Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Journalists: experts in what?

I fear I'm getting boring here, carping on the MSM again ( getting boring? ask my critics. You've been boring for a long time now.)

But here it is again. Via Michael Totten, I read this recent fisking of a story that appeared in last Sunday's Washington Post and was itself a critique of Lebanon's upcoming elections.

The fisker is described by Michael Totten as "my friend in Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal." So I guess he knows a thing or two about Lebanese history and political life. And he says that Annia Ciezadlo, who wrote the Post story, has gotten a great number of her facts wrong. Maybe the fisking isn't quite up there with Mary McCarthy's famous description of Lillian Hellman, "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'"--but it's close.

When one reads this fisking and its point by point rebuttal of most of Ms. Ciezadlo's claims, it is truly astounding to see how wrong she gets it, even for one such as myself who has lost faith in the MSM in recent years.

So I'm wondering, what gives here? Ms. Ciezadlo is probably intelligent. She also appears (from a brief Google search I did that turned up a paucity of information on her) to be an American who reports quite a bit from Beirut. So it's not a case of her doing the equivalent of a quick term paper from afar, and coming up with this article. She ought to know better; she's had the time to study the situation and do the proper research. Is it bias? Blinders? Sloppiness? Bad sources?

I don't know. But I think it matters, very much. Newspapers are the way the vast majority of people get their information, and how their viewpoints are shaped. If the papers are getting it wrong, the consequences are vast. And this isn't about opinion; these are simple facts that Ms. Ciezadlo has misstated here.

It reminds me of something I read somewhere once about journalism (I Googled this every which way to find the actual source, but I came up empty). It went like this: The more expert you are on a subject, the more clear it is when you read a newspaper article about it that everything in that article is incorrect."

Although that's of course hyperbole, I've noticed the phenomenon myself. The people I've known personally who've been quoted in an article--misquoted, as often as not. If the article is about something I know a bit about--therapy, dance, social science research--I find glaring errors as a rule. What is this about? Is it willful? Is it stupidity? Is it speed? Sloppiness?

My answer at the moment is that sometimes it's any of those things, all of those things, or some combination of those things. But I have a theory that sometimes the following factor is also operating, either in concert with these things, or alone: I get the impression that many journalists nowadays (as opposed to in the past) are first and foremost writers (I don't know about Ms. Ciezadlo, since, as I said, I was unable to get much biographical information on her). As such, they may not really be experts in anything, except writing and journalism itself. Perhaps they were English or literature majors who may have then gotten a graduate degree in journalism school. Writing, writing, writing.

Now, I'm not down on writers--some of my best friends are writers! I'm a writer, even! But I think that writers who come to writing with a solid grounding as experts in something--history or economics or the military or law--or who have training in the discipline known as "critical thinking," might be less likely to make so many errors (especially when writing on a subject within their field of expertise).

Journalists sometimes remind me of the line from the "My Fair Lady" song "Why Can't the English": "The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." Perhaps some journalists don't care what they say, actually, as long as it's well-written. Bias is always a possiblity (and, in some cases a probability), also. But again, I'm not talking about opinions here, I'm talking about simple and verifiable facts. Why can't the journalists get them right?


At 4:02 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a few reasons I came up with - I'm sure there are many more.

Economics: "journalists" still have to publish a certain amount, so where do companies cut costs? Fact-checking and editing. It's time consuming and expensive.

Competition: Being first with a story is more important than being accurate. No time to fact-check to get the big story out ahead of everyone else.

Marketing: Scandal, tragedy, and dirt sell. Getting people to read the stories seems to be more important than accuracy - tabloid journalism has become the norm. Ethics in reporting were sacrificed long ago. The MSM has become masters at lying, misleading, and decieving with figures and statistics too. Twist the stories until they sound interesting.

Focus on Negativity: For whatever reason the MSM seems to focus almost exclusively on negative slants to any story. Positive facts are minimized, and negative facts are maximized or exagerated in the MSM today. If 51% of people sampled don't like something, it will many times be reported as "a majority" or "most people" in an attempt to exagerate the fact.

Sheep Mentality: If one MSM outlet breaks with a story the others follow like a flock of sheep without question - even if a story is false. The Big Lie comes to mind - repeat a false story long enough and loud enough and people will begin to believe it is true.

Agendas: Since many of the "journalists" are want-to-be writers, some seem to be more interested in pushing a personal agenda rather than publishing facts. This would be fine if it were presented as such to the readers. These elitists appear to want to do the interpreting for the masses instead of letting the readers come to their own conclusions.

Lack of Respect: Publish first, then if you are wrong give some sort of half-hearted apology on page 37, or claim "fake but accurate." Anything goes in today's media - who cares who gets hurt. Again, ethics are gone. Justify it with chants of "Freedom of the Press."

Exposure: The MSM has been getting away with shoddy, biased, slanted reporting for decades - but with global communication, the internet, and blogs they are being found out more and more in near real-time.

Here is an example of how well the media does their fact-checking.

At 4:42 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just the nature of the beast. To wit, two interesting quotes I found at http://morrock.com/newsdef.htm:

It was (Thomas) Jefferson who wrote John Norvell (in a letter he insisted not get into the press) that newspapers could be divided into four chapters -- truths, probabilities, possibilities, and lies -- the first chapter being very short and the second not much longer.
William J. Small
former CBS Washington Bureau manager, ``Political Power and the Press'' (W.W. Norton, 1972)

[M]edia culture is so deeply imbued with a typically postmodern sense that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths or that, if there were, they would be inaccessible to human reason and therefore irrelevant. In such a view, what matters is not the truth but "the story" . . . .
Pope John Paul II
(Jan. 24, 2001)

And these two takes found at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/journalism.html

Journalism: A profession whose business is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.
Lord Northcliffe

Thanks to my solid academic training, today I can write hundreds of words on virtually any topic without possessing a shred of information, which is how I got a good job in journalism.
Dave Barry

At 4:54 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was struck by the sentence in your last paragraph stating " some journalists don't care what they say as long as it is well written". I think this infatuation with the craft and art of words is part of the reason that Bush drives them crazy. He's perfectly content to be fairly minimalistic in a response and, heaven forbid, even uses one syllable words. An interesting aside along this line...there seemed to be a direct link with length of essay and high score in the new SAT writing component. No surprise but it's a shame direct, clear thought doesn't always get the credit it deserves. And, yes, I know I tend to be wordy...maybe I could get a high SAT score!

At 5:20 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas. Responded to your comment over at Michael Totten's site. I would just repeat here that journalists have to get their background info somewhere, and it wouldn't surprise me to find they get it from other journos (newspapers have internal archives for a reason).

Also thought of something I wrote about a while back, which is how a world model can affect what a reporter sees. Here's a quote from the CJR analysis of the Rathergate incident, talking specifically about the evidence of forgery:

The first, typography, took many detours before winding up at inconclusive, second, military terminology, is more telling but also not final. The third, the recollections of those involved, is most promising, but so far woefully underreported.

Of course, the typography was the ironclad evidence that any prosecuting (or defense) attorney would kill for in a court case, but to someone who has bought into the primacy of narrative in postmodern thought, only the stories told really matter.

Any journo who bought into that and who could find one fruitloop who would say that a typewriter might have been able to produce that memo in the 70s felt they had all the validation they needed, because it fit the story so well.

I'm not saying that's a predominant strain in journalism, but I think its telling that journalists aspire to the kind of respect (Columbia Journalism Review!) that "real" professionals receive.

Journalism as a practical trade has hit hard times. It will get better, but expect more thinning of the herd and general journo-bashing before the bad habits and ideations get tossed out of the handbook.

At 6:58 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The media seem to subscribe to the Harvard Business School theory of journalism. There is some Platonic ideal called "news." All you have to know is how to "report news." You don't have to know any specific subject.

If that theory is wrong, it would explain a lot of what we see.

At 7:30 PM, May 24, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

I think you all are misunderstanding postmodernism a little bit. I don't pretend to be an expert, but this line by mark poling caught me: "to someone who has bought into the primacy of narrative in postmodern thought, only the stories told really matter."

This comes strikingly close to what you all, in fact, are saying: namely that nowadays (or perhaps always) the stories told about an event supercede and obscure the truth of the event itself. Storytelling is the means by which truth and untruth blur. Postmodernism doesn't say "since there's no truth just go ahead and tell whatever story you want." It says something closer to "because we are always telling stories truth becomes impossible to access."

This last line is still very strong, and I think an overstatement. A slightly weaker version might read "because we are always telling stories the truth becomes slippery, and takes a lot of work to find." And this, perhaps, many of you would agree with. Rumors and stories can overwhelm truth, and the task of sorting it all out again is daunting and, at times, nearly impossible. Perhaps a few will find the truth, and proclaim it at the top of their lungs, but if they are indistinguishable from the hundreds of others proclaiming things at the top of their lungs the truth may be, de facto, lost.

Case in point, does it now matter whether or not a Koran was flushed? Millions of people believe it was flushed, and despite retractions most will not change their beliefs. Sounds like the "primacy of the narrative" to me. All this carping about the MSM is precisely because narratives do matter so very much. And look, you all were postmodernists all along but never knew it...

At 7:45 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 8:04 PM, May 24, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

"Journalists: experts in what?"


Or, to paraphrase the old saw:
Good news is no news.

I expect you catch my drift...

At 10:49 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great deal of what the msm does can, imo, be explained by two things -

1. Contempt, both for the people they're reporting on and for their audience, all of whom, with a few exceptions ('activists', leftists, democrats), are in the msm's view ignorant, dishonest bigots (talk about projection!).

2. A historic lack of accountability, which has resulted in everything from sloppiness around the edges to fraud. Thanks the Lord for the internet, because those days are ending.

I will also add that whenever the msm has reported on something that I have personal knowledge of, the msm has either misquoted the person they are interviewing or gotten one or more basic facts wrong - exemplifying the blend of contempt and at best sloppiness I mentioned above.

At 11:20 PM, May 24, 2005, Blogger Alex said...


You're right that there are many strains of postmodernism, some worse than others. (What do you expect from a set of theories put forward by thousands of people over the course of several decades?)

But I think my main point still stands. The problem you guys describe is essentially a postmodern one: truth getting lost in storytelling. This is exactly what postmodernism predicts will happen. Accusing postmodernism of causing this problem is a little like accusing economics of causing recessions.

This is not to say that the excesses of postmodernism do not bear some of the blame for the current state of the world. But in this arena, it glows.

At 11:39 PM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things, Alex - I don't think that postmodernism has any lock on that idea. I wasn't exposed to post-modernism until late in college, and even then nearly all my teachers detested it (being in a smallish rural university). Even when studying calssicism we were told that as a fundamental principle (in fact, hwo could any long term beliefe ignore that and be right for any length of time?)The difference being that nearly every single other philsophy tries to limit it, post-modernist embrace it.

Secondly, as to the quote in the main article about the MSM not being correct, many have realised that for years. When I was first forming my political/social opinions I did what I normally did - read as much as I could. This included economics, philosphy, basic sciences, and just simply "human interest stories". At the time there were only a few things I knew much about - firearms (had been a junior competitive target shooter for a few years) and computers (early 90's, what was called then a "white hat hacker"). Universially the liberal (and even worse the leftist) thought/papers got those two things so royally screwed up I couldn't trust much of what they said. If they got simple easy to follow (and, being a freshman in high school I would assume that if I could follow it, then a prestigious journalist should be at least able to question someone else who understands it) how can I believe what thier long term predictions are? One of the main tenents of comp sci is "garbage in, garbage out". All I saw was "garbage in" so thier conclusions would only be correct by chance. Not that it made the "conservative" viewpoint the only correct one (I still vehemently disagree with them on several issues, and those issues they are generally very bad about the "garbage in" syndrome also), but it lent a HUGE amount incentive to listen when someone at least got verfiable facts strait - even better if you found them to admit mistakes from time to time and change thier programs/ideas (which many conservative writers/pundits have).

At 12:50 AM, May 25, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

I thought you might appreciate the following:

First Person Debrief of a USNA Grad - AF Officer about to depart Baghdad

Hi Everyone

Just wanted to thank all of you for your emails, jokes, packages, hospital supplies, cookies, cards, letters, newspapers, etc. You've all made this tour just a little bit easier and for that I thank you. I will be departing Baghdad on Sunday, 22 May. After Saturday morning, 21
May I will no longer have access to this email account.

It's been a wild five months. Many of the things that I've seen, both good and bad, I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I thought I'd leave you with my final thoughts from Baghdad for whatever they're worth:

The big question: are we winning this war? My answer to that is both simple and complicated. In short, yes we are. But this war will not be over any time soon and in fact it will likely last our entire lifetimes. It is so much bigger than Iraq. Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have been growing unabated and unopposed for decades. Add to that the demographics of the Arab/Muslim world, corrupt governments that can't meet the basic needs of their people, decades of terrible US foreign policy, the morally bankrupt influence of Wahhabism, disenfranchised youths, the disrespect of women, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc.

And to prove God has a sense of humor, he threw into the mix a region that floats on oil and gave the West an insatiable desire/need for the stuff. In short this is all very complicated stuff with no easy answers. Additionally, for the US to win this war its strategy must also include a confrontation of our own past and values: is it still permissible to support or turn a blind eye to those corrupt governments that happen to be pro-US, what damage was done by not confronting terrorism earlier (from Carter thru 9-11, both parties are guilty), do we have the will to see this battle through to the end, what role does our own lack of energy conservation play, should we have a greater influence on Israel to cease counter-productive policies like building more settlements in the West Bank. So when I say we are winning, it only somewhat refers to the situation on the ground, troop levels, insurgents killed, etc. Despite what the press says, great progress is being made. This is not a popular uprising that we face-it is comprised of foreigners, criminals, and ex-Baathists. Bombs will always make better headlines than the building of schools or the functioning of a court system. Mainly I say we're winning because our enemy, the foreign insurgents and fundamentalists, have nothing to offer to the people of Iraq. They can blow themselves up and take innocent people with them but they can never win the popular support. They are loathed by the Iraqi on the street. To see what kind of government are they capable of producing, one need only look at the Taliban. They're great at forcing men to grow beards or stoning women, but they can't provide basic social services, build roads, educate their children or create employment. Like the Nazis, Soviets, and Apartheid before them, they will ultimately fail simply because they are incapable of succeeding.

In my lifetime I have witnessed three great triumphs of the human spirit: the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela walking out of prison, and Iraqis defiantly going to the voting booth on January 30th despite the constant threat of death.

Secondly I would say that I will never again view the act of voting the same way. I've been pretty hit and miss over my life when it came to voting. Sometimes it was inconvenient, other times I wasn't well versed enough on the issues, and still other times I thought that I could voice my dissent by not voting. I am now ashamed by all of these excuses. I've heard a thousand times the cliché that people gave their lives so we that could have the right to vote. I guess I never really internalized it before. I now know men and women, American and Iraqi, who actually gave their lives so others could vote. For the rest of my life I will think of them whenever I am in a voting booth.

I know the range of opinion on this war run the entire spectrum, even among my good friends on this email. Everything in the preceding paragraphs is open to debate and I don't claim to be smarter than anyone else on these matters. But I would like to close off with one observation that I believe to be absolute: we should all feel honored by the men and women who are serving here. They work under impossibly harsh conditions: the danger, the heat, the dust, and the split second life and death decisions. These kids who serve their country are amazing. They do their job, they take care of each other and they don't expect much in return except a hot meal once in a while and a cot in a corner somewhere to get some sleep. They are selfless beyond belief and they would without hesitation risk their lives for each other or for total strangers. To know them and to serve with them has been the greatest honor of my life.


At 6:01 AM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea why journalists so often get the facts wrong, but I can definitely confirm that they do. Several years ago I went through a brief period of local celebrity during which perhaps 15 or 20 articles about me were published in various newspapers. They were all based on tape-recorded interviews. How many of those articles do you suppose got all the facts right? ONE. Exactly one article appeared with every fact straight and every quotation accurate. And that one was written by an unpaid amateur columnist who did something else for her real job. All of the rest of the articles were stuffed with factual errors and misquotations. (I was never contacted by a fact-checker in connection with any of them.)

Ever since that experience, I have read the news as if I were reading fiction. Based on what happened to me, I have to assume that in any given article, about half of the facts and quotations I am reading are wrong.

At 6:23 AM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it is time for citizens to start heckling media reps anytime and anywhere they are seen in public doing their thing - some cat-calling and chants of "tell the truth, tell the truth", some appropriate confrontations demanding to know if they are going to present the whole story or just their version, asking what their real agenda is, etc. Why is it that nobody ever questions a damn reporter on the street, huh? Are media reps on the street some sort of sacred cow that can't be approached and questioned? They have no compunction at all about invading our personal spaces, do they? Why the hell can't we approach a reporter and butt into their business and ask what their agenda is? We sit and moan and complain about their irresponsibility but do nothing about it. Start calling newspapers and ask to speak to a reporter, tell them you are a citizen and are tired of journalists irresponsible conduct and tell them you would like to know what is being done about it and ask them to tell you why you should trust them. There are alot of things that can be done to hold them to a higher standard.

At 10:57 AM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."
-Robert Heinlein

At 10:57 AM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The RAH quote was mine:

N. O'Brain

At 11:13 AM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody seems to mention one obvious factor: "journalists", as a group, are kinda dumb.

At 5:06 PM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This thread is probably dead, but this caught my eye:

But I think my main point still stands. The problem you guys describe is essentially a postmodern one: truth getting lost in storytelling. This is exactly what postmodernism predicts will happen. Accusing postmodernism of causing this problem is a little like accusing economics of causing recessions.

Yes, and because postmodernism predicts it will happen, postmodern thinkers don't put much value in the concept of truth.

Which allows certain people who should know better but who have absorbed the chattering gestalt to say with a straight face that the evidence for a story was "fake but accurate".

We're not discussing a "wet pavement makes rain" situation here; instead we're dealing with a system where output becomes part of the input. Feeback loops, in other words. Words make more words; stories generate other stories.

Respect for truth in this system acts as a noise suppressor; internal contradictions and variance with observed data keep the system from ramping up into a meaningless howl. Toss the factors that suppress noise out of the system, and the output becomes worse than useless.

Which may explain why so much that is called postmodern hurts the ears, smells bad, causes glaucoma, etc. etc. etc.

At 10:34 PM, May 25, 2005, Blogger Dymphna said...

This thread is probably dead...

Yeah, perhaps. But it was a good one.

Post-modernism has always seemed like sub-atomic physics. Interesting to read about, but just theory when it comes to daily life.

In theory, I know the table in my kitchen, made of pine, is not *really* solid. Nonetheless, it holds my plate nicely.

IOW, physics and post-modernism are nice places to visit but who can live there? Even the physicists go home and partake in very primitive behaviors....

Meanwhile, the "journalists" have so besmirched their calling it may never recover. But that's okay, the academics in the humanities did that a long time ago and they aren't jumping off bridges...

They are simply irrelevant to the rest of us.

And not very bright.

At 11:28 PM, May 25, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the real culprit is post-modernism per se; it's post-modernism combined with a much more pernicious belief: moral relativism. And, since they are often combined in practice, postmodernism takes some of the rap.

At 11:06 AM, May 26, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And you're an expert at what? Criticising others?
What a joke.

At 11:22 AM, May 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brave Sir Anon!

Fortunately (and contrary to evolving conventional wisdom) critical thinking doesn't require a license.

(BTW, for a very good discussion of the inevitable ossification that follows official sanctioning of experts, read The Future and Its Enemies by Virgina Postrel.)

At 8:28 PM, May 27, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Upon reflection, I can see Mark Poling's argument. Expectations of the inaccessability of truth might cause people to stop trying: a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. You could even make a similar argument for my economics example. If people, for whatever reason, believe a bank (or Argentina, to take a random example) is about to become insolvent they will pull out their money, leading to... insolvency. So feedback systems do have this feature where knowledge of the system can effect how the system functions. Is this the legacy of postmodernism, that by predicting that truth is impossible to find they made it in fact impossible to find? Hard to say -- that's a lot of responsibility to lay at the feet of one intellectual movement.


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