for the poor, but I’m going to spend the rest of the piece implying that, in this case, that assumption holds true.

That “Dear John” letter is growing longer by the day…

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.