Just about everyone has already piled on to the latest development in the George Will saga – the Washington Post’s belated publication of an opinion piece by Chris Mooney and a letter from the World Meteorological Association pointing out (very politely) that Will was lying in every paragraph of his notorious piece on global warming. And just about everyone has the same take: in the absence of a retraction or correction, the Post is taking the view that Will is entitled to his own facts. (Here’s Matthew Yglesias, for example, and Mooney has a huge list of links at his site).
The absolute refusal of the Post to take a position on the truth or falsity of what it publishes (along with the continued scandal of anonymous sourcing) leads me to a steadily more negative view of the question of whether we actually need newspapers and whether we should regret their seemingly inexorable decline. The standard claim is that without reporters, we in the blogosphere would have no material to work on. But Will’s recycling of long-refuted Internet factoids (something very common among rightwing pundits in particular) shows that, in important respects, the opposite is true.
More importantly as far as political and business news goes, there is almost always someone with an interest in having any given story published. If newspapers are unwilling to take a stand on which stories are true or false, their only function is that of gatekeeper – determining which stories see the light of day and which do not. The potential for corruption in this role is clear, and the reality was obvious particularly in relation to the Iraq war.
Update Lots of readers have inferred that I welcome/wish for the demise of newspapers or opinion columnists. Actually, having written (and been paid for) an opinion column in a national newspaper for the past fifteen years, I am deeply ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, the deplorable handling of issues like climate change (particularly in opinion pages, but to a significant extent in news as well) the early years of the Iraq war (if anything worse in the news pages than the opinion section), and the ‘inside baseball’ approach to political news in general leads me to think we would be better off without them. On the other hand, there’s obviously a lot to lose here, and it’s not clear how, if at all, some of it can be replaced.
Of course, what will happen will happen, regardless of what I think about it. But maybe if those making decisions about how newspapers are run think more closely about episodes like this one, they might see the need for change, and that change might enhance their chances of survival.