AP's New Muckraking Style, From Just-The-Facts to In-Your-Face

For those unfamiliar, since May of this year the Associated Press has had a new Washington Bureau Chief, a past AP reporter named Ron Fournier. According to Politico, the previous chief was pushed out to make room for Fournier in a “hard-feelings shake-up” with the old chief left worried that Fournier might “destroy” the AP. A pretty stark assessment, of course, but not necessarily all sour grapes from the passing chief because there is a legitimate reason for her to worry about Fournier. You see, Fournier has decided that a more hard-charging, opinion oriented style of writing is the new direction the AP should take in this new Internet age and it’s a direction that makes the AP’s past bias even more pronounced.

Former chief, Sandy Johnson, is a bit worried about Fournier’s new direction. “I loved the Washington bureau. I just hope he doesn’t destroy it,” she is quoted as telling the Politico. It seems she has reason to worry.

There’s more to her vinegary remark than just the aftertaste of a sour parting. Fournier is a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as “cutting through the clutter.”

Fournier is also reported as saying that his goal is to “stick it to somebody who deserves it” because the “public is losing faith” in government, religion, the military, big business and the courts. Fournier dead on about the one institution that the public mistrusts in great numbers: the media. The public does mistrust Fournier’s own profession, indeed.

No, to Fournier, the media seems to be the nation’s savior and therein lies the danger he represents to the nation as a whole. He thinks he is our savior lending him the possibility of arrogant overreach.

“There’s a bigger need for this kind of journalism than ever,” he said. “The public is losing faith.” Fournier rattled off a list of institutions, including organized religion, government, media, the military, big business and the courts, in which recent Pew polls show public confidence at all-time lows. “It’s our responsibility,” he said, “to step into that breach and say, ‘Hey, what the hell is going on here?’”

And here it was thought that the AP was a news organization and not a punditry factory. Looks like Fournier really is looking to tear down the old AP and substitute his new “sharp, edgy analysis” for its supposedly traditional just-the-facts style of journalism.

As a road map to the future, one might read a June 1 Fournier essay written as he was settling in to the AP chief’s chair. In that essay Fournier has some revealing rhetoric and ideas showing in what direction he imagines the AP should head. An attached note at the start of the essay is interesting, indeed.

It’s AP’s goal this year (and henceforth) to make this accountability journalism a consistent theme in our coverage of public affairs, politics and government. We have unmatched resources and expertise in every state to report whether government officials are doing the job for which they were elected and keeping the promises they make.

Muckraking journalism, pure and simple.

With this dangerous step over the line of fact based journalism, Fournier invites opinion to invade ever more into the AP’s reporting. In fact, there would seem to be no way to prevent it with this flirtation with advocacy writing.

Fournier starts his essay with the following paragraph:

Katrina made a believer out of me. I had always known that The Associated Press played a role in holding public officials accountable, but it took a killer hurricane and an incompetent, arrogant government response to make me realize this is no mere role. It’s an obligation, a liberating one at that.

Fournier then goes on to illustrate his directive to the AP’s writers concerning what he wants to see from them. In one section he tells reporters to keep two questions forefront in their minds when writing for the wire service.

Make two questions a habit in every source conversation (from governors and lawmakers to lobbyists and bureaucrats): What’s the biggest promise that’s been broken in town this year? What drives you most nuts about (the relevant government entity)?

Further, Fournier is urging his writers to become the voice of the news as opposed to a faceless reporter. He wants them to “write with authority” instead of passively. He wants them to assert criticism is true if they think it is. And it is because, he feels, the media didn’t attack Bush enough over the Iraq war and Katrina.

A colleague of mine in Washington, Cal Woodward, 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. If the “critics say” something that you know to be true, you should assert it yourself and not let it be watered down by a broad, meaningless attribution. You be the critic. That’s the role we played after Katrina:

But there is no question that Fournier is insisting that his writers step forward in a more vigorous, straight forward style that reveals their own voice far more than just-the-facts. There is no question that what we have here is a new AP the will dispense with the past habits of a guarded assertion of critics of the issues of the day for a far more expressive style that seems to state critics’ positions as facts instead of opinion. This is not reporting, but advocacy.

With Ron Fournier, we might find that the AP gives us here more fodder to reveal liberal bias in the media than ever before. It might be good for the media critique business, but it isn’t good for America.

(Photo credit: allamericanspeakers.com)

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