According to Washinton Post executive editor Leonard Downie, simply repeating competing claims as he-said-she-said quotations is an adequate methodology for stenography journalism to arrive at fairness:

“We have printed the facts and some of those facts have undermined Kerry’s opponents,” he said. “We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts.”

He defended a lengthy Post story that ran Sunday which appeared to give equal credibility to both Kerry’s version of the events in Vietnam (which is supported by his crewmates and largely backed up by a paper trail) and the Swift Boat Veterans, despite the fact that previous stories in the Post and the New York Times had debunked many of the group’s accounts.

Judging by these widely-condemned comments to Editor & Publisher, Downie would be well-advised to read Bryan Keefer’s excellent CJR article about journalists’ need to rethink their approach to dealing with the “tsunami” of well-coordinated political disinformation:

While candidates have changed the way they approach the media, the media have not changed the way in which they cover the candidates. The press is simply unprepared to deal effectively with the new speed, volume, and deceptiveness of this campaign. Individual journalists, faced with constant deadlines, rarely have the time or resources to check the truth of candidates’ claims, particularly in their first reports. The pseudo-objectivity created by “balancing” one half-truth against another does nothing to help voters make an informed choice. Instead, since candidates know they are much more likely to have their misleading spin repeated than to have it debunked, it is easier and more convenient to simply say whatever they think they can get away with and move on.

Ironically, Keefer’s piece, which includes some very sensible recmmendations for how journalistic practice could adapt to contemporary political spin, praises the Post for encouraging scepticism. He quotes reporter Jim VandeHei, who says his Post editors encourage taking on the candidates’ misleading claims.

(See also Romenesko, Atrios, and Josh Marshall)