Working the Refs – Epistemology and Diplomacy

by John Holbo on June 30, 2010

Congrats to Dave Weigel on his new gig. You might want to read his mea culpa piece that just went up at (of all places!) Big Journalism. Comments are a hoot. [UPDATE: I see Breitbart is now offering a $100,000 reward for the complete JournoList archives. Sigh.]

The mea culpa makes the point that it’s risky, trying to make too many different groups like you, by talking down the other groups – whom you also want to like you. Age of Facebook and all. Not the sort of thing you should have to lose your job over, but embarrassing.

A point about the original leaked emails/postings. Weigel’s critics didn’t take kindly to severe snark about Drudge and Newt and Rand Paul; but what was presented as truly damning evidence that Weigel wasn’t willing and able to play his role as journalistic ‘bystander’ were the bits where he seemed to be 1) saying some prominent conservative thinkers/ideas aren’t worth taking seriously; 2) criticizing framing/spin efforts by conservatives and conservative media, and maybe hinting at ways that journalists should try, collectively, to counter such efforts. It’s easy to see why conservatives would be put off by the tone of Weigel’s comments, but it was apparently the fact that Weigel expressed ideas whose content fit categories 1) and 2) that got him fired. Let me try to say why this is nuts in a slightly different way than other people have been, rightly, saying this is nuts. And let me roll up 1) in 2), because 1) is just a special case of 2): crazy people are just spin doctors who have gone native, as it were.

The following thought is, I hope, uncontroversial: there are sustained, at least semi-coordinated efforts by conservatives and partisan conservative media to ‘work the refs’ of the MSM, for conservative partisan advantage. This isn’t to say that conservatives are the only ones doing so, merely that they are among those who do so. And it isn’t to say that ‘working the refs’ is wrong either. It’s clear all political players are going to be constantly pushing preferred frames and self-serving talking points. Sometimes people are going to go too far. Sometimes way too far. Granting this fact, it’s ethically incumbent on journalists to acknowledge this, and adjust coverage appropriately. And journalists can talk to other journalists about it. On private lists, I should think.

It’s like discussions of what to do about flopping in sports. Blame the refs? Blame the players? Change the rules in some way? (What if there were a team whose players rigorously trained as floppers, and everyone pretty much knew that this was an integral part of their basic strategy?) It’s noteworthy that the one response that obviously makes no sense whatsoever, which no one would consider in the sports case, is the only response the WaPo is even willing to consider, to judge from Weigel’s case: refs have a professional duty not to perceive that some players may be flopping more than others. (Here we might note that there is a crazy person/spin doctor distinction that doesn’t carry over very well into the area of sports. Suffice it to say that if there were involuntary floppers – players subject to minor bouts of epilepsy, when lightly brushed by opposing players – the game would get yet harder to officiate.)

Cue chorus of complaint: conservatives long-term victims of bias, working the refs just an attempt to level the playing field (to mix sports metaphors). Why isn’t Weigel equally worried about liberal bias etc. etc.? But there are good responses to all such complaints. Weigel’s beat was the conservative movement, so if he tended to focus on difficulties reporting his beat, in particular, that is not suspicious. He is certainly willing to defend conservatives when he feels liberals are being unfair. But mostly the thing to see is that these Weigel-specific points are irrelevant to the main point about what proper journalistic norms should be. Let’s go back to our hypothetical squad of champion floppers. Suppose this team justifies their tactics on the ground that refs are unfair to them, so it’s basically a wash. Suppose it’s even true that, in the past, this team has maybe suffered from biased refereeing. Even so, no one would think it makes sense for refs to institute some sort of informal, ad hoc, affirmative action program for floppers.

Conservatives feel the refs – the MSM - aren’t fair to them, so conservatives treat these refs as players for the other team. To put it another way: having decided the refs aren’t doing their job, conservatives have decided to do it for them. How should journalists respond? Well, obviously, it gets a bit complicated being ‘a bystander’, while being treated as an opposing player by the people who are complaining about what a lousy bystander you are being. But what is the proper professional norm for dealing with this sort of situation? It would obviously be irresponsible just to assume that there can be no basis for conservatives’ aggrieved feelings. Maybe they’ve got a point. But here’s the thing: whether it’s understandable or not, you can’t let them do your job, on pain of you not doing it. Journalists are responsible for determining what is a ‘reasonable’ frame, which means, potentially, ruling some stuff out as beyond the pale, as a proposed frame. If you yourself can’t make reasonable determinations of what is ‘reasonable’, you can’t be a journalist. (This is not to say it’s easy, just that it’s necessary.) If you really believe you can’t, if you believe you have systematic left-wing bias, and for some bizarre reason you are unable to correct for that, short of informally contracting out to conservatives to trick you into correcting for it by accident on a regular basis, you ought to quit.

So for damn sure you shouldn’t be fired for not doing this silly thing.

Lots of people have made the correct point that it’s silly to think reporters, like Weigel, should have no opinions. But beyond that, it’s silly to think reporters should not have opinions about the dynamics of opinion-formation – opinions about how prominent crazy people and spin doctors in the public sphere affect public discourse. And it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions. This is hard to do, and it puts you on a slippery slope to arrogance and error. Maybe the people you think are crazy aren’t crazy at all. Maybe you are the crazy one. And you are making your readers crazy. Fine. This is possible. Everyone should do their best to be self-critical, and consider whether their paradigm needs shifting. But at the end of the day, you have to believe what you believe. There is literally no other place to stand than at the top of this slippery slope. ‘Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the sun goes around the earth …’ is a sensible thing to think, staking a claim while opening the door to correction. On the other hand, ‘the sun goes around the earth, but I’m half wrong, so it doesn’t,’ is unstable, and not in a healthy, open-to-paradigm-shifts way, just in a senseless way.

Solomon can split the difference between parties to a dispute, but not if Solomon is a party to the dispute, such that Solomon is now obliged to split the difference between splitting the difference and not splitting the difference. You end up with a cross between a Russellian Theory of Ramified Types and a Liberal Who Can’t Take His Own Side In a Fight. (And we haven’t even started in on what happens to Solomon once the other parties get wind of the fact that Solomon always splits the difference.) Committing yourself to evenhandedness, while thinking of yourself as just one player in the game – not as ‘above it all’ – seems sensible and modest, but it risks giving you an epistemological itch you can’t scratch. It may preserve you from groupthink, but by attacking the ‘think’ bit, not the ‘group’ bit.

We’ve left Weigel far behind. Like I said, his snarky postings aren’t the point. The point is the norm of evenhandedness that got him fired. But let me conclude by saying just a bit about Weigel’s actual case.

As he says in his mea culpa, he’s mostly guilty of having been a clumsy diplomat. He wanted to be on everyone’s good side and it backfired. If the WaPo had actually said that – if they had, in effect, said they were removing Weigel from his diplomatic posting as the WaPo’s envoy to the conservative movement – that would at least have made sense. Of course, saying a reporter is being fired for being a bad diplomat, not for being a bad reporter, is awkward for obvious reasons. It makes sense for diplomats to be forever trying to appear even-handed, so as to be agreeable to all parties. And we expect reporters to appear even-handed. But that does not mean reporting and diplomacy are the same thing. The reasons why you are self-effacing in one case are totally different than in the other. Yglesias has related thoughts today. I would add that there actually is a kind of hybrid intellectual-diplomatic option worth considering: there is a real intellectual benefit, potentially, to enforcing falsely diplomatic standards of decorum. People who really have contempt for each other – who maybe don’t even think the other side is worth debating, in an ideal world – can debate in a superficially civil manner. This can work out pretty well, given that the likely alternative is just a lot of shouting. Although it can also not work out well even compared to this unedifying alternative. It would be possible to justify the obligatory ‘evenhandedness’ of MSM political coverage along these lines: false decorum in the regulative service of vigorous debate, in the service of truth. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s quite the system we’ve got.

{ 157 comments }

1

Steve Casburn 06.30.10 at 3:28 am

(What if there were a team whose players rigorously trained as floppers, and everyone pretty much knew that this was an integral part of their basic strategy?)

…and what if we gave this hypothetical team a name…say…oh, something at random…”Italy”.

2

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 3:45 am

How about ‘Schmitaly’, just so no one feels that they are being specifically accused?

3

Rich Puchalsky 06.30.10 at 3:59 am

What Weigel’s mea culpa article confirms, for me, is that he’s a weasel who no one should really care about.

“Why did I want these people to like me so much? Why did I assume that I needed to crack wise and rant about people who, usually for no more than five minutes were getting on my nerves? Because I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean. Yes, I’d trash-talk liberals to Republicans sometimes. “

In other words, he wasn’t “a reporter with opinions.” He was flattering the liberals on that list by trash-talking Republicans. When he was in a room with Republicans, he’d trash-talk liberals. There isn’t any integrity there, just a craven desire to please. He’s really no different that the twits who fired him: he’s just less experienced, and didn’t know, yet, the right techniques for being everything to everyone.

And the conservative machine took him down. Well, good. It’s a destructive machine, and it turned on him, just like it’s going to turn on every other schmibertarian Ron Paul voter and Iraq War supporter who tries to reject their former conservatism when it gets a little less fashionable.

No one in journalism came out looking good from this incident. Which is good, because journalism is nearly defunct, and the sooner people realize that, the better.

4

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 4:28 am

This says some good things — e.g., things to the effect that reporters are not “refs”, and that uncorrected systematic left-wing (or right-wing) bias is a sufficient reason to quit being a reporter (or to be fired, one would assume). But that doesn’t mean that a reporter — i.e., one who reports — can’t or shouldn’t commit to the objective of transmitting factual information that is as free from opinion as possible. Like the rest of us, reporters are human, and so there are limits to what’s possible with such an objective. But that doesn’t invalidate the objective.

This is to say that “… it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions. ” — is wrong, as would quickly be evident here if the bulk of reporters happened to have opinions that were right-wing. Let reporters report what was said — whether spin, craziness, or a breath of sense — and let commentators, priests, politicians, scientists, bloggers, etc., do whatever “helping” they can.

5

NJM 06.30.10 at 4:33 am

Steve @1: I am glad I am not the only person who immediately thought this. I even went as far as copying the text before reading the comments and discovering I had been beaten to it.

6

Substance McGravitas 06.30.10 at 4:33 am

In other words, he wasn’t “a reporter with opinions.” He was flattering the liberals on that list by trash-talking Republicans. When he was in a room with Republicans, he’d trash-talk liberals. There isn’t any integrity there, just a craven desire to please.

That’s fine if he produces things I want to read that are also accurate.

7

Rich Puchalsky 06.30.10 at 4:46 am

Substance McG, according to him he got in trouble because he was carried away by a desire to tell everyone what they wanted to hear. What do you want to bet he flatters his readers the same way?

I mean, yeah, not a firing offense. He still might be better than the majority of the people out there, who are actively in the tank. But the people who fired him probably are not as bad as the worst reporters either. This interaction is not an example of bad journalists getting rid of a good one. He was hired to report on conservatives as a result of the conservative machine, and now they took him down when he transgressed. Like Frum, there’s no reason to make him a hero now that he’s been cast down by the same force that once elevated him.

8

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 4:52 am

I’m with Substance on this one. I don’t think Weigel seems particularly unusual in his level of role-switching, depending on which group you are currently interacting with. Irving Goffman and all that. Add to that: Weigel actually was acting as a sort of diplomat/anthropologist, in a couple different ways. He needed it to be the case that people with whom he had significant ideological differences – some liberals, some conservatives – were friendly to him. He wanted things from them, partly for personal advancement (which is not a terrible motive: just wanting to succeed in your chosen line of work); partly because he needed good will from several sides to do his job well. Which I think he did. His job well, I mean.

9

Salix 06.30.10 at 5:08 am

Suffice it to say that if there were involuntary floppers – players subject to minor bouts of epilepsy, when lightly brushed by opposing players

I’m sorry, but what the hell? “Minor bouts of epilepsy”? I realize you’re trying to be witty and oh-so-clever and all, but that’s (a) really offensive (b) medically inaccurate.

Epilepsy is not a punchline. Seizures (which is what you meant–not actually epilepsy, nobody has “bouts” of epilepsy) are not a punchline. People who have seizures are not a punchline.

(To everyone who is wanting to say ‘stop being so sensitive’: don’t bother, I’ve heard it, if it were your life you’d care too, let’s not derail the comment thread, kthxbai).

10

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 5:11 am

“What do you want to bet he flatters his readers the same way?”

I see no particular reason to suppose this is true. I mean: more so than it’s true for any other reporter you might hit if you threw a rock in a newspaper office. It is the case that everyone want to be loved, on average. So you kind of have to factor that in.

The thing about these self-presentations: Weigel is sort of schizophrenic ideologically. I assume he played up one side of his actual personality, when interacting with liberals and the other side when interacting with conservatives. Not lying but tactical omission. I don’t doubt that he believed the things he said on the list. I think he probably just refrained from saying some other things he believed that would have pissed off the other liberals on the list, with whom he wanted to maintain cordial relations. Then he went and did the opposite thing with conservatives. This is not so terrible, in my book. It seems to me normal and even predictable. I would have guessed something like it in Weigel’s case.

11

M. Bouffant 06.30.10 at 5:31 am

I’ve been reading Weigel for about a yr. & a half, & have always found him to be even-handed (a little too even-handed, even) & I assume accurate, never having seen any hysteria from any one he interviewed or quoted about having been misquoted by him. One might even expect that those who had felt misquoted or abused in print before, but said nothing, would bring it up now, in the general spirit of piling on. So far, I’ve seen nothing.

12

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 5:47 am

“This is to say that “… it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions. ”—is wrong, as would quickly be evident here if the bulk of reporters happened to have opinions that were right-wing. Let reporters report what was said—whether spin, craziness, or a breath of sense— and let commentators, priests, politicians, scientists, bloggers, etc., do whatever “helping” they can.”

Sorry, the post may not be clear on this point, but I take it to be too obvious to mention that reporters are not supposed to be in the business of intentionally lying to readers, just to induce them to have the (politically) ‘right’ beliefs. This is what I meant by saying that good reporting is inherently on a slippery slope. It’s on a slippery slope to a kind of paternalistic encouragement of ‘right thinking’. But there is simply nowhere for journalism to be but at the top of this slippery slope. Your job is to package information in such a way that people will form sensible opinions about what you are talking about, based on that information. So you shouldn’t write a story that is technically true but predictably misleading, no more so than you should write a story that is technically false, but will, by happy accident, tend to cause people to have sensible ideas about some general subject. (The latter is a more flagrant journalistic foul but they are both equally bad in that you absolutely shouldn’t do either, if you can avoid it.) But once you take it as your job to impose a generally reasonable frame on whatever you are reporting, you are liable to go too far. You may presume too much on your own sense of reasonableness, and sort of pack that into your reporting, doing your readers a disservice. But that’s just the way it is. There’s no such thing as good journalism that isn’t perilously close to certain sorts of bad journalism. You can insist that people do a different sort of bad journalism, which isn’t close to the sort of bad journalism that’s close to good journalism. But that’s not a good idea. (Your description of journalism – “Let reporters report what was said—whether spin, craziness, or a breath of sense— and let commentators, priests, politicians, scientists, bloggers, etc., do whatever “helping” they can.” – is actually not a description of journalism at all. Journalism is not passing along raw audio-visual/textual material. That’s fine, but it’s actually not what journalists are supposed to provide.)

As to ‘minor bouts of epilepsy’. Since this is a fictional condition, as evidenced by the conspicuously nonsensical nature of the description, I dispute that it is a medically inaccurate description. No more so than descriptions of unicorns are zoologically inaccurate. But I apologize for any hurt feelings. Certain none were intended.

13

nick s 06.30.10 at 6:56 am

As he says in his mea culpa, he’s mostly guilty of having been a clumsy diplomat.

Or, to put it diplomatically, a forty-faced f*cker. Which is quite acceptable for a journalist in another world capital than DC. Compare and contrast to Rick Perlstein, perhaps?

14

Daniel 06.30.10 at 7:20 am

UPDATE: I see Breitbart is now offering a $100,000 reward for the complete JournoList archives

It’s a bit more than “sigh”, this, isn’t it? Assuming that there are EU citizens on that list, he’s attempting to purchase their private correspondence in which they had a legitimate expectation of confidentiality. That’s a breach of their Article 8 rights, and I don’t think Breitbart is in a position to make the offer of “source protection” that he’s making – I am pretty sure that European courts wouldn’t recognise the purchase for $100k of an archive of private correspondence to be something that outweighs people’s right to privacy and I am not at all sure that the US courts would either. That mail archive would also be coypright the people who read it, so it’s effectively stolen property.

15

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 7:29 am

That’s an excellent point, Daniel.

16

Ben Alpers 06.30.10 at 9:05 am

A very thoughtful post.

It does seem to me that the biggest problem with the soccer analogy is that in soccer there are a clear set of rules that everyone involved (players, refs, fans) can refer to.

No such set of rules exists in politics or journalism (except in extraordinary cases, e.g. political assassinations, stolen elections, etc., when political behavior actually runs afoul of the law). To put it another way (and using a somewhat different sports metaphor), the players are always moving the goalposts in part because there are no stable goalposts to begin with.

There are at least two obvious consequences of this disanalogy. First, a “game” with no set rules significantly complicates the notion of impartial refs.

Second, though I’m generally sympathetic to John Holbo’s argument in this post, this passage seems slippery:

It’s clear all political players are going to be constantly pushing preferred frames and self-serving talking points. Sometimes people are going to go too far. Sometimes way too far.

How can one develop a standard of too-far-ness…especially in the absence of a clear set of rules?

Off the top of my head, the way out of this problem isn’t through determining how much flopping is acceptable, but rather through comparing the spin to reality itself. Journalists need to abandon the world of he-said-she-said, of reporters’ understanding their job as basically consisting of telling the public what various people have said. We don’t have a spin rulebook and we’re not going to get one. But we do have the real world. When the president says that global warming exists and my Senator denies it, journalists have a duty to familiarize themselves with the science and report on who is telling the truth.

Reality has one further advantage (or disadvantage if a party or a society is to committed to ignoring it): rules in a game like soccer need someone to enforce them. Whether or not reporters decide to make reality part of what they’re responsible for, reality isn’t going away. Absent significant behavioral changes, catastrophic global warming will happen whether or not we acknowledge it politically. We may not be interested in reality, but reality is interested in us.

17

Daragh McDowell 06.30.10 at 10:54 am

Great post John. What’s irritated me most about this whole affair is that the too e-mails that seem to have really sealed Weigel’s fate where the one’s on Limbaugh’s heart attack (‘I hope he fails’) and his invitation to Matt Drudge to light himself on fire. This had good, toilet-trained liberal reporters like Jeff Goldberg reaching for the Epsom salts. But lets take a look at these two shall we?

Limbaugh has been consciously trying to stir up racial tension and hatred throughout the Obama years (such as his grotesque exploitation of the school-bus incident) and has a long track-record of nasty invective against what might be termed innocent bystanders (such as when he called a 14 year old Chelsea Clinton ‘the White House Dog.’)

Matt Drudge is a bizarre figure of worship for the inestimably lazy DC press corps. Mark Halperin who is a man frequently capable of sustained bursts of non-idiocy has even called him a modern day Cronkite (this is obviously during one of Halperin’s normally idiotic days.) Yet two-thirds of his ‘reporting’ is either out and out false or seriously misleading, and the remaining third is usually trivial nonsense like the Lewinsky affair that made his name. He is another race-baiter, who breathlessly pumped the ‘Obama in Somali-garb’ photo, and the ‘assault’ on a McCain campaign worker by a crazed Obam-ite, which later turned out to be an obvious self-inflicted wound.

What I’m saying is this – Drudge and Limbaugh are transparently odious human beings with very little in the way of minimal standards of decency. As ‘journalists’ the best that can be said of them is that they play fast and loose with the truth, though a more accurate description would be that they stomp all over it in pursuit of their policy objectives. And they are, if not racists themselves, frequent users of racist tropes and stories designed to attack their political opponents. Yet these two men have an inordinate amount of influence over the US political discourse and policy debate. No GOPer can dare criticise El Rushbo, and Drudge continues to, as the DC Press Corps say, ‘rule their world.’

My point is this – the entirety of the US political discourse and thus the quality of US political debate and democracy itself, would be significantly improved if Drudge and Limbaugh were to be ejected from it, whether through heart attack, self-immolation, or serious reporters simply growing a pair.

18

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 11:51 am

John: This is what I meant by saying that good reporting is inherently on a slippery slope. It’s on a slippery slope to a kind of paternalistic encouragement of ‘right thinking’. But there is simply nowhere for journalism to be but at the top of this slippery slope. Your job is to package information in such a way that people will form sensible opinions about what you are talking about, based on that information.

I don’t doubt that reporters need to package information. I do question the aim of getting people to “form sensible opinions about what you are talking about, based on that information”, since I think that already takes them off the top of the slippery slope and half way down it. I don’t think good reporting can get away from the aim, simplistic though it may sound these days, of objectivity, which may look similar to that of getting people to form sensible opinions, but in fact is quite different in its focus — a focus, that is, on reality, as Ben Alpers says, as opposed to people’s “sensible” opinions. Its just that sort of aim or objective that hardens the otherwise too slippery ground beneath their feet.

19

Tom T. 06.30.10 at 11:52 am

It’s a bit strained to describe a conspiracy of the right to work the refs and bring down Dave Weigel when his controversy took place in the context of an exclusively left-leaning journalist listserv, and his exposure and downfall were precipitated presumably by a member thereof. We don’t know why yet, but perhaps we will learn eventually. If that same person is excluded from whatever group takes the place of Journolist, he or she may have other shoes to drop.

And the idea of Weigel wanting to be liked by everyone doesn’t really fit the history. If memory serves, he had been openly throwing around terms like “crazy” to describe Tea Partiers in his column for some time, and the right wasn’t really going to bond with a WaPo correspondent anyway. He had a certain credibility on his beat, however, as someone who would listen and report on the right in reasonably good faith.

Weigel then recently blew up on Journolist with a round of invective broadly denouncing the right, after he’d gotten some nasty email in response to some recent columns. That blast is what first got released, and he apologized for it in his column. Then the source released the second round of collected email, in which Weigel portrays himself as deliberately looking for angles on his stories to make his subjects look stupid, and he was done.

From the WaPo’s point of view, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to think that Weigel would now be fatally ineffective in trying to cover the right. No source is going to talk to a reporter who has said that he’s out to humiliate them. Firing him seems unnecessary, as he could presumably have been reassigned, but maybe they thought that Weigel himself would be the story for a while, no matter where they sent him, and it was easier just to cut ties.

Weigel was an interesting writer stuck in kind of a difficult role. His new gig sounds like a good one and perhaps better suited for him.

20

Tom T. 06.30.10 at 12:30 pm

Re #14, there’s another interesting legal question: If Breitbart’s wildest hopes come true, and the archive reveals agreements among employees of different media companies as to how particular events should be covered, are those agreements in restraint of trade? Obviously the US Justice Department is unlikely to investigate such a claim, but the Virginia Attorney General is a fire-breather and might start serving subpoenas.

21

dsquared 06.30.10 at 12:51 pm

Weigel then recently blew up on Journolist with a round of invective broadly denouncing the right, after he’d gotten some nasty email in response to some recent columns.

This is not true. He specifically denounced Matt Drudge, for misrepresenting something he’d written.

Then the source released the second round of collected email, in which Weigel portrays himself as deliberately looking for angles on his stories to make his subjects look stupid

Also not true.

22

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 1:37 pm

“I don’t doubt that reporters need to package information. I do question the aim of getting people to “form sensible opinions about what you are talking about, based on that information”, since I think that already takes them off the top of the slippery slope and half way down it.”

I think the second half of your comment undercuts the first. If you question the aim of getting people to form sensible opinions about what you are talking about, then I think you are committed to opposing the existence of reporters, so you don’t really think, after all, that they ‘need to package information’. Put it this way: the occasional fabulist just makes stuff up – Blair or Glass. But that’s not really the issue, and it isn’t what people have in mind when they talk about ‘bias’. ‘Bias’ has to do with allegedly making important stuff seem unimportant, or vice versa. Bias has to do with quoting people to make them sound smart or stupid. Bias has to do with how you structure the narrative and so forth. Bias has to do with making simple things seem complicated, or complicated things seem simple. Bias has to do with that little bit of rhetorical emphasis you added, or didn’t, to an otherwise pretty straight piece. Now: journalists are in the story-telling and news-organizing business. There is no way that they can get around making the sorts of presentational decisions that will, potentially, open them to charges of bias. And the normative goal of all this presentation and organization is to be informative, broadly speaking. What it means to be informative is to provide information that will, on the whole, conduce to the formation of sensible opinions about things by reasonable people. If you are opposed to that, then you are, I think, just opposed to journalism. But I don’t think we should be opposed to journalism, even though it’s hard.

23

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 1:41 pm

Obviously you aren’t opposed to the formation of sensible opinions about things by reasonable people. But if you believe that working towards this goal will tend to backfire more often than go right, such that people ought not to try to do such a difficult thing, then I think you ought to be opposed to journalism as too risky and epistemically destabilizing.

24

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 2:01 pm

What it means to be informative is to provide information that will, on the whole, conduce to the formation of sensible opinions about things by reasonable people.

No, this is where we differ. What it means to be informative is to provide information, full stop. “Bias” enters the picture as soon as you start thinking about things like the formation of “sensible” opinions, by “reasonable” people, since of course the notion of what qualifies as sensible opinion, or who constitute the reasonable people is precisely what’s at issue. That’s not to say I’m opposed to “the formation of sensible opinions about things by reasonable people”, but that’s for the reasonable people themselves to do, whoever they be, as possibly aided by, as I said originally, commentators, priests, scientists, ethicists, bloggers, etc. — but not for reporters (at least the good or honest ones).

25

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 2:20 pm

“What it means to be informative is to provide information, full stop.”

Well, that’s fine metamorf, but it does entail that you are opposed to journalism. Not just to ‘bad’ journalism. There can’t be any such thing as good journalism by this measure. There can be things like sound files and video files and primary documents and such. But that’s not journalism.

26

PHB 06.30.10 at 2:27 pm

The whole episode shows bad judgement by the Washington Post.

This is the paper that hosts open racists like Krautheimer as op-ed columnists but fired Dan Froomkin for being too liberal. If you look at their current op-ed lineup it is totally dominated by movement conservatives. Yet the paper is meant to be centrist?

They had a blogger assigned to report the conservative movement but somehow the liberal blogs were not important enough to do the same. Which is odd as the liberal blogs were a force in Democratic politics since Dean’s run in 2003/4. And unlike the conservative blogs which see themselves as a mouthpiece for the policy decided by a GOP administration, the liberal blogs actively engage and attempt to set the agenda.

One reason the Post does not want to do this of course is that the liberal blogs are competitors in the news distribution business and the conservative blogs are not.

As for the list being exclusively ‘liberal’, I very much doubt it. More than a few ‘liberals’ are pretty much Bushies when it comes to Iraq or Israel. Joe Klein was on it for a start. And now he is coming to a defense of Goldberg. And he has in the past publicly lied about his work. Interesting.

27

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 2:32 pm

As I think I said, I recognize that journalists — that is, reporters as distinct from opinionators — need to package information, and in fact that’s why they’re needed. But you feel that the packaging is done so as to conduce the formation of sensible opinions by reasonable people, whereas I think that the packaging is done so as to convey the information (contained in sound files, etc.) as efficiently and objectively as possible, without regard to opinions, sensible or otherwise. In fact, “sensible” opinions and “reasonable” people are just what a good reporter needs to most careful about, lest they bias his/her packaging.

28

bianca steele 06.30.10 at 2:49 pm

John,
I might say more about this later. It seems, however, that you are conflating “journalists” with “popularizers” (as in “not economists but rather journalists”).

29

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 2:51 pm

“As I think I said, I recognize that journalists—that is, reporters as distinct from opinionators—need to package information”

But what information do you include in the package? And how do you arrange the package? What sort of ‘package’? (Nothing remotely like a written report or newsreport, I take it..) If you aren’t just streaming fat raw data files, what do you ‘edit’ out, and why? The only possible regulative position is that you should generally include things, and arrange things, and package things, so as to be optimally informative to your audience. The alternative, I guess, would be some sort of random sample. But that doesn’t sound very promising. But you have ruled out the notion that we can optimize the package so as to be informative. So I think we’re done before we start. Unless we just fall back on streaming raw data that we’ve hoovered up in some impersonal fashion. What sort of alternative model of ‘objectivity’ do you have in mind, that doesn’t help itself to some sense of what is plausible, pertinent, relevant, important, so forth. You can’t say: just report the President’s speech. Because who is to say that the President’s speech is more important than something else you could report instead?

30

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 3:05 pm

I don’t think so, bianca. Just to be clear: I mean the people who do things like gather information for, and write, and edit, articles that appear in newspapers and news magazines, and who contribute to the determination and formation of content appearing on tv news. It’s true that these sorts of journalistic presentations have to be accessible to a large, non-specialist audience, so they are ‘popularized’. If that’s what you mean.

31

bianca steele 06.30.10 at 3:55 pm

John,
I need to read the comments more closely to see if this matches what’s been discussed so far, but if journalists don’t have a discipline that lets them get as close as possible to objectivity with the resources and access they have under the assumption that their sources usually have agendas, then it seems objectivity is now considered to reside with the sources (who have better access) so the media (who associate with the sources enough that they can begin to understand the way they think) can put their respective sides’ spin on it, and inform the ordinary, political public.

32

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 3:58 pm

Let’s, from this point on, stipulate that we’re not talking about “streaming raw data”, any more than, in referring to “bias”, say, we’re speaking of deliberate deception.

What I’m objecting to in your post is the reportorial aim of “forming sensible opinions” for “reasonable people”; what I’m saying is that the aim should be conveying objective reality, and that that’s the aim that should guide decisions on what to include and how to structure the package of information that the reporter delivers. Of course such an aim will necessarily involve decisions about relevance, importance, etc., and I don’t doubt such decisions will unavoidably carry with them certain opinions. But that’s a kind of inherent bias that good reporters can strive to be aware of, and careful about, and in any case is quite a different thing from setting out with the aim of forming opinions (which, it should go without saying, are always “sensible” and “reasonable” to the opinion-holder).

33

John Holbo 06.30.10 at 4:17 pm

“Of course such an aim will necessarily involve decisions about relevance, importance, etc., and I don’t doubt such decisions will unavoidably carry with them certain opinions.”

I think once you say that you are in for a penny, in for a pound. It no longer makes sense to say you are just trying to ‘just present information’, not offer opinion. In fact, it’s actively misleading to say that you are holding out for this extra pure thing. It sets up an impossibly high – indeed incoherent – standard for journalists and then faults them for not clearing it. Better to aim lower and maybe actually hit the target. When I say ‘forming sensible opinions’, I mean something like: in writing about how the health care system works, say, you should write in such a way that a reasonable, literate reader will come away from reading your piece with true rather than false beliefs, with an appropriate sense of what really matters for how things work. What are big factors and little factors. What are the myths and the realities. Will offering vivid examples drive the point home effectively, or will it fall foul of the consideration that anecdotes aren’t data? This is not the sort of thing that you can achieve just by thinking about how the health care system works, although of course you have to do that. You have to think about how the reader’s mind works. A good article is not just a thing that reflects objective reality. That’s too abstract and also too vague. A good article is a thing for connecting up a likely reader’s mind to that reality, in an good sort of way, and it had better be engineered well – rather than badly – to do that job. Is your reader likely to have been previously mislead by common misconceptions? You had better get out ahead of that sort of thing, in your article. But now you are doing all the things that you say you can’t do. You are deciding which frames are sensible and which aren’t. You are pushing the crazy to one side, lest it clutter the place up. Obviously you are now on the slippery slope, but where else could you possibly stand?

34

Bunbury 06.30.10 at 4:26 pm

This is supposed to apply to reporters for a paper that feels a need to answer accusations of bias after asking David Frum to review a bio of Rush Limbaugh? That feels the need to employ no one who has a bad word to say about Matt Drudge for fear of accusations of bias?

Individual responsibility is the wrong tree to bark up. Most of the journalists will think that they are doing a proper job but somebody else decides whether they get a job or whether their story is printed. Plenty of lefties have worked for the Daily Mail for example.

Not that such professionalism would be easy to achieve. In the UK you’ve only to look at sports journalism to feel thankful for the high standards of political reporting.

The conservative working of the ref does not have to be inspired by a perceived injustice as much as it does a perceived effectiveness. Judging by Mr. Alexander’s work, such perceptions are not misplaced. It’s a tactic that’s also open to non-conservatives as well of course but in general it doesn’t seem to be as effective in other hands (Alastair Campbell being a notable exception). It might be suggested that it’s because of who owns the papers or who owns the advertising budgets with the outrage providing useful cover. Those forcing the issue have a lot to answer for as well of course — most journalism is far better if it is covering something not known in advance to be contentious.

35

mpowell 06.30.10 at 4:28 pm

Getting into this debate between John and Metamorf, John it seems that John is basically arguing that ‘presenting objective reality’ = ’cause reasonable people to form sensible opinions’ and this is basically what Metamorf disagrees with. I think that equality is not as strong as John implies, but there is also a lot of truth to it.

How would we measure what it means to present objective reality? I would think that it would mean an unbiased (or at least typical) receiver of that information would afterwards have a more accurate knowledge of objective reality. What else could it possibly mean? You can get into debates about how this ideal receiver should be modeled (and this could have substantial implications for a reporter’s job), but you can’t talk about what it means to present information without talking about how it will be received by it’s audience. If you are speaking in Greek but the audience only hears English, you are not presenting objective reality.

36

PHB 06.30.10 at 4:30 pm

I think that what is being missed in this discussion is the critique made by the blogosphere of the establishment media as being an insular and self-perpetuating group.

Joe Klein has an interesting attack on Greenwald in the Time swampland blog. Interesting because he fails to mention that his dismissal over lying about authorship of Primary Colors involved somewhat similar circumstances, interesting because he leaps to Goldberg’s defense attacking Greenwald for ‘hating America’ and interesting because Ezra Klein started Journolist after an email exchange with Joe Klein. Perhaps he protests too much.

What we are seeing here is not a steady decline in journalistic standards, rather it is the exposure of the shoddy practices and establishment bias that has infected the press in the US for a century. Unlike pretty much every other industrialized country, the US has never had a national press. The local papers have dominated and as a result the papers have had to avoid antagonizing any large opinion block.

This situation made possible the red scares of the 50s. If McCarthy had tried similar tactics in the UK he would have been ripped apart by the Labour and Liberal leaning newspapers. Since the demise of Hearst, the US media has set itself up as the impartial judge. In the European model the media has been more akin to the lawyers arguing the case for each side.

What the Post is doing here is doubling down on the strategy of not giving offense. Which in the current era of movement conservatism means not mentioning the fact that Drudge is a fabricator, Palin is a liar and Fox News is a propaganda outlet. To avoid giving offense to conservatives it is necessary to report Palin’s ‘death panel’ claim without pointing out that it is a deliberate lie, report her claiming to say ‘thanks but no thanks to that bridge to nowhere’ when in fact she did nothing of the sort and somehow report her attacking Obama for supporting offshore drilling which she opposed without mentioning the fact that she was chanting ‘drill baby drill’ only months earlier.

37

Bloix 06.30.10 at 4:30 pm

Dave Weigel was as far as I know the only journalist who reported accurately on what movement conservatives are saying to each other. You could get an understanding of what the debates were, what the key figures were thinking, where the fault lines are. You can’t get this from actual conservative writers – they only spout talking points – or from the MSM – they only give you an occasional sound bite.

This appars to have been the problem with Weigel. If you’re part of an orchestrated noise machine, you don’t want anyone reporting on what you actually think and say. Weigel had to go because he viewed the role of journalism as informing the reader.

38

Bunbury 06.30.10 at 5:00 pm

As far as what people actually say the bounty offered for the journolist archive reminds me of climategate. Is this one sided or are there people also looking for Judy Miller’s emails or those of the AEI or big oil or recordings of what Rush Limbaugh says to his mates or what Lord Ashcroft has to say about the UK?

39

Bruce Baugh 06.30.10 at 5:07 pm

Bunbury, there are folks who’d welcome such things in various circumstances and maybe publish them – Media Matters, depending on the situation, for instance. But it’s much less an intense thing on what passes for the left.

40

Metamorf 06.30.10 at 5:48 pm

When I say ‘forming sensible opinions’, I mean something like: in writing about how the health care system works, say, you should write in such a way that a reasonable, literate reader will come away from reading your piece with true rather than false beliefs, with an appropriate sense of what really matters for how things work.

Well, are the “true” beliefs this “reasonable” reader is expected to come away with beliefs that a Republican, say, would recognize as such? Or a rightist? Or a conservative? Or Rush Limbaugh? Of course, they might be, but then I suspect that most on this list would call that bad journalism (as they often have).

And that’s certainly one approach to journalism, harkening back to the 60′s — since “objectivity” is a myth, let’s just be partisan, or “committed to social justice” or whatever, and be done with worrying about it. The cost of doing that is simply writing off large segments of the population as merely unreasonable, illiterate, stupid, mendacious, crazy, etc. — which of course is done all the time, on all sides. Not that that’s too high a cost for the committed, but for those tiring of such, we might want to think of another possible model for journalism.

So, along those lines, let me try one more time to clarify my point about that other model, or at least try to say what it isn’t. I don’t disagree that ‘presenting objective reality’ = ‘cause reasonable people to form sensible opinions’ — indeed, that might be true pretty much by definition of “reasonable people”. But that’s after the fact of the article, and in that sense outside of the scope or proper control of the reporter. I do disagree, then, that the aim or objective of ‘presenting objective reality’ = the aim or objective of ‘causing reasonable people to form sensible opinions’. The point is that the reporter’s job is, or should be, simply to present reality as best he can, and let the opinions, like chips, fall where they may — once the reporter starts to focus on forming others’ opinions, he/she is already too far down the slope.

41

Substance McGravitas 06.30.10 at 6:12 pm

once the reporter starts to focus on forming others’ opinions

What the pros and cons are of, say, a gas tax hike will inevitably involve choosing from a basket of multiple items – some of which may be speculative – rather than listing them all.

42

Tom T. 06.30.10 at 7:13 pm

As for #21, the first batch of emails included his “paultards” comment, while the second batch is where he says “Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes-how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?”

Certainly, he has every right to say these things, but again it doesn’t surprise me that the Post wouldn’t think that anyone on the right was going to talk to him any longer. Weigel himself doesn’t really dispute any of this: “Why did I assume that I needed to crack wise and rant about people who, usually for no more than five minutes were getting on my nerves? Because I was stupid and arrogant, and needlessly mean.”

43

Substance McGravitas 06.30.10 at 7:32 pm

while the second batch is where he says “Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes-how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?”

That is not the same thing as “Then the source released the second round of collected email, in which Weigel portrays himself as deliberately looking for angles on his stories to make his subjects look stupid, and he was done.” As an example look at this. I would frankly love to see Weigel write more about Orly Taitz because she’s funny, but Weigel wants to thwart my juvenile interests and ignore her. It’s not that he’s looking for new ways to make people look stupid, he’s disheartened that he’s writing the same stories about stupid people and he doesn’t want to do that.

44

Tom T. 06.30.10 at 10:22 pm

That’s a defensible reading, I agree, but it’s at least as contemptuous of his subjects as what I proposed, it seems to me.

45

Substance McGravitas 06.30.10 at 10:50 pm

That’s a defensible reading, I agree, but it’s at least as contemptuous of his subjects as what I proposed, it seems to me.

If the subject is teabaggers what option does he have as a reasonable person? But the freaks, like Orly Taitz, were not the whole of his job, just a disturbingly large proportion of it. As should be clear he was writing about more on the right than loons.

46

Glen Tomkins 06.30.10 at 11:51 pm

Am I missing something here?

Weigel was fired because he works for a corporation that has an agenda that Weigel’s comments tended to work against. I can’t imagine why anyone would take at all seriously, would be at any pains to refute, the rationalizations that the corporation offered, that he had violated some sort of “journalistic” standards.

The WaPo arrives at my doorstep (not by my choice) every day. I leaf through it most days. It escapes me how someone familiar with it would even think to apply the concept of “journalism” to what it does, least of all some lofty concept of a journalism that serves as the referee of our nation’s public discourse. It’s a business, not a referee, not any sort of public or publically responsible institution.

Now, if it were a business run so as to make a profit at “idea arbitrage”, then perhaps you would expect it to at least move in the direction of providing some sort of refereed forum. There would be competition to provide the best idea arbitrage, in order to do well as a business, and we might see some effective refereeing, if only to arrive at a product that would sell better than the competition.

But it’s not at all clear that idea arbitrage was ever much of a profit center in newspapers. And now, the papers don’t make money off of anything anymore. If you’re going to keep a money-eater such as WaPo going nowadays, you’re only going to do so because you expect to get enough value pushing your agenda that its worth losing the money you lose every quarter. Why would anyone expect them to keep Weigel on when that no longer makes sense in terms of WaPo’s messaging strategy?

Of course they aren’t at all serious about the rationalization they offered, that Weigel violated some sort of journalistic standards, so it’s not hard to shoot it full of holes. They have to keep up the pretense of something called “jouranlism”, because that enhances message delivery. People are too sophisticated to put any confidence in propaganda, so you have to make the representation that your propaganda is objective journalism to get around this sophisticated defense put up by all these clever university-educated people we have about us these days.

The Pentagon was caught a few years ago putting out propaganda that was staged as newscasts. They did it because that’s how you get propaganda around the defenses, but they were foolish enough to use a brute force method and hire actors to pretend to be journalists for a few days, where everyone who knows what they’re doing hires non-actors to put on the act as a permanent career. It’s seamless that way, and you can’t get caught, because you don’t settle for some pathetic, two-dimensional Potemkin Village that is put up for a day, then knocked down. You construct a whole Potemkin Country that lasts for as long as any country can last that abandons reality testing.

47

bad Jim 07.01.10 at 2:05 am

To put it bluntly: it isn’t satisfactory for a reporter merely to note that A said X when the truth or falsity of X can be independently ascertained. The reporter who saves herself the trouble of verifying X by finding a B to claim not X is not serving her public well.

48

John Holbo 07.01.10 at 7:25 am

“I do disagree, then, that the aim or objective of ‘presenting objective reality’ = the aim or objective of ‘causing reasonable people to form sensible opinions’. The point is that the reporter’s job is, or should be, simply to present reality as best he can, and let the opinions, like chips, fall where they may—once the reporter starts to focus on forming others’ opinions, he/she is already too far down the slope.”

OK, here’s a thought-experiment for you, metamorf. Suppose you are a reporter and you have written up some story and it occurs to you that, although your story is perfectly accurate (as far as you can tell), it is written up in such a way that, people being people, some sort of cognitive bias is likely to kick in. People will hear about something that’s really real and, because of typical weaknesses in thinking about – oh, say probability – they are likely to panic about nothing, or else not panic about something that’s really serious. They will predictably draw wrong conclusions from what you have written – people being people. (I’m being vague about this because we could argue cases but that’s not really the point.) Now you would say: not your problem. Publish and let all the idiots be damned if their poor ability to reason about probabilities causes them to draw the wrong conclusions from the plain facts. I say: since the point is not to be accurate for accuracy’s sake but to be accurate for the sake of informing people accurately, you should do your best to rewrite the accurate article to make it less likely to mislead in this way. The obvious way to do this would be to shoehorn in a little explicit warning against the anticipated misunderstanding, or whatever. But you could do it different ways.

Now I think you will probably actually grant that this is a sensible editorial rewrite decision. But, as you can probably also see, the principle is far-reaching, potentially: if its my job to anticipate and correct for likely reader biases then …

And I accept that conclusion, with the obvious caveat that we are now on a slippery slope to error and arrogance in presumptions about who is biased and who isn’t, and how.

To put it a different way: you see the risk being one sort of relativism. Since everything contains a bit of opinion, might as well haul off and turn everything into a pure op-ed. Well, I agree that would be a mistake, but there’s no bright line between this mistake and doing things right. And the effect of trying to find a bright line, where there isn’t one, is that you actually collapse into a different sort of relativism. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. If you end up obliged to treat as axiomatic that all important participants to the debate are reasonable people, you end up warping the fact field, just to stay hand-off from the opinion field.

49

Metamorf 07.01.10 at 11:41 pm

John:

Your thought experiment, without any further specification, is in all likelihood a sensible editorial/reportorial decision, yes. Here’s where we may continue to differ: the one(s) making that decision, being human beings, also likely have their own particular opinions about, among other things, how to interpret said probabilities, statistics, “facts” (which are, sadly, frequently in dispute, as we know from the fallibility of even eye-witness reports, just as one example), history, etc., and these opinions tend to fall into particular political camps, such as liberal or conservative, among many others. A good reporter will understand this about him/herself, and will, moreover, be aware that there are other opinions about said interpretations, etc. that are held by significant portions of the audience, and will, because of that, be careful to include such alternate interpretations in the report, despite — in fact, especially despite — her/his own deeply held opinions. And she will do that because she’s aiming to be a conduit for information, which includes conveying the fact that the “information” itself may be in dispute when that is a fact.

This is a relativism, yes, but it’s a relativism that inheres in the very nature of reporting as such. There are limits to the relativism, but those limits define, in a sense, the limits of ones reporting — outside of those limits, you’re no longer speaking to an audience.

It’s also true that there’s no “bright line” between an op-ed and reportage when looked at as finished products (or between a rant and a data stream, to take the extremes). The line, however, I think comes before we get the finished products, as I’ve said — that’s the line between trying to present an objective depiction of the state of affairs, including the views and interpretations of significant parties involved, vs. trying to influence the opinions of one’s audience. And I think that line is fairly bright.

50

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 12:38 am

A good reporter will understand this about him/herself, and will, moreover, be aware that there are other opinions about said interpretations, etc. that are held by significant portions of the audience, and will, because of that, be careful to include such alternate interpretations in the report, despite—in fact, especially despite—her/his own deeply held opinions.

What a terrible vision. I sentence you to one year of David Broder.

51

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 12:59 am

What a terrible vision. I sentence you to one year of David Broder.

Thanks. And I sentence you to a year of Keith Olbermann (now there’s a vision of delight).

52

John Holbo 07.02.10 at 1:04 am

“A good reporter will understand this about him/herself, and will, moreover, be aware that there are other opinions about said interpretations, etc. that are held by significant portions of the audience, and will, because of that, be careful to include such alternate interpretations in the report, despite—in fact, especially despite—her/his own deeply held opinions. And she will do that because she’s aiming to be a conduit for information, which includes conveying the fact that the “information” itself may be in dispute when that is a fact.”

The problem is that this turns into epistemic affirmative action for unreasonableness – i.e. an untenable form of relativism. It is also pragmatically self-defeating because, once everyone knows this is how you play it, they will start gaming you in predictable ways. Important people saying unreasonable stuff pose an inherently difficult problem for reporters. On the one hand, these people are ‘news worthy’, so what they say has to be taken ‘seriously’. Reporters want to err on the side of not taking sides in disputes they are attempting to report straight. So far so good. But if you taking them seriously means, in effect, that you have to treat their opinions as serious – as opposed to nuts – then you distort the fact field, in an attempt to steer clear of the domain of opinionation. If you report on fringe cranks, opinion-wise, as though they are non-fringe, non-cranks, you misrepresent the debate. But who is to say who is cranky and who is not? Well, unfortunately, the reporter has to do that, hard as it is. You don’t want to say ‘the Senator is nuts’ in a straight news report. It doesn’t look good. It’s a sign that things may be going wrong, for the reporter. But if the Senator is actually saying things that are nuts, you don’t want to say ‘the Senator is not nuts’, because you yourself believe that is false. Reporters shouldn’t intentionally tell their audiences things they think are false. The mild paradox is this: you can’t let your awareness that doing your job right might make it appear that you are not doing your job make you not do your job, so as to appear to be doing your job right. It’s tough, and there’s no good answer. But if we adopt your proposed bright line I think what we get is actually mandatory bias, of a fairly serious sort. It’s better just to say there is no bright line.

There is actually a different sort of case that might make the cogency of this position clearer from a conservative position. Conservatives are always complaining about how Hollywood celebrities are always mouthing off about their pet causes and opinions, and they get reported because they are celebrities. They are ‘news worthy’ people, but it does not follow that their opinions need to be given the time of day. That’s true. But the same is actually true of Sarah Palin. And Senators. Now it gets more and more awkward for ‘straight’ reporters, the further we get from Lindsay Lohan and the closer we get to Lindsey Graham. (I have no sin of his in mind. His name just sounds similar to Lindsay Lohan. And I have no idea whether Lindsay Lohan has ever spouted off about politics.) But the principle is the same: you should not report nutty things people say in ways that generate the positive impression that these things are not-nutty, just because the people who hold them are ‘important’. The fact that this is tough – maybe impossible to get right in a truly satisfactory way, and also a standing temptation to the reporter to sin in predictable ways – does not make it any less the proper regulative goal for reporters to aim at.

53

Kenny Easwaran 07.02.10 at 2:45 am

Solomon can split the difference between parties to a dispute, but not if Solomon is a party to the dispute, such that Solomon is now obliged to split the difference between splitting the difference and not splitting the difference. You end up with a cross between a Russellian Theory of Ramified Types and a Liberal Who Can’t Take His Own Side In a Fight. (And we haven’t even started in on what happens to Solomon once the other parties get wind of the fact that Solomon always splits the difference.) Committing yourself to evenhandedness, while thinking of yourself as just one player in the game – not as ‘above it all’ – seems sensible and modest, but it risks giving you an epistemological itch you can’t scratch. It may preserve you from groupthink, but by attacking the ‘think’ bit, not the ‘group’ bit.

Brian Weatherson ought to say something about this – he’s been writing about it on his other blog, making similar points. But he’s responding to the “equal weight” view in the literature on the epistemology of disagreement, which has managed not to get bogged down in political ramifications (but has gotten bogged down on other issues).

54

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 3:10 am

… you should not report nutty things people say in ways that generate the positive impression that these things are not-nutty, just because the people who hold them are ‘important’.

Well, I take your point — it must be difficult for reporters to distinguish between the attention due the views of (to take a couple of different examples) Rosie I’Donnell, say, and Nancy Pelosi just on the basis of the sanity of their pronouncements. But, as you say, just because it’s tough doesn’t make it less proper, and necessary. Where I think you go wrong in your notion of “epistemic affirmative action for unreasonableness ” is in thinking that the public, i.e., the audience, needs to have their hands held and their minds guided by the gentle and knowing prodding of the reporter. But — and this recalls something you’d said earlier, actually — reporters are not superior beings, and trying to impose this sort of cultural arbitration on them is the real impossible burden. Such a burden not only risks turning them into partisan shills, it too often realizes such risks. This is to say that it’s really for the public to determine when someone is gaming the system, which they’re at least as capable of doing as the reporter, and then of punishing the gamester appropriately — and of course, as I’ve said before, there are a range of other intermediaries (columnists, priests, scientists, etc.) that can assist the public with such judgments when needed.

A burden that reporters are able to bear, however, and indeed need to, is to assess the range of opinions that actually are current relative to the particular issue and to provide those to their audience in a reasonably balanced manner, without regard to their personal opinions on the matter. That’s tough too, but it’s possible. And not only possible — as a regulatory goal, it acts as negative, as opposed to positive, reinforcement of the reporter’s human tendency to “sin in predictable ways” (i.e., in letting his own bias infect his reporting).

55

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 3:25 am

Where I think you go wrong in your notion of “epistemic affirmative action for unreasonableness ” is in thinking that the public, i.e., the audience, needs to have their hands held and their minds guided by the gentle and knowing prodding of the reporter.

Reporters shouldn’t interview. Right. I take it you get your news from press releases.

56

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 3:35 am

Just a note about “splitting the difference between an already split difference, etc.”:

Also called “moving the goal posts”, this is just a version of John’s “gaming the system”, and, believe me (or not), all sides are aware of such games and know the frustration they can cause. But this is just one of a great number of such rhetorical and political moves, stratagems, tricks, etc. that all sides play and are played by — it’s, sad though it be, a part at least of how politics works in reality as opposed to civics textbooks. Given that, reporters have two general options: they can become cogs themselves in such machinations, or they can observe them more or less neutrally and relay their observations to the public. What they can’t do, because they have no superior position or vision, is act as arbiters of the process, not only above the fray but determining who’s right and wrong (or, in these more frenzied days, who’s sane and who’s nutty) — if they try to, or if others try to foist such a role on them, they end up just as tarred as any of the other players.

57

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 3:39 am

Reporters shouldn’t interview. Right. I take it you get your news from press releases.

No, reporters should interview. What they shouldn’t do is take sides in the debate — it’s not really that hard.

58

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 3:56 am

What they shouldn’t do is take sides in the debate

A quick look at your site shows how much you disapprove of side-taking. This is not a sincere argument.

59

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 4:33 am

Oh, I take sides — but then I’m not a reporter, and don’t play one even on my site.

60

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 4:40 am

But the people you link to play reporter.

61

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 4:48 am

I think they’re all just bloggers, Substance — there’s a difference, which is sort of my point.

62

John Holbo 07.02.10 at 5:50 am

“But—and this recalls something you’d said earlier, actually—reporters are not superior beings, and trying to impose this sort of cultural arbitration on them is the real impossible burden. Such a burden not only risks turning them into partisan shills, it too often realizes such risks.”

I have to disagree with this. Reporters are not Platonic Philosopher Kings, qualified to dispense Noble Lies left and right. But they have to be somewhat superior beings, in that they are smart and moderately canny, well-trained and professionally-minded and so forth. But fallible (hence they must be mindful of their own fallibility). If it is not possible to constitute such a modestly virtuous class then, in fact, the answer is to get rid of journalism altogether not to reform it. Because journalism that is worth anything depends on a modest degree of personal ‘epistemic virtue’ (clunky term), in dealing with these sorts of problems, precisely because there is a lack of workable ‘bright lines’ for dealing with these cases. What you need is good judgment, i.e. to be a (slightly) superior being. Calling it ‘good judgment’ is better. ‘Superior being’ is way too Klaatu for primetime.

63

John Holbo 07.02.10 at 5:51 am

Thanks for the pointer, Kenny. I’ll check out Brian’s blog. Haven’t visited it for a while. I’m thinking of calling the thing I’m talking about the ‘half-a-liar’s paradox’.

64

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 6:40 am

I think they’re all just bloggers, Substance

I don’t think you’ve noticed what they think they are.

65

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 10:51 am

Okay, John — I can agree that some reporters at least are especially “smart and moderately canny”, though we may not agree on which ones; I think that a great many people in the reporter’s audience are at least as smart and possessed of good judgment; and I think that journalism needn’t and shouldn’t and rely on an implicit “class” structure in order to function properly. But it’s your blog and I should give you the last word. It’s been an interesting discussion, thanks.

66

chris 07.02.10 at 1:31 pm

What they can’t do, because they have no superior position or vision, is act as arbiters of the process, not only above the fray but determining who’s right and wrong

It’s their responsibility as reporters to have superior information, at least. If they don’t have that, if they don’t know more about the issue they are reporting on than the average member of their audience, then they have no business reporting at all. If they *do* have that, then aren’t they obligated to share it? It’s not a class structure, it’s a freaking profession.

Maybe it will be clearer to take a specific example. Any fool can listen to Inhofe spout off about how climate change is a myth. A reporter can also research the issue and discover that Inhofe is nuts (on that issue). Shouldn’t they point that out, or pass on the evidence that proves it, rather than allowing Inhofe’s nuttiness to pass unchallenged? That way their audience won’t have to individually duplicate the research (which presumably the reporter is more qualified at, but even if they weren’t it would be at a minimum monstrously wasteful).

P.S. It’s always frustrating to see one of the participants in a discussion bolt just as it’s picking up steam, but maybe he’ll reconsider or someone else will take up the banner.

67

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 2:44 pm

Okay I’m back!

Sounds like chris is one of those — self-appointed? — superior beings himself, given his example. Or, on the other hand, maybe chris is one of the nuts himself — one of the characteristics of nuts being that they consider those with different opinions from themselves as nuts. Or, on the third hand, maybe chris is just one of those conformity enforcers who think it’s nice to bully people into line with a majority by labelling dissenters “nuts”. And of course there are other hands still, which I’m sure chris can find, that can paste the “nutty” label on me.

That’s fine. We’ve had a good discussion, and I think the devolution into nuttiness illustrates that it’s pretty much run out of steam by now. The reference to “class” was John’s, by the way, not mine — but, with its implicit hierarchy of kool kidz in the know who’s job it is to tell the great unwashed who’s nutty and who’s not, it presents a perfect picture of the whole Journolist phenomenon and of what’s wrong with it.

68

chris 07.02.10 at 3:44 pm

@67: Uh, perhaps you’re not familiar with Inhofe’s views on climate change? It really does not take a lot of research to realize that he is far out of touch with evidence or reason on that issue. (And the whole point of the sub-thread is to condemn “Views Differ on Shape of Earth” pseudo-journalism. Maybe you would have preferred an example involving the literal shape, rather than the temperature, of the Earth?) Maybe I moved too fast in assuming that it was common knowledge, though.

What’s wrong with “the whole Journolist phenomenon” is that Weigel got canned for a bullshit reason. Journolist itself is fine, or would be fine if people didn’t attribute to it an importance that it doesn’t actually have and never did. Unlike climate change, though, those are matters of opinion.

Journalists, fundamentally, exist in order to concentrate the information gathering and investigative functions. People listen to, watch, read, etc. journalists because it’s less trouble than doing all the research themselves, and because the journalists are supposed to be professionals more skilled at finding things out, and will therefore produce better results than an amateur trying to do the same job.

69

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 4:43 pm

@67: Uh, perhaps you’re not familiar with Inhofe’s views on climate change?

Not particularly, but I’m familiar with the fact that there are disputes around the issue.

It really does not take a lot of research to realize that he is far out of touch with evidence or reason on that issue.

And how would you know this yourself? Are you a reporter? Or do you think this because a reporter told it to you?

OR, might there actually be a third option, in which you listen to some reporters — but only the good reporters, not the bad ones that work for Fox, say, or the Washington Times, or the Daily Telegraph, etc. — you maybe do some research yourself, and you exercise your own ability to think, sort, sift, and reason? In which case, why do you need reporters to tell you what and how to think, what’s “nutty” and what’s not? And why do you need to worry if a reporter simply tells you what Inhofe, for example, says, without also shepherding you along with an editorial gloss? And if you can manage without reportorial hand-holding, why can’t others? Or is it that you’re okay thinking on your own, but you’re worried about those … others, who maybe aren’t so smart?

Anyway, to repeat: a reporter’s job is to find things out, quite true. But that includes finding out and reporting on the various sides in an issue, without trying to impose or guide opinion. Forming an opinion on the issue is your job.

70

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 4:43 pm

That’s fine. We’ve had a good discussion, and I think the devolution into nuttiness illustrates that it’s pretty much run out of steam by now.

Well, it’s a good strategy on the part of the nuts to make sure the nutty get heard without influence from meddling journalists, isn’t it?

71

bianca steele 07.02.10 at 4:47 pm

This has nothing to do with philosopher kings or what everyone else is discussing, so I don’t want to move the discussion off-track. But I can’t quite figure out what model of “superiority” is being assumed here. Is it a complete ordering of the set of humans? A binary model (the few are superior, the many are not)? A myth (some who style themselves “the few” wrongly believe they are superior)?

Journalists don’t have Ph.D.’s–and all journalists don’t even have journalism school degrees–therefore, I think, the answer can’t be “credentialism.”

72

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 5:18 pm

Good questions, bianca. They’re presumably lower than “Platonic Philosopher Kings” on the one hand, but they’re “smart and moderately canny, well-trained and professionally-minded and so forth,” yet fallible, “a modestly virtuous class”, possessing “a modest degree of personal ‘epistemic virtue’ (clunky term)”, and “good judgment”. That looks to me like a claim of something like your binary model — but in my view, of course, that claim itself is the myth.

73

chris 07.02.10 at 7:23 pm

Not particularly, but I’m familiar with the fact that there are disputes around the issue.

OK, then I definitely should have chosen a less subtle example.

But, come to think of it, you probably are familiar with the “disputes” because that’s how you learned about the issue from journalists: some people say X, some people say Y, the journalists aren’t going to say who’s right or wrong or nuts or not nuts, so how would you know anything other than the existence of the dispute? You certainly can’t investigate every possible issue on your own, after all (and if you’re taking seriously the idea that Inhofe’s position might not be nuts, then you pretty clearly haven’t investigated this one to any significant extent).

Consider these possible stories:

1. Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) says that global warming is not occurring, but J. Random Climatologist of the University of Somewhere disagrees, stating: “Example quote”.

2. Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) says that global warming is not occurring, despite the fact that the 10 warmest years on record have all come within the past 20 years. “Example quote”, explains J. Random Climatologist of the University of Somewhere.

3. Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) says that global warming is not occurring, which clearly makes him a nutcase that nobody should listen to. Instead, you should believe J. Random Climatologist of the University of Somewhere, who is completely right to say “example quote”.

1 is the much-criticized “Views Differ on Shape of Earth” pseudo-journalism. You seem to think that people are advocating for 3 when they really want something more like 2, which shows that Inhofe’s views are, at least, contrary to evidence and reality (albeit leaving the reader to apply inflammatory labels like “nut”).

And the fact that Weigel said something 3-like in an off-the-record private space wouldn’t prevent his *work* from being more like 2; it’s only an issue if your ideal of journalism actually is 1. But nobody’s ideal of journalism should be 1, since 1 is vapid and disserves the reader by concealing the evidence simply because the evidence would make one of the sides look bad.

74

Metamorf 07.02.10 at 8:30 pm

I really don’t think it’s the business of reporters to try to police issues at all — so if the news is that Inhofe says global warming isn’t occurring, then that’s what should be reported, period. If it’s thought that some sort of background is needed, that’s fine provided it’s background that fairly presents the actual dispute regardless of the opinions of the reporter. What’s not fine is for the reporter — who, presumably, is no more a climatologist than Inhofe, or for that matter you or I — to tack on some isolated factoid, or drag in some tame expert, in an effort to cast the views that he’s reporting in a bad light.

So, in my view, none of your scenarios are good reporting, and 2 is merely 3 in a disguise so transparent that it fools no one, despite the fond hopes of those who are already inclined to the views of the reporter anyway. Those not so inclined will have long since learned to dismiss the “reporter” as merely biased, which is pretty much what we actually see around us now.

I should say a word, though, on the so-called ‘“Views Differ on Shape of Earth” pseudo-journalism’. To my mind it’s a common, but very simple-minded, rhetorical device to compare a legitimate dispute to an obviously discredited one and think that you thereby discredit the first — sorry, you don’t. A reporter does have to be able to distinguish such disputes, certainly, but they also have to aware of , and beware of, efforts of True Believers to influence them by engaging in such dishonest tactics.

75

Substance McGravitas 07.02.10 at 8:35 pm

I really don’t think it’s the business of reporters to try to police issues at all

Once again you’re missing the point that it’s impossible not to police issues. Who decided that Inhofe saying X was news?

76

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 12:49 am

“That looks to me like a claim of something like your binary model—but in my view, of course, that claim itself is the myth.”

I really don’t see why you should assume that I’m assuming that if reporters are moderately good at their job then all non-reporters must be moderately bad at it. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable assumption, or a reasonable inference from what I said. It isn’t as though we think in this binary way about any other profession. Car mechanics should be moderately good at fixing cars. If you can’t create a class of people who fit that description, then there really is no point letting people open car repair places and so forth. Still, lots of people who aren’t actually car mechanics can fix cars, and quite a few more people have an aptitude for this sort of thing, and could get pretty good at it pretty quick.

I think a lot of your resistance, metamorf, depends on maintaining that I am going for some sort of Klaatu-lite binary. But I’m not. (Well, admittedly, it could be that I’m insane and I secretly believe in it.) At any rate, I don’t have to.

If you didn’t think that there could be a class of people that were better at fixing teeth than the average person, you wouldn’t believe there should be dentists, I take it. So: if you don’t believe there’s a class of people better at reporting news than the average person, why do you think there should be journalists at all? Why isn’t it actually preferable to go for the raw data stream alternative that you assured me, from the start, is not your preference?

77

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 1:15 am

“I should say a word, though, on the so-called ‘“Views Differ on Shape of Earth” pseudo-journalism’. To my mind it’s a common, but very simple-minded, rhetorical device to compare a legitimate dispute to an obviously discredited one and think that you thereby discredit the first—sorry, you don’t.”

metamorf, I think the ‘views differ on shape of earth’ method of mocking he-said/she-said coverage of climate change is perfectly appropriate. The point isn’t supposed to be that views about climate change are exactly and in all ways comparable to views about planet shape. The point, rather, is that the climate change coverage is comically biased – which is it – due to the fact that reporters are, in effect, doing what you suggest: not policing issues. So they end up with a program of epistemic affirmative action for fringe views expressed by prominent people. You really have to bite the bullet on this one. If you think it is the job of journalists not to ‘police issues’, then you think it is often their duty positively to mislead the public. Do you, in fact, bite the bullet on this one?

78

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 1:32 am

Okay, I know I said you should have the last word, and so you should. But I can’t resist pointing out that the problem with your analogies between reporters and other professions is that, by your account, the area of expertise of the reporting profession is your and my opinions — not our cars or our teeth, but our opinions, about what and who is right and wrong, sane and nutty. I’d say that sounds a little Klaatu-like (or Klaatu-lite), but in any case it does seem to elevate them above the mass of humanity in a way that a merely focused expertise does not. What’s worse is that, unlike with pundits, say, from whom you can pick and choose among a diverse variety of opinions, as you can even with, gods know, priests, scientists, or bloggers, all of whom are a disputatious lot, with ample room for heresies of all sorts, reporters apparently are there simply to tell you the true opinions, which you can doubt only at the risk of being labelled nutty yourself. Of course, fewer and fewer people are being cowed by that any longer, but I still contend that the insistence on an aim for the profession of forming or guiding opinion is bad for it — undermining what reputation it has, and tending toward a spreading skepticism and dismissal of its reports by anyone not in the choir, so to speak, to begin with. But, we’ve been down this road already, no?

79

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 1:48 am

You really have to bite the bullet on this one. If you think it is the job of journalists not to ‘police issues’, then you think it is often their duty positively to mislead the public. Do you, in fact, bite the bullet on this one?

You mean choose among your misleading alternatives? Come on. An issue is an issue is an issue: “a matter that is in dispute between two or more parties”, “a vital or unsettled matter”. Of course people who are intense believers on one side or another of any issue would would like and wish that it weren’t an issue, and that anyone who even mentions that there might actually be an issue is positively misleading the public, etc. But that doesn’t excuse reporters from ignoring what any unblinkered human being can plainly see — that “climate change”, to take this example, is in fact “in dispute between two or more parties” and that it remains “a vital or unsettled matter”. Reporters should report that.

80

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 2:02 am

“But I can’t resist pointing out that the problem with your analogies between reporters and other professions is that, by your account, the area of expertise of the reporting profession is your and my opinions—not our cars or our teeth, but our opinions, about what and who is right and wrong, sane and nutty.”

If by that you mean that I think reporters have a duty to try to know their audiences (this is a specification of the general proposition that writers should write for their readers) then: yes.

I take it you think it is not possible for reporters to know their readers to any degree that would cause them to improve their reporting. Very well: then why do you believe it’s a good idea to have reporters?

“it does seem to elevate them above the mass of humanity in a way that a merely focused expertise does not.”

It doesn’t seem that way to me. Why does it seem that way to you?

“reporters apparently are there simply to tell you the true opinions, which you can doubt only at the risk of being labelled nutty yourself.”

There’s a huge difference between saying reporters MIGHT be wrong and saying that, necessarily they ARE wrong. No one is saying – or even hinting – that there is anything wrong with being skeptical about reporting. But we are saying that it is problematic to take it as axiomatic, rather than a proposition to be investigated, that radical skepticism is justified. Reporters are in fact – rather than just possibly – quite incompetent. You apparently believe so. Well fine. Again: why should there be reporters then, according to you?

81

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 2:28 am

Again: why should there be reporters then, according to you?

Because, again, there is a need for someone to find, package, and transmit information, as objectively as they can, and as free from personal opinion as possible, to the public — as distinct from someone who sees it as their job to form, mold, or guide the opinions of the public regarding said information. Its the latter role that makes skepticism “axiomatic” (I would have said automatic), since most adults can easily see that most reporters are no more competent to form opinions than they are themselves.

But John, with all due respect, I think we’ve both stated our positions about as clearly as we can at this point and are now going around in circles. It’s been a useful discussion, but is becoming less so now, so this may be a good time to just agree to disagree. I’ll try hard to suppress my urge to jump back in. Thanks, and cheers.

82

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 3:23 am

Well, feel free to jump back in, or not. But I’m going to try one last time. You are, I think, somewhat misrepresenting your own position. You say you are only assuming that reporters are not better than other people. Which seems reasonable. But, in fact, you are assuming, I think, that they have to be somewhat worse than other people. Which is not reasonable. (You act as though you are only saying they are not Klaatu. But really you think they are more like Gort. Powerful and not very smart.) Because you admit that they are reasonably competent to gather ‘the facts’. But when it comes to devising reasonable frames as to what are reasonable views about the facts, they fall down. Now that’s pretty unusual. If I know facts about dentristry, I can form reasonable views about dentristry, and reasonable views about who has reasonable views about dentristry and so forth. It would be strange for me to know a lot about dentristry but not be able to tell who has reasonable opinions about dentristry. But you think reporters are a different cases. They can know a lot of health care and climate change and so forth, enough to write highly informative factual accounts. But when it comes to forming opinions about who has reasonable opinions about health care and climate change, they completely and systematically fall down on the job.

Now, you present this as though it is just an epistemically straightforward state of affairs, sensibly dealt with by artificially restricting reporters from doing something that an ordinary person – with the reporter’s grasp of the basic facts – would presumably be perfectly competent to do. But I think there’s something wrong with this picture.

What you really think is that reporters are a bunch of un-self-critical liberals. That is, they know facts but they are strongly ideological. And their ideology is, in your opinion, a poor one. So they are unusually bad at drawing general conclusions from facts, despite knowing more than an average number of facts. Now this is not an absurd view, but it is hardly self-evident. And it is certainly not something that follows from the general concept of ‘reporter’, or any general reflections about the human mind, or human knowledge, or something like that. So I can’t expect you to take my word for it that you are wrong. But you also can’t expect reporters to take your word for it that you are right. (After all, why should they grant that you are good at telling what views are reasonable and what ones are not, after you told them they should assume they are incompetent to do this thing? Who died and appointed you Klaatu for a day?) What reporters ought to do is keep their own council. That is, they should try to be self-critical and examine whether they are as bad as you think they are. And if they conclude that you have a point, they should change their ways. And if they conclude that you don’t, then they shouldn’t. But under no circumstances should they do what you suggest: namely, just take it to be axiomatic that they are unusually bad at doing something that ordinary people are pretty good at doing. Namely, turning knowledge of basic facts into reasonable views about what views of those facts are reasonable and what aren’t.

83

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 4:19 am

Clearly I have a lot to learn about how to type ‘dentistry’. Nor am I dentist!

84

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 4:29 am

Sigh. Okay, ya got me.

But under no circumstances should they do what you suggest: namely, just take it to be axiomatic that they are unusually bad at doing something that ordinary people are pretty good at doing. Namely, turning knowledge of basic facts into reasonable views about what views of those facts are reasonable and what aren’t.

This is wrong in so many ways that it gets hard to know how to start, but let me try. Reporters are ordinary people. Okay? Therefore, they’re not “unusually bad at doing something that ordinary people are pretty good at doing”, namely, etc. Okay? That is, they are as capable of forming their own opinions about issues as you or I or anyone else is, including dentists, auto mechanics, etc. Right? This persistent misunderstanding or misrepresentation of something so obvious and basic begins to look like bad faith, or mere baiting. But let’s ignore that. What then is the problem with reporters seeking to form or guide their audience’s opinions, based on their own? Just this: that it is an abuse of their professional position, which not only gives them access to major media outlets — pundits and opinionators generally have such access too after all — but which assumes a kind of trust that the reporter, qua reporter, will actually provide information that is undistorted by the reporters own opinions. Not, please note, because the reporter is somehow incapable of forming such opinions or incompetent to do so, but simply because the reporter is not Klaatu and has no superior ability to do so, and people quite naturally resent the implied arrogance of those who imagine they have.

But, you know, I think this has long been obvious, and I think you’re repeating yourself as much as I am. I’ll try again to refrain.

85

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 4:50 am

PS: There is something new, to me at least, in your point beginning with the observation that what I really think “is that reporters are a bunch of un-self-critical liberals”. It’s true, I do think that, which is certainly not conducive to any notion that they might be superior beings. But it’s also true that this “is certainly not something that follows from the general concept of ‘reporter’, or any general reflections about the human mind, or human knowledge, or something like that”. So my contention that reporters are not superior beings, despite having better access to certain news sources, etc., is not based upon my observations of their general, but contingent, bias.

In fact, though, it seems to me that your charge is much more easily reversed, and that you like to think of the general run of reporters in the generally liberal mass media — i.e., as I’ve said, not those bad reporters on Fox, or in the Washington Times, or in the Daily Telegraph — as “modestly” superior simply because they tend to flatter your existing political/ideological views. That is, your views of reporters’ superior abilities to form and hence guide opinions what likely be altered if the general run of such reporters had conservative or right-wing politics.

86

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 5:08 am

“What then is the problem with reporters seeking to form or guide their audience’s opinions, based on their own?”

But this is what the reporter’s job IS. If, in your opinion as a reporter, there was a fire downtown yesterday, report that there was a fire downtown. Reporters are in the business of forming and guiding audience opinions, based on their own.

” … will actually provide information that is undistorted by the reporters own opinions.”

But this is NOT the job of reporters. Emphatically not. If this were the reporter’s job, then a reporter would be forbidden to report that there was a fire downtown yesterday, if it was the opinion of the reporter that there was a fire downtown yesterday. Which is absurd. This position only makes sense if we assume that, from the fact that a reporter thinks x, we can conclude that x is distorted, i.e. half wrong (or something like that.) This is a much stronger assumption than just plain jane ‘hey, I could be wrong, I’m only human’ (I’m not Klaatu).

I realize that it seems as if I am baiting you, by attributing an extreme view to you. But it is supposed to be a serious reductio. You could only prescribe what you are prescribing on the basis of a view that is obviously way too extreme. So your prescription must be wrong. You need to articulate some better sense of the class of journalists’ opinions that you think are not just possibly mistaken but, in fact, so likely to be ‘distorted’ that we can safely assume they are, knowing only that opinion x is held by a journalist. (Whereas we could not assume as much, knowing only that the opinion x is held by a regular person, not a journalist. So again: you are committed to unusual incompetence by journalists, along a certain axis.)

I think it’s going to turn out that what you are really doing is packing in a set of debatable propositions, beginning with (but not necessarily limited to): 1) most reporters are liberals; 2) most reporters are relatively un-self-critical about their liberalism; 3) liberalism is a distorted view of the world. Your conclusion about journalism doesn’t follow unless we accept all of 1-3, and perhaps more besides. Which I expect you do. And that’s fine. But these are not self-evident truths. So it’s wrong to defend your conclusion as if you were only articulating a general view of healthy journalism. What you need to do is defend the view that we are in fact living in a world in which most journalists are suffering from a specific and quite serious cognitive defect, and so somewhat unusual epistemic quarantine measures need to be taken.

It may be that you actually want to propose something that is more like a diplomatic measure: namely, given that there is a liberal-conservative divide in US society, therefore newspapers have to slice it right down the middle. But that’s nothing to do with ‘distortion’ or ‘error’. Because it isn’t axiomatic that the ‘right’ answer is in fact the one that splits the difference between the liberal and conservative positions about thing x. We don’t assume that diplomats know best about everything, just because they know best how to split the difference, in a socially deft manner.

87

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 5:15 am

Just to be clear: I posted my previous comment without seeing metamorf’s postscript, so I didn’t address it. But I think I’ve said enough not to follow-up again yet, unless metamorf wants to first.

88

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 5:56 am

Hey, I’ll play as long as you do, after all.

You could only prescribe what you are prescribing on the basis of a view that is obviously way too extreme.

Not so — it merely depends upon being able to distinguish opinion from observation and information, which not only ordinary people can do but reporters too. Philosophers I’m not so sure about, but then they’re afflicted with a host of other problems as well.

So your prescription must be wrong. You need to articulate some better sense of the class of journalists’ opinions that you think are not just possibly mistaken but, in fact, so likely to be ‘distorted’ that we can safely assume they are, knowing only that opinion x is held by a journalist.

No, as I’ve said, I’m sure that most reasonable people would be able to understand that the need to avoid injection of one’s own opinions in a matters of observation has nothing at all to do with the likelihood that such opinions are distorted — it has instead to do with the notion that such opinions always may be distorted, and hence distorting, as may anyone’s. (Note, by the way, that this has nothing to do with “diplomacy”, or splitting the difference.)

As for political motivations, well — your assumption of an inherent, indeed class, superiority of reporters I do think is sad evidence of the underlying elitism that permeates large sections of contemporary culture. Worse, and even more revealing, it illustrates at the same time a defensiveness within those segments that fears its old certainties are undergoing critical, and perhaps undermining, scrutiny, and yearns for a source of political validation that they think, or at least would like to think, the good journalists are able to provide. No wonder there is such energy devoted to trying to prop up the fading credibility of such sources, and such anxiety at seeing the dwindling numbers of those willing to accept them, even with the halls of academe. Just saying that you don’t really have to go down with the ship you’re trying so hard to keep afloat.

89

itzik basman 07.03.10 at 6:46 am

A key point in this discussion is some slipperiness in the use of “opinion”. Hence the bad argument that if reporters can’t opine on what they know, they can’t be heard to conclude “there was a fire downtown”. So, as metamorph notes, an elementary distinction exists between conclusory assertions about facts—“there was a fire”—about which there will be no dispute and opinions, which are, by definition, personal beliefs or judgments not founded on proof or certainty. So, if there was a fire, reporting that there was one is not an opinion. So, too quickly, and incorrectly, does the downtown fire stand as a proxy for opinions. Those, opinions, are not the reporter’s prerogative. Thus, to vary a hypothetical based on previous ones, if a reporter is to cover a debate on some aspect of global warming between Gore and Inhofe qua reporter, he would faithfully represent the arguments, the questions answered and unanswered, and so on, and not opine on who won the debate, even if he passionately agrees with Gore and knows a lot about the issue. Also the reporter would want not to slant his objective coverage so as to smuggle in his own views. The reporter can fairly lay out information that would allow reader come to a conclusion about who won the debate by fairly reporting that Inhofe had no answer to Gore’s point x and such like. But insofar as issues surrounding global warming, or any other issues, are genuinely controverted, it’s not for a reporter to build his view of the controversy into his reporting under the guise of objectivity. Reporting—which, of course, demands its requisite competencies, but which don’t include opining—is one thing; opinion journalism is quite something else.

p.s. What’s a klaatu?

90

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 6:56 am

I am taking ‘opinion’ to be a rough synonym of ‘belief’. So it seems to me absurd to propose that reporters not report their ‘opinions’, i.e. beliefs. Because the alternative is reporting things you don’t believe, or nothing at all, neither of which options makes sense for reporters. How are you using the word ‘opinion’? To mean something like ‘weak belief’ or ‘tentative belief’ or ‘doubtful belief’. Or ‘value judgment’? Just tell me how you use the word.

“I’m sure that most reasonable people would be able to understand that the need to avoid injection of one’s own opinions in a matters of observation has nothing at all to do with the likelihood that such opinions are distorted—it has instead to do with the notion that such opinions always may be distorted, and hence distorting, as may anyone’s. “

I don’t think that most reasonable people would agree with this at all, because it seems to me quite unreasonable. In the abstract, it’s always true that ‘maybe I’m looking at this all wrong’. But that is not a good reason never to form opinions about anything. It would seem to follow from your stricture against forming beliefs potentially tainted by opinion that we are never justified in forming any beliefs whatsoever, because they are all potentially tainted by ‘opinion’ (how not?) Reporters, like scientists, have to be fallibilists. But you are ruling out the possibility of proceeding in a fallibilist manner, on the grounds that it may fail. That’s absurd. (I’m sure you will deny that this is your point, but, if not, then what is your point? This is another way of asking after what you mean by ‘opinion’.)

As to my “assumption of an inherent, indeed class, superiority of reporters”, I don’t see how I am making one. I am asserting that we have no special reason to believe in an inherent, class inferiority of reporters. But the ‘We’re not obviously awful’ club is not an especially exclusive one, socially. (I am advocating what you might call non-un-elitism. But the double-negative doesn’t actually result in elitism. That I can see.) Beyond that, my only commitment to superiority is this: if we have no reason to believe reporters can do their jobs is a reasonably competent way, we shouldn’t have reporters. That’s an if-then, not a flat assertion. I obviously believe we should have reporters, so I’m committed to believe in their competence (mostly actual and certainly potential.) You are free to take the other view.But then I think you should bite the bullet and admit that the problem is journalism itself, not bad journalism.

91

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 7:43 am

itsik’s comment got turned on a bit late – after my follow-up comment was already posted.

Klaatu is the annoying, high-handed alien in “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. So you can go read a plot summary somewhere to find out about all the annoying things he does.

Re: just reporting on what gets said at the debate. I agree that this is a possible mode, but it amounts to affirmative action for unreasonable views held by ‘news worthy’ people. If we go for this option, we ought to admit that upfront: we are requiring reporters to mislead audiences, in rather predictable ways, for the sake of preserving an appearance of not misleading audiences, i.e. being ‘even-handed’. We already require this of diplomats, but it’s a nice question whether the requirement extends to reporters.

92

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 11:16 am

John’s response to itzik just repeats something I’ve already dealt with (see comment 79 above). Note, though, that in his response he’s again quite able to understand the distinction between opinion and observation, just as he obviously once was in the debate earlier — it’s where his anxiety over “affirmative action for unreasonable views” comes from, for example — without blowing smoke about “belief”, etc. I think what we’re seeing in that is just John retreating into his hard shell, to mix metaphors, of philosophical quibbling over terminology. Which can go on for a very long time — hundreds if not thousands of years in fact — and I don’t think I’ll get involved in it, fascinating though it no doubt is.

93

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 12:24 pm

PS (again): I actually kind of liked Klaatu in the original, though he was certainly less sympathetic in the remake (Keanu Reeves maybe didn’t help in that department). But he was definitely a superior being. What’s interesting about him and the film itself is that, for all his high-handedness, he was really expressing a kind of 50′s liberal internationalism that many people, then and now, would really like to see imposed on the world by a superior being of some sort. It’s always been a big part of the whole UFO cult, I think. Interesting, then, to see his name emerge again now in reference to the cult, so to speak, of the wise liberal journalist, who, as a kind of superior being, would be able to guide us all to correct beliefs if only we would listen.

94

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 12:26 pm

Well, I did say that I use ‘opinion’ as a rough synonym for ‘belief’. ‘Belief’ is not the same as ‘observation’, so it seems to me rather natural that I would – and would be able to – distinguish ‘opinion’ and ‘observation’. On the other hand, if you are not willing to say what you mean by ‘opinion’ – yet it plays a rather crucial role in your argument – then I think you are the one who is retreating into a shell of terminology, metamorf.

95

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 12:31 pm

I can agree with you about Klaatu being the ultimate expression of managerial liberalism gone cosmically hubristic. Klaatu is a cross between Walter Lippmann and Jesus, wrapped in tinfoil.

96

itzik basman 07.03.10 at 2:05 pm

I think the small response–#91–is troubled in a way consistent with problems with that side of the argument throughout this entire debate. My layman’s ( a reader and watcher of reporters) assumption in my hypo is that there are genuine controversies concerning global warming–are the significant causes–in relation to state expenditure and action– man made or natural, others–an assumption also bolstered by seemingly respected academics moot such issues; and my further assumption is that Inhofe is a highly placed, quite outspoken with some background of knowledge and vigorous critic of what he calls some hysteria surrounding global warming. But, somehow, reporting fairly–in my hypo–on a debate between Inhofe and Gore, where fair reporting can fairly lay out the weaknesses in Inhofe’s case, if they exist, is tantamount “to affirmative action for unreasonable views held by ‘news worthy’ people. If we go for this option, we ought to admit that upfront: we are requiring reporters to mislead audiences, in rather predictable ways, for the sake of preserving an appearance of not misleading audiences, i.e. being ‘even-handed’. “

Respectfully, this response is the grain of sand in which we can observe what strikes me as the entirety of the anxious paternalism of the John Holbo side of the argument.

97

Glen Tomkins 07.03.10 at 3:10 pm

Journalism is way downstream from the real problem

Take an example from 1962, which happens to be the subject of another CT thread (http://crookedtimber.org/2010/07/02/your-morning-dose-of-cold-war-insanity/comment-page-1/#comment-323045). 1962 should be pretty much the heyday of journalism as the honest broker referee of public discourse, an era between the time of frank Yellow Journalism and today’s Slough of Despond.

What we get from the journalism of this era is that the most signficant thing about an H-bomb test in the air above Honolulu was the resulting light show.

But, “Wait!”, you say, “Special case. The Cold War was on, and the importance of that issue distorted the inherent tendency of journalism to be the determiner of objective reality, because everyone so felt the need to help the cause of Freedom, that of course journalists, as red-blooded Americans as anyone else, would not raise the obvious more substantive and negative aspects of testing H-bombs above Honolulu, when that was clearly done at least partially for the ‘human experimentation’ value.”

Fair enough. But what you admit if you have to make this argument, is that your journalism is only any good when it covers things that aren’t important to anyone. If cases where so much is at stake that the journalists are going to share the common approach of not questioning the shared pieties of the moment, are defined as special cases where journalism can’t be expected to work, well, you’ve defined journalism right out of the game, in that these special cases are all that really matter, and are exactly the cases where an empirical honest broker is needed.

This idea that journalism only ever really worked well for trivial issues, actually makes a certain sense. There does seem to have been an era when cub reporters were assigned to the city desk to learn the empirical discipline of finding the facts and writing them up in a way that answers all the relevant “who, what, when, why, where and how” questions that the story generates. What I don’t think you can locate, is any era when reporters could or would carry that discipline of empiricism on to the higher prestige beats, covering the great issues of the day, as opposed to the trivial things that make interesting narratives for the mass of us who are not directly involved, but are not of any inherent importance except to the participants, things such as fire and crime and the rest of the city desk gamut.

There is no such animal anything like “journalism” that is going to help us out of the cave. It lives in the same false light as the rest of us, and is even less likely to turn around from the shadows on the cave wall to recognize the true situation, because its job is precisely to help convince the rest of us that the shadows are real.

“Don’t look at the implications of the fact that they’re setting off an H-bomb above you! The real story is the light show.”

98

John Holbo 07.03.10 at 3:14 pm

“where fair reporting can fairly lay out the weaknesses in Inhofe’s case, if they exist”

Look, you are never going to get the hang of the he-said/she-said game by doing THAT, itzik. If the requirement is that you be respectful of Inhofe’s case, then you can’t present his case in such a way that it appears to be completely disreputable. Draw some decent drapery over the scene, if you must.

I agree that I have enough anxious paternalism in me to fill a grain of sand.

99

bianca steele 07.03.10 at 4:28 pm

John @ 91:
If we have no particular reason to believe mothers are not particularly good at raising children, we should not have mothers.

I think this variant shows how silly your argument is. This isn’t the way we think about the question, and I don’t know how someone could ever have thought it was.

If we have no particular reason to believe rock musicians are not particularly good at playing bass, we should not have rock musicians.

See how silly it is?

100

Substance McGravitas 07.03.10 at 4:46 pm

See how silly it is?

Bianca, neither of those work.

101

bianca steele 07.03.10 at 4:49 pm

Is it the extra “not”? That was inadvertent.

102

Substance McGravitas 07.03.10 at 4:56 pm

Well, in a biological sense, mothers are a necessity, in a familial sense, many children go without mothers – although children do need someone to raise them, and conveniently nobody seems interested in paying mothers for their labour. The set of bass players overlaps with the set of rock musicians, but neither set is necessary to the other.

Is this news?

http://inhofe.senate.gov/public/

103

bianca steele 07.03.10 at 5:08 pm

Also, it feels to me like the Klaatu idea more likely precedes Walter Lippmann, but I’m not sure where. Maybe in Rousseau’s Julie? Which doesn’t help much, if you are intent on one of the standard intellectual/political partisan divides like liberal/conservative, but doesn’t seem especially deeply theorized either, and I really am not sure where the logic comes from.

Substance,
I’m not saying that fathers can’t raise children successfully. I’m saying that when we talk about the shortcomings of some mothers, we talk about how to improve the way they raise children, rather than saying children should be taken away from their parents and educated by the community (whether the church or the state or the commune). And when we talk about the shortcomings of professional bass players, we are not saying they are stealing our hard-earned record-buying cash, and we’d rather have them on the street begging for a little food than have rock music to listen to.

104

bianca steele 07.03.10 at 5:56 pm

Rather, if we are saying we should not have reporters, we are either saying anyone can do reporting and we should print the writing of anyone who does the hard work of gathering, organizing, and writing up the data; or we are saying reporting is not needed and we should give everyone access to the data and the skills and (at times occasional background knowledge) to understand it; or we are saying newsmakers should write down their own stuff and get published directly for a broad audience.

But I am not happy with this logic, which seems to assume that because journalists don’t always meet very high standards (especially in the absence of things like training that cannot be assumed present in all cases), journalists should aim low; and it turns out that when they aim that low, we don’t really care to pay for what they’re able to do, or we think it’s harmful to society, or something; and since it’s absurd that we should stop having journalists, we accept that journalism really isn’t that helpful to people who are interested in truth, or something, but that we live in an imperfect world and can’t have anything, much less force everyone to be everything to everyone.

Global warming is a terrible example if only because so many people don’t understand simple things about science, and more so because John’s original post didn’t apply only to political hot issues.

105

itzik basman 07.03.10 at 5:58 pm

…Look, you are never going to get the hang of the he-said/she-said game by doing THAT, itzik. If the requirement is that you be respectful of Inhofe’s case, then you can’t present his case in such a way that it appears to be completely disreputable. Draw some decent drapery over the scene, if you must…

“It’s me not you”, as every girl who’s ever broken up with me has said to me.

Perhaps.

But surely there is room in the same discrete journalistic space for opinionators to tar and feather Inhofe, if that’s their wont, and for fair, objective reporting of his hypothetical debate. After all, he has made climate change/global warming issues a minor but marked part of political career and public being. He and his staff publish a news letter devoted to keeping track of, disseminating and popularizing respectable academic skeptics who take a heterodox view of the issues. He’s decidedly not some know-nothing celebrity whose spoutings only have resonance due to celebrity. And in line with that, you misconceive my argument. By positing that respectful reportorial treatment of Inhofe in his imagined debate with Gore, or whomever, precludes, necessarily, disrespectful reporting, you muck up the issue. The issue is not the tension between respect and disrespect in the reporting. The issue is letting fair reporting show Inhofe’s disreputability, if he manifests it. Let him earn his disapprobation by his failure to make his case, or however it may get revealed, and let that be reported with particulars and evidence. As I began this little post: there is every reason why that kind of non-a priori reporting can co exist with opinionating in the same discrete journalistic space.

106

Metamorf 07.03.10 at 6:36 pm

Tip-toeing back in again to make a quick terminological (!) point: “journalism” seems like a general word that covers people from pundits, say, who opinionate as well as interview (e.g., Walter Lippman), to reporters, who are typically assigned to gather news. My criticism of the focus on the audience’s opinions has to do with the latter end of the spectrum, which, I would continue to say, provides a needed or at least useful service but only if it can be reasonably insulated from the opinionating end. If it can’t be, then I’d agree that we don’t need “reporters” as such, and let’s all just be bloggers now.

107

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 3:01 am

“But surely there is room in the same discrete journalistic space for opinionators to tar and feather Inhofe, if that’s their wont, and for fair, objective reporting of his hypothetical debate.”

Yes, no doubt. But the question is whether that indeed ought to be our journalistic model. More specifically, should it be the case that a reporter who finds herself thinking, ‘if I report what I really think is true about Inhofe, it’ll look like I’m just tarring and feathering him, and people will accuse me of mixing opinion with journalism, so I’ll leave that to the bloggers.’ This isn’t the worst result, since there are still all those bloggers. But we have intentionally made reporting worse, epistemologically, for the sake of improving its diplomatic standing. The question is whether we want to do that. I think we should probably sacrifice the appearance of even-handedness, for the sake of achieving actual even-handedness. You think we should do the opposite. That’s not absurd, but not obvious.

Now you will of course say it’s something else entirely. It’s something to do with likely liberal bias. I am impatient with that, and metamorf has been consistently misreading me as being impatient with that due to some bizarre belief that reporters are superior beings. It’s actually a much simpler point. At the end of the day, reporters have to do the best they can. They can’t, coherently, assume they are systematically wrong about who is reasonable and who isn’t. Metamorf assumes they are systematically wrong, due to bad ideology, and that’s fine. But THEY can’t assume that, so they for sure can’t just take metamorf’s say-so on that. What they should do is consider whether he is right, on the merits. And then they should either take those lessons on board, mending their ways – after which point they will not assume they are wrong. Or they should conclude metamorf was wrong, after all – after which point they will not assume they are wrong. There is no world in which they should do what metamorf suggests: namely, just weirdly quarantine parts of their beliefs.

The ref example makes this simple. A team accuses the refs of being biased against them. What should the refs do? Answer 1: consider whether the accusations are just, and if, so, stop making biased calls against this team: Answer 2: assume that the team is probably half right about the bias stuff, and, to compensate, don’t notice when that team is flopping like crazy, in an attempt to compensate for the fact that you make bad calls all the time. Assume it’s a wash. My answer is 1. Metamorf’s answer is, in effect 2. When I say 2 is not a good approach, metamorf says I am assuming that refs are superior beings. I say I am assuming only that they are potentially competent.

108

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 4:42 am

In response to bianca’s point (which I think is confused for the reasons substance points out): if we didn’t think that it was possible for a human being to be a reasonably competent ref, we shouldn’t hire people to referee games. We should just do without them somehow. Maybe play different games.

109

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 5:25 am

Actually, one thing I said above was unclear. I’m trying to avoid talking about specifics, because cases are actually more debatable than general principles of journalism, it seems to me. But maybe I’m being too abstract about cases to make the principles clear. Take the Inhofe case. Suppose you, as a reporter, are reporting on the climate debate. You are supposed to give your readers some sense of the state of the debate. Now: if you are capable of forming reasonable beliefs about the state of the debate, you are capable of forming reasonable beliefs about who has reasonable beliefs about the state of the debate. So either you shouldn’t be reporting on this stuff at all, because you are incompetent. Or you are competent to distinguish respectable from fringe positions. Now, let’s suppose your considered opinion, after much gathering of facts and interviewing of experts and reading of relevant material, etc., is that Inhofe’s views are so nutty that they are simply laughable, in an intellectual sense. No one serious takes them seriously. (Obviously they are ‘important’, because they are Inhofe’s. But they are not intellectually serious, just because they are Inhofe’s.) I say: as a reporter you should report this result. The other view is that you should soft-pedal it, lest you appear to be too partisan. This is the diplomatic option. It is not a crazy approach, but it is not self-evident, since it intentionally aims at epistemic affirmative action on behalf of prominent unreasonable people.

This shows us the importance of getting clear about what ‘opinion’ means. There are certain opinions that have no place in straight reporting, obviously. Mere thoughts, feelings, unverified hunches. Personal venting. ‘Inhofe seems like a jerk to me.’ That is not a sentence that should appear in a straight piece of reportage, even if it is a sincere opinion – hence presumably perfectly true! But there are other opinions, potentially, which may look to readers like expressions of ‘Inhofe is a jerk’ animus, which are actually respectable analytic conclusions. Just good journalism. The question is: do we rule out that sort of good journalism, as unprofessional?

110

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 9:15 am

Take the Inhofe case.

Or, take the Gore case. Let’s suppose your considered opinion, after much gathering of facts, interviewing, etc., is that Gore’s views are so nutty they’re simply laughable. No one serious takes them seriously. Etc. Do you say, as a reporter you should report this result? Or soft-pedal it, lest you appear too partisan? I.e., you’ve come to the respectable analytic conclusion that ‘Gore is a jerk’ and you can say so in a way that looks like good journalism — do we rule out that sort of good journalism as unprofessional?

Hmm? Or maybe there’s something wrong with this whole frame of reference, this way of looking at things. Maybe “taking sides” vs. “diplomacy” isn’t the right alternative at all. Maybe reporters as reporters could simply report what both Gore and Inhofe say without trying to insert their own opinions, not because they’re being or trying to be “diplomatic” or refs — neither of which they are, of course — but simply because that’s their job, and that’s what we all need them to do. You can still certainly recognize, just as any other human being can recognize, that Gore is nutty and a jerk, but you are also capable of recognizing that others dispute that. So even if you’re completely convinced that Gore is wack, you have the discipline to separate that conviction from your reporting (you, as John puts it, can “weirdly quarantine” that part of your beliefs) — not, again, out of a mere desire to be “diplomatic” or appear non-partisan, but simply out of a regard for the professional standards of reportorial journalism. That’s another possible way of looking at reportage. As a side benefit — i.e., not as your deliberate aim, since such would be meanly calculating or manipulative, as opposed to professional — but as a side benefit, that view of the job of the reporter might go some way toward rebuilding your reputation on all sides as a credible source of information.

111

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 10:10 am

“Let’s suppose your considered opinion, after much gathering of facts, interviewing, etc., is that Gore’s views are so nutty they’re simply laughable. No one serious takes them seriously. Etc. Do you say, as a reporter you should report this result? Or soft-pedal it, lest you appear too partisan? I.e., you’ve come to the respectable analytic conclusion that ‘Gore is a jerk’ and you can say so in a way that looks like good journalism—do we rule out that sort of good journalism as unprofessional?”

Yes, that’s quite right. If, as a reporter, after studying the issue soberly and as impartially as you can, you conclude that Gore is a complete, laughable fraud, then you should report that.

I don’t actually believe that this description fits the facts. But, obviously, in principle, if I’m prepared for reporters to find that Inhofe is a fraud, then I’m prepared for reporters to find Gore a fraud. We need to separate the question of what reporters should do in principle from what our actual views are of Inhofe and Gore. And, once we have done that, I think we see that my principle is the more attractive one. There are two possible reasons why you might find Gore a jerk. 1) he just rubs you the wrong way somehow. 2) after careful and scrupulous study of climate change, you have arrived at the conclusion that he is wrong. If, upon self-reflection, you determine that you hostility is more of the 1) sort, you should keep it out of view. If 2), you should report your results. Obviously it can be hard to tell, but that’s your job. No one promised it would be easy. If you publish a stupid piece, denouncing Gore as an idiot, when really you are the idiot, presumably you will get some push-back. That’s how it should go. But you should publish your piece if you are absolutely convinced you are right. You shouldn’t not publish it just because Gore is ‘important’, so he can’t possibly be stupid.

112

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 10:30 am

One qualification: reporters reporting a debate are obliged to take seriously ‘all sides’ – a vague but necessary concept. But that is consistent with ruling stuff out as beyond the sane fringes of both sides. Otherwise you have diplomacy or thoughtless relativism.

113

PHB 07.04.10 at 12:59 pm

The Gore incident demonstrates how far the US media has fallen.

Faced with a ridiculous claim peddled by Declan McCullagh, an ‘exclusive’ based on an interview on CNN, the media reported the claims of Declan’s girlfriend at Cato and some folk from Gingrich’s office rather than watch the smegging interview themselves and see the claim was false.

At the same time the press was very quick to come out and tell us how Bush’s drunk driving conviction was not at all significant and should be forgotten.

This is not being bullied, this is following a pro-GOP, pro-establishment bias. And the New York Times and Washington Post were not merely a ‘part’ of that bias, they led it. At root the US media ranges from the center-right to the far-right. The ‘liberal media’ is the media that is not prepared to actively distort the facts to support the GOP case, their support for GOP positions is taken for granted.

Here, the ‘hate plank’ issues do not really count as a GOP position as they don’t really intend to act on them, not unless they can think up a new hate plank to replace it.

114

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 2:33 pm

We need to separate the question of what reporters should do in principle from what our actual views are of Inhofe and Gore. And, once we have done that, I think we see that my principle is the more attractive one.

Okay. That’s largely what prevails now, in fact, with “reporters” (scare quotes necessary for me) going around telling everyone who’s a jerk, nutty, etc. (in so many — diplomatic! — words) based on their personal opinions, which in turn are based on their worldviews, values, ideologies, partisan allegiances, etc., on both left and right. I.e., no one but the most credulous believes that their opinions arise simply from their “careful and scrupulous study”. To my mind, it’s not a particularly attractive picture on its own, and loses what little appeal it may have when juxtaposed to a principle that would emphasize reportorial objectivity and the exclusion of personal opinions — but maybe that’s all just a matter of taste.

Here, though, I’ve come to a realization. I think that there are significant numbers of people, not necessarily the most partisan or zealous, who quite literally are unable to separate fact and opinion, or even to see that there’s much of a spread or spectrum. For such people, statements like “Inhofe/Gore is a nut case” are no more a matters of opinion than statements like “the sky is blue” or “the sun rises in the east.” Op-ed sections of newspapers must differ from news sections, for these people, only in being a little more general or abstract, and in containing an unusually high number of pure falsehoods and lies. It’s a curious failing, and may arise from some deep anxiety about a sort of self-treason, as though to admit even to oneself that one’s opinions are distinct from facts might be to undermine them. In any case, for such people the option of trying to exclude their personal opinions from factual accounts is just not available.

I’m not saying John is one of these people, but this inability may be partial and intermittent too. Which may explain his at least temporary confusion about the fact of a fire, say, with a reporter’s opinion (see comment 86), his conflation of “opinion” with “belief” (which presumably would include things like a belief that the sky is blue — see comment 90) and his repeated insistence that the reporter’s opinion can’t be distinguished from his factual accounts except for purposes of “diplomacy” (which, to my ear, sounds like mere camouflage for an underlying agenda pursued in a less open manner).

In any case, not everyone is so limited — most people, I think, including many who are deeply committed to their opinions, are quite able to understand that there is a distinction or at least a spread between those opinions and factual accounts. If such people become reporters they have no conceptual difficulties with the notion that their opinions at least can be kept distinct from their factual accounts — i.e., such “quarantining” doesn’t seem at all “weird” to them (see comment 107), though of course there’s a constant practical need to be careful about doing so. In any case, these people have at least the potential to be reporters in the sense of being honest conveyors of factual accounts, to the best of their ability. The others can only be “reporters”.

115

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 3:29 pm

I don’t think I have any difficulty distinguishing fires from beliefs about fires, nor does seeing comment 86 inspire me with any more confidence in the likelihood of me making this mistake. (I think I would be spending a lot more time in the burn ward if I really had this problem.) I also am not ‘conflating’ opinion and belief. I am using the word ‘opinion’ as a synonym for ‘belief’, for argument purposes. That more or less guarantees I’m not conflating them because they are the same thing. (To conflate two things, the things must be two, if you see what I mean.) I of course recognize that the word ‘opinion’ could be used to mean something else. It might mean ‘doubtful belief’ or ‘belief that expresses value judgments’ or something else. I am still waiting on your sense of ‘opinion’, since it is the linchpin of your account, per statements like this:

“a principle that would emphasize reportorial objectivity and the exclusion of personal opinions”

Obviously it can’t be the case that reporters are supposed to exclude their personal beliefs. Because that would mean not saying anything if they think it is true, which is a recipe for bizarro reporting or something. So what does this actually mean? I suspect you are being a bit cagy on this score lest it turn out you are the one who has been conflating things you are also obliged to regard as distinct. We will see, or not.

“his [my] repeated insistence that the reporter’s opinion can’t be distinguished from his factual accounts except for purposes of “diplomacy””

We can obviously distinguish what a reporter thinks from what she says. But if are talking about, oh say climate change, and if by ‘factual accounts of climate change’ we mean, more or less ‘what the reporter believes (as opposed to says) about climate change’, and if we are using ‘opinion’ to mean ‘belief’, then it is rather hard to distinguish the reporter’s considered beliefs from her beliefs, whether for diplomatic or non-diplomatic purposes. Again, there are several different things that you might mean by ‘opinion’ besides ‘belief’. It would be helpful if you could say what you mean, because this is the thing you propose to quarantine, so I think you need to say what it is. Value judgments? Beliefs that are not absolutely certain? Beliefs that you hold strongly but that you recognize as controversial? What?

“most people, I think, including many who are deeply committed to their opinions, are quite able to understand that there is a distinction or at least a spread between those opinions and factual accounts.”

This is just confused, I think. It makes perfect sense to say ‘I think x is true but it may be false’, and everything I say is obviously consistent with that. Your objection depends on demanding that reporters assume something more strongly self-undermining: ‘I think x is true but x is false’. There not only may be but IS a spread between this particular belief of mine and the truth about the thing this belief is about. But if you really thought that (not just in some superfine metaphysical ‘I don’t know absolute reality’ sense, but in an actual, practical sense) then you wouldn’t think x is true any more.

116

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 4:49 pm

I’m using “opinion” in the way most people use it to distinguish it from “fact” — most people, that is, apart from those who for whatever reason are actually unable to so distinguish the two, as I’ve described. Most people, that is, understand that there’s a reason opinions are on op-ed sections, factual accounts are (supposed to be) in the news sections. I.e., I’m simply relying on ordinary intuitions of (most) English-speakers here, and not getting into teasing out various philosophical stances re: belief, truth, reality, knowledge, etc., etc., which, as I’ve said, is an endless pursuit, and not helpful in this context.

But this — “Your objection depends on demanding that reporters assume something more strongly self-undermining: ‘I think x is true but x is false’. ” — is so mistaken that I think you really may be one of those who truly cannot distinguish opinion from fact, so that the only way you’re able to think such a distinction is in factual terms of truth or falsity. That is, you think if someone says “I think Inhofe is a nutcase, but I recognize that’s an opinion, and it’s different from thinking that the sky is blue” then they’re undermining themselves and they really think or are implying that Inhofe is quite sane?!? See #114 above re: anxieties about “self-treason”.

117

John Holbo 07.04.10 at 5:29 pm

Look, I realize that most people distinguish ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’. I do, for example. I mean ‘belief’ by ‘opinion’, as I’ve said, and ‘belief’ is not the same as fact. So what I am saying depends on distinguishing ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’. But you are apparently distinguishing ‘opinion’ from ‘belief’ in a different way. I keep asking you what that way is. I don’t ask that you give me a whole philosophical theory, but I do ask that you give me some idea what you have in mind, since there are a number of possible candidates here. You could be trying to rule out value judgments or statements that are less than absolutely certain. When someone says ‘I think Inhofe is a nutcase, but I recognize that’s an opinion’, what does that mean? That it’s not certain? That’s it’s a value judgment? That it’s a statement that may offend some people? That you realize that other people disagree? That reasonable people may take the other side. That you realize that differences of agreement about these things must be tolerated?

The ‘fact/opinion’ distinction is just not clear enough to make clear even what you are proposing with your quarantine proposal. (Again, I’m not asking for a full philosophical theory of truth and reality, merely a definite proposal of some sort, that can be understood in practical terms.) In a sense all anyone reports are opinions. That is: things they think are true. They hope they are true. They have tried to verify the truth. But it’s not exactly a mystery that sometimes newspaper have to print corrections. That because they don’t actually print facts. They print beliefs about facts. If the only thing you ever printed were facts, you’d never have to run corrections, after all. When someone says ‘you should just print the facts’, that basically means you should go out and form really really well-justified opinions. And then print those. So tell me what opinions you want to rule out as not justified enough, and why.

118

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 5:55 pm

When you say you yourself distinguish opinion from fact you must have some sense of what you mean by the two and of their difference. Let’s just take that.

I don’t doubt that you — or for that matter a high school kid — can quibble endlessly about facts, beliefs about facts, possible facts, opinions about facts, etc., but then, on this level, that’s just kicking up dust. On a practical level, certainly, there are real questions to be decided around these things, but then that gets us right back to where we started, which is the general principle to be used in making those decisions — trying to give as objective account of a situation, dispute, whatever, as possible vs. trying to influence the opinion of one’s audience to coincide with one’s own. Of course, there’s no question about principle and no need to worry about the practical difficulties of distinguishing reporting from op-ed opinionating if you just think that your opinions — e.g., Gore is a nutcase — are facts.

119

Substance McGravitas 07.04.10 at 6:06 pm

On a practical level, certainly, there are real questions to be decided around these things, but then that gets us right back to where we started, which is the general principle to be used in making those decisions—trying to give as objective account of a situation, dispute, whatever, as possible vs. trying to influence the opinion of one’s audience to coincide with one’s own.

Well, on a practical level let’s look at this speech by Sarah Palin. Should a reporter simply have to reproduce that entire speech or are they allowed to write “Sarah Palin gave a rambling and incoherent speech at a fundraiser in Canada”?

120

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 7:25 pm

Well, Substance, a “reporter” can do whatever he/she likes. They can, for example, write that the Obama speech on immigration was “dull, unfocused, and confused”, or that Pelosi’s recent briefing on Unemployment Insurance was “ignorant, embarrassing, and economically illiterate” if they (and their editors/producers) want. An actual reporter, on the other hand, would likely provide links or pointers to the full texts involved these days, and then attempt to make a summary that was a little better than partisan school-yard insult.

121

Chris 07.04.10 at 9:15 pm

So, as metamorph notes, an elementary distinction exists between conclusory assertions about facts—“there was a fire”—about which there will be no dispute and opinions, which are, by definition, personal beliefs or judgments not founded on proof or certainty.

That’s not a distinction, it’s a spectrum. Metamorf seems to be engaging in the ancient practice of drawing an arbitrary line on a continuum and then believing that he/she has discovered a universal, objective truth about “the” difference between the ends, in this case, opinion and fact.

If you put AGW on the same part of the spectrum as looking at charred wood and smelling smoke and concluding that there has been a fire (and some people do — obviously not including Inhofe), then why should you suppress that conclusion? Whether or not there is dispute is, fundamentally, up to the other side (or potential other side) to determine — maybe tobacco company scientists claiming no link to cancer would be a better example, unless someone is going to show up and deny that too. Should reporters have refused to state opinions on the carcinogenic properties of tobacco simply because the inferences were somewhat complicated and a non-zero number of people held, or professed to hold, the contrary opinion? Would that have helped the public form more impartial opinions on the subject?

The question of how certain is certain enough is, of course, important. But you can’t publish only what is *absolutely* certain because nothing is absolutely certain. IMO it doesn’t help the discussion of how certain is certain enough to pretend that there is a clear line “out there” in some sense — ultimately, the quantum of proof you consider sufficient is a value judgment and there’s no way around that, so fooling yourself that there is an objective standard of “enough proof” and that therefore anyone on the wrong side of it should just shut up can’t lead to anything good.

122

Metamorf 07.04.10 at 10:33 pm

… so fooling yourself that there is an objective standard of “enough proof” and that therefore anyone on the wrong side of it should just shut up can’t lead to anything good.

Yes, just so. Apply that to AGW and you can begin to see why there remains an issue, why skeptics should not “just shut up”, and why honest reporters, as opposed to agenda-driven opinionators, should report the real state of the controversy, as opposed to their personal opinion of it.

If, by the way, I’ve given the impression that there is a simple binary division between fact and opinion, or even an arbitrary line that can distinguish the two, then I’ve given the wrong impression. There isn’t. I’ve tried on a number of occasions to use words like “spread” or “spectrum” to indicate that there is indeed a continuum separating the two, but I’ll admit that my primary concern has been to be clear that the two are nonetheless distinct, if only as poles. I would also say that the aim of reporting facts, including facts about the range of opinion on an issue, is much more sharply distinguishable from the aim of guiding opinion.

123

John Holbo 07.05.10 at 2:06 am

Metamorf, I hope that your primary concern has not in fact been to show that ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ are distinct, because you’ve been arguing against me, and my position not only allows but depends on that distinction. And that last bit about the ‘aim of reporting facts’ being distinguishable from ‘the aim of guiding opinion’ is likewise quite beside the point. You’ve admitted that if a piece is accurate but written in such a way as to mislead, it should be rewritten. Once you’ve granted that much, you are onboard with ‘the aim of guiding opinion’ in the only way that I mean it.

The problem with standing on the fact/opinion distinction and stamping your little foot all day, as though that answered the question, is that what people mean by ‘opinion’, ordinarily, is ‘belief’ but with a strong connotation of ‘that is a bit crappy or doubtful or merely personal in some unspecified way’. We all agree that reporters should not publish beliefs that are a bit crappy and doubtful and merely personal. We only disagree about which beliefs those are. In some cases we agree, but in a few cases we disagree. I think that if a reporter can form reasonable enough beliefs about, say, climate change, to report on it, then the reporter can form reasonable enough beliefs about who has reasonable beliefs about climate change to report on that, too. Metamorf disagrees with this. But I don’t know what his reasons are. (They certainly aren’t any of these things he’s been saying, which are quite irrelevant.) So let me repeat my challenge. If it is possible for reporters to form beliefs about the climate change debate – reasonable enough for them to be reportable in newspaper – why is it not possible for reporters to form reasonable beliefs about who has reasonable beliefs about the climate debate? Such that they could report that certain people, even if they are very prominent, have really ridiculous beliefs? (Why should this particular sort of conclusion, which seems of a piece with the sort of analysis that is ‘not opinion’, suddenly and mysteriously pitch over into the pit of ‘mere opinion’?)

By the by, I don’t like saying ‘if the reporter knows the facts, as opposed to opinions, about climate change, she can report it’ because that implies that the issue is simpler than it is. Reporting on climate change, or the state of the climate change debate, is not a matter of reporting ‘the facts’, as Metamorf suggests, but of forming analytically reasonable interpretations based on evidence. That goes beyond just ‘reporting the facts’, even though obviously it aims at reporting the facts.

124

Metamorf 07.05.10 at 5:07 am

The problem with standing on the fact/opinion distinction and stamping your little foot all day, as though that answered the question, is that what people mean by ‘opinion’, ordinarily, is ‘belief’ but with a strong connotation of ‘that is a bit crappy or doubtful or merely personal in some unspecified way’.

And note how well John illustrates his point about “opinion” with his own opinion about the size of my feet. But maybe John is just projecting his rather defensive sense of his personal opinions onto everyone else. I mean, while I do think many would agree that NY Times editorials, for example, are “a bit crappy or doubtful or merely personal in some unspecified way”, I don’t think everyone would necessarily think so (unfortunately). Similarly, I don’t think you’d get general agreement that all the columnists and opinion pieces that are run on newspaper op-ed pages, for example, are expressing beliefs that are “a bit crappy or doubtful or merely personal in some unspecified way” (though doubtless many are). Are not those opinions? Are they not what “people mean” by “opinion” ordinarily? Is the op-ed — short for opinion-editorial — page then deliberately misleading people by calling them opinions?

Ah, but then, notice that there are apparently “reasonable opinions”, and these are the ones held, or at least reported on, by reporters. Would those be the opinions of reporters who think that Gore is a nutcase, for example, that “climate change” is a huge fraud, that the health care bill is a socialist wedge, etc., etc.? Mmmmmaybe not. Curious, isn’t it? They’re reporters, after all, they’ve (we can but presume) made serious and careful study of the issues, etc., yet now it looks like these are opinions/beliefs we can’t or shouldn’t trust. (This works from either side of the left-right divide, by the way — I’m only presenting it from the left-liberal side, because of the context here.)

Well, if that all starts to look a bit confused it’s probably because it is. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that John’s kind of painted himself into a corner he’d rather not be in, and is now trying to get out of it in various ways, one of them being the time-honored maneuver of watering down or generalizing his position to the point of banality. At times, for example, he seems to want to conflate — or, as he says, make “synonymous” — “opinion” and simple “belief”, so that “the sky is blue” becomes just another example of an opinion; and since everything’s just opinion, reporters can’t help but express opinion or they wouldn’t be able to express anything at all — so much for his claim that he’s always been able to distinguish “fact” and “opinion”, no?

But here’s the bit he wrote in his original post that started this exchange: “… it’s silly to think reporters do not have a positive duty to act on these opinions, changing up their stance to counteract the influence of perceived craziness, the better to help their readers form sensible opinions.” Do you think the “sensible opinions” he wants reporters — reporters, not op-ed writers — to help readers form are simple beliefs, along the lines of “the sky is blue”? Not likely. And “sensible opinions” by definition can’t be the ones that are “a bit crappy” etc. And they probably shouldn’t be opinions like “climate change is a fraud”, either. So I’d say it looks a lot like John started out with a little bit of an agenda of his own, which was to urge, and/or apologize for, reporters expressing their personal opinions (which he’s at least right they no doubt have) as distinct from their facts (and remember that John has always been aware of that distinction), in their reportage — and he’s happy with that because, though it would be impolitic to say so outright, he’s comfortable that the majority of reporters at the present time more or less share his political/ideological bent.

And that’s, as I said early on, certainly a plausible political strategy, if a bit long in the tooth by now: to hell with bourgeois “objectivity”, let’s just make sure — that is, let’s help the people think “correctly”. But, as is so often the case, there are unintended consequences of that approach, such as the spreading understanding among “the people” that they’re not being helped by such reporters, they’re being played, and hence the slow but steady erosion of credibility for such reporters generally, left or right. Not all that attractive a result.

125

John Holbo 07.05.10 at 6:32 am

Well, since the position that metamorf is pinning has almost nothing to do with the one I hold, and have been defending, I’ll just wait for him to respond to what I’ve actually proposed. Or not. (I’ve written it as clearly as I can, so I’ll just let what I’ve written stand. The gaping chasm between what I have said and what metamorf has read seems to me very dramatic – picturesque even.) I am also still waiting for him to answer my challenge. If someone is qualified to form reasonable opinions (beliefs, call them what you will) about the climate debate, such that they are qualified to write up those reasonable opinions (beliefs) as journalism, why shouldn’t they be qualified to judge who has reasonable opinions (beliefs) about the climate debate. How can there be people who are qualified to report on the debate, but not qualified to report on who is, and isn’t, a serious contributor to the debate?

I will address a few points that metamorf may actually be confused about, not just dodging around – the better to keep rattling on with these stock arguments against positions that aren’t mine.

“but then, notice that there are apparently “reasonable opinions”, and these are the ones held, or at least reported on, by reporters.”

No. These are the opinions that reporters ought to hold, not those that they necessarily do hold. There is an is/ought distinction. Mechanics are supposed to have reasonable beliefs about how to fix your car. That doesn’t mean they actually do, but they are supposed to. Reporters about climate change are supposed to have reasonable opinions about climate change. That doesn’t mean they do. But they are supposed to. (If metamorf, disagrees, he should explain what his objection to this rather basic point could be.)

As to this opinion/belief quibble metamorf is so determined to cling to like grim death, it seems to me easily solved by consulting, say, a dictionary.

http://www.google.com.sg/search?hl=en&safe=off&client=firefox-a&hs=ppK&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&defl=en&q=define:opinion&sa=X&ei=rnYxTJDOJZCycduD4L0D&ved=0CBQQkAE

‘Opinion’ sometimes means just ‘belief’. Sometimes it means ‘doubtful belief’, or subjective belief. Sometimes it means judicial decision, but we can set that aside. When it is a matter of expert testimony, ‘opinion’ can actually denote particularly sound belief: ‘expert opinion’ is better than just plain man-on-the-street belief. ‘Op-ed’ is a term for a specific genre. Some such piece may be highly subjective, raw opinionation, but mostly they are supposed to contain well-reasoned arguments that are, maybe, a bit controversial. So they could as well be called ‘Belief editiorials’. (It’s just a name: op-ed.) In almost all ordinary context, you could substitute ‘opinion’ for ‘belief’ and it might sound funny, but it would mean the same. ‘It is my belief that Inhofe is unreasonable’. ‘It is my opinion that Inhofe is unreasonable.’ Those say the same, I take it. For argument purposes, I just stipulated that ‘belief’ and ‘opinion’ should mean the same, to avoid any confusion about all this ordinary language clutter. But metamorf has decided – for reasons best known to himself – that this is quite wrong, and that my decision to treat them as synonyms, for clarity, is a symptom of some dire ideological sin on my part.

I say: reporters have to write up what they believe. Good beliefs. Well-justified beliefs. We went through this at the start. The alternative is raw data files. When we say reporters should report the facts we mean: they should form good, well-justified beliefs. Now metamorf says they should check some of those beliefs at the door. The ones he calls ‘opinions’. But I still don’t know which ones he thinks those are, because he hasn’t said. So I’ll wait for him to say.

126

Metamorf 07.05.10 at 12:21 pm

Originally, John said that reporters should write so as to “help people form sensible opinions,” among other things, and I took issue with that, saying that reporters should aim at conveying the objective reality of a situation as far as possible, and “let opinions, like chips, fall where they may.” I took him to mean by “opinion” what everybody means by “opinion” in the context of journalism — i.e., what appears on op-ed pages — and I took his statement about reporters helping people form “sensible opinions” to mean that such opinions should become a part of straight reporting, as distinct from op-ed. The problem, as I saw it, was that the notion of what qualifies as “sensible opinion” has this peculiar tendency to vary along political/ideological battle lines, and you can’t, as John illustrates himself, simply accept what comes out of the mouth or pen of a reporter as “sensible opinion” (“Reporters … are supposed to have reasonable opinions…. That doesn’t mean they do.”). Hence, John’s recommendation, reminiscent of an older notion of reportorial “commitment”, has the effect of enlisting reporters on one side or another of that battle. And that in turn leaves them over time “reporting” only to their own side. Ironically, the focus on forming the audience’s “sensible opinions” actually undercuts the reporter’s ability to communicate with, and hence to help, his audience.

The alternative, which is what I’m recommending, is that reporters qua reporters aim to keep their reports toward the factual end of the spectrum between fact and opinion. This won’t insulate them entirely from the battle, certainly, since the more fervent participants will sweep up everybody anyway, but the attempt to be factual, regardless of opinion, “sensible” or not, will preserve for them a greater degree of independence, and hence credibility with their audience on either side of the political battle lines. Extending the irony above, aiming at an independence from “opinion” in the op-ed sense will actually help reporters’ communication with a larger audience, and would have the — unintended, or un-aimed-for, but still beneficial — effect of helping people form their own opinions (which we have to trust will be “sensible” more or less, however we interpret that word).

Anyway, that’s it folks. I ignored John’s “challenge” since it’s irrelevant, or at least has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. As for the “opinion/belief quibble”, I think it was John that raised it, and I certainly thought he was the one holding on to it for dear life. But, if it’s now my own imagined “death grip” on it that’s the problem — there, I’ve let it go.

127

John Holbo 07.05.10 at 1:12 pm

metamorf writes: “I took him to mean by “opinion” what everybody means by “opinion” in the context of journalism—i.e., what appears on op-ed pages—and I took his statement about reporters helping people form “sensible opinions” to mean that such opinions should become a part of straight reporting, as distinct from op-ed.”

But I think I made my position clear enough. “you see the risk being one sort of relativism. Since everything contains a bit of opinion, might as well haul off and turn everything into a pure op-ed. Well, I agree that would be a mistake.”

The simple reason why admitting reporters report things they believe doesn’t automatically turn them into op-ed writers is that ‘op-ed’ is a proper name of a genre, not a strictly accurate description of that genre. Reporting is a matter of opinion, too, if by ‘opinion’ you just mean belief. Of course you may mean something else by ‘opinion’ – or you may not – so at this point we can draw that curtain of mystery over the discussion and leave it at that, if you are agreeable …

128

chris 07.06.10 at 1:36 pm

The alternative, which is what I’m recommending, is that reporters qua reporters aim to keep their reports toward the factual end of the spectrum between fact and opinion.

But that doesn’t work because people can’t or won’t agree on which reports fall where on the spectrum. I place AGW on the “smelling smoke and inferring fire” end of the spectrum because that’s where I think it belongs based on the evidence, but your (apparent) agenda for the last several dozen comments has been to claim that it belongs more at the “wild speculation” or “sheer personal preference unsupported by any facts” end. (Conveniently, this judgment itself doesn’t call for any factual support. You can dispute the objectivity of someone else’s conclusions on nothing more than your bare word. Now it’s a controversy that reporters should stay out of — wasn’t that easy?)

So what’s a reporter to do when the very degree of objective factuality of his conclusions is itself a political football? Avoiding saying anything that anyone might (even in bad faith) disagree with just gets you pushed around not just by AGW deniers, but by creationists, anti-vaccinationists, and potentially even Holocaust deniers and flat earthers. (I hope you will concede that at least *some* of those positions are unreasonable and their negations do belong on the objective end of the spectrum of fact and opinion — otherwise it may be impossible to have any discourse whatsoever.)

129

Metamorf 07.06.10 at 2:38 pm

I think I said earlier that reporters do need to be able to make a distinction between discredited positions and obvious controversies. But that’s not so hard — what might be harder is to be aware of, and not “pushed around” by, the cheap tactic by the proponents of one side of a controversy of comparing the other side to an unrelated but discredited position, as though that were persuasive rather than irrelevant.

130

chris 07.06.10 at 5:31 pm

Adherents of discredited positions tend to behave in similar sorts of ways in order to keep adhering to their positions notwithstanding their discredited-ness (including the infamous “epistemic closure” — i.e. not believing a word said by anyone who hasn’t already sworn loyalty to your cause). Some of these behaviors are similar regardless of the subject matter of the discredited position. I don’t think pointing these defense mechanisms out is a cheap tactic — it’s pointing out that one side of the “debate” appears to be sticking to its positions for nonrational reasons, after the point at which rational beings would have admitted their mistakes and changed their minds. That’s clearly relevant to an attempt to distinguish between real controversies between reasonable people interpreting inconclusive evidence, fake controversies invented to muddy the waters, and real controversies in which one side is systematically unreasonable but actually believes what they’re saying.

Indeed, a reporter ought (IMO) to be able to spot people who are clinging to their belief systems for reasons unrelated to evidence, and point them out to his audience, as a helpful sign that there may be less to that debate than meets the eye. Failure or unwillingness to do so is the crux of the “Views Differ on Shape of Earth” criticism — the people who make that criticism (including me) consider it an abdication of the journalist’s responsibility to accurately inform the audience.

131

Metamorf 07.07.10 at 5:56 am

Isn’t it funny how True Believers always think, quite sincerely, that they’re the only ones who can see the truth, and the other side is always “irrational”, “nutty”, and just flat wrong. In this case, for example, there’s one side that keeps insisting, against all rational evidence, that the debate is over, when anyone can plainly see large numbers of prominent and open skeptics on the other side. When you see that, and see also that the one side is overloaded with people trying to, in effect, shout down such skeptics with various ad hominem attacks, smears, comparison to irrelevant discredited issues, and mere repetition of phrases like “the debate is over”, then especially a good reporter needs to be alert to being manipulated. I’m not saying reporters should expose the people trying to use such language as the closed-minded fanatics they are. But, by simply juxtaposing the increasingly frantic “debate is over” rhetoric to manifest ongoing debate — i.e., by reporting what they observe — I think that’s what many people are seeing.

132

chris 07.07.10 at 1:32 pm

@131: Isn’t it funny how True Believers always think, quite sincerely, that the debate is not over as long as they are still standing at the podium? (And that completely irrelevant qualifications like elected office make you a “prominent skeptic” on a scientific issue, who absolutely must be personally convinced before the debate can possibly be considered “over”.)

BTW, “help help I’m being repressed!” is one of those defense-of-the-discredited techniques. Particularly noteworthy is when it is used by people who are not, in fact, under house arrest or something similar — their “persecution” consists *entirely* of having lots of people, or even the vast majority, openly disagree with them and/or attribute their beliefs to irrational motives. The horror!

I’m not saying reporters should expose the people trying to use such language as the closed-minded fanatics they are.

You are, however, saying that they’re “closed-minded fanatics” because they’re willing to draw a conclusion when they’re not the absolute last person on Earth to do so.

133

Metamorf 07.07.10 at 2:15 pm

You are, however, saying that they’re “closed-minded fanatics” because they’re willing to draw a conclusion when they’re not the absolute last person on Earth to do so.

No, I’m not — I’m saying that they’re closed-minded fanatics simply because they can see as plainly as anyone else that there really is an ongoing debate and they’re trying to shut it down with irrational attacks, such as trying to get it suppressed in the media. I realize that for large numbers of people, unfortunately, truth, scientific or otherwise, is determined by counting the numbers of people on each side of an issue; luckily, in this case particularly, there is evidence that people are starting to move away from that herd instinct, even among scientific proponents of the majority view.

134

chris 07.07.10 at 3:52 pm

I think that your perception of which side of the debate is resorting to “irrational” attacks is, itself, irrational, but that way lies infinite regress. You can’t prove your rationality to someone with a committed a priori belief in your irrationality. (In fact, I don’t think you can prove your rationality at all, even to yourself — some relative of the Incompleteness Theorem. But that may be on a level too arcane to be considered in resolving real-world empirical questions like whether the surface temperature of the Earth is substantially changing over a period of decades, and to what extent human activity is implicated in causing that change.)

In any case, it’s clear that anyone who’s trying to get anti-AGW views “suppressed in the media” is failing — such views are not only not suppressed, they’re positively amplified in the media relative to their standing in the scientific community. (Which, as you point out, is not conclusive — there used to be a consensus against continental drift and many other subsequently-vindicated theories — but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown, and if the professional opinions of scientists in relevant fields aren’t worth *something*, why do we have them?)

Whether this constitutes giving undue weight to a dissenting view that ought to be regarded as a mere fringe (lunatic or otherwise), or splitting the difference between reason and unreason, is a judgment call — so shouldn’t reporters use their judgment? Different reporters’ judgment will of course differ, but ISTM that there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re not all wrong in the same way at the same time (which would most likely require either systematic cognitive bias or conspiracy).

P.S. When, in general, should a debate be shut down and one side declared (by whom?) to have lost? Is it reasonable to shut down debate on the shape of the Earth and call the dissenters irrational? The approximate age? Common descent of Earth lifeforms? Evolution as the principal mechanism of change in those lifeforms? Or should maverick views always be granted respect, regardless of how the majority of observers weigh the evidence for and against them? The general case is relevant to the specific case, and in all of those other historical examples, people went on fighting for their side of the argument long after no rational argument could be made out in support.

135

chris 07.07.10 at 3:58 pm

BTW, this thread demonstrates Metamorf’s tenaciousness at working the refs. Never mind that ball-shaped object inside the goal-shaped area, there’s still an ongoing debate over whether or not my team is losing, and how dare you be closed-minded enough to suggest otherwise?

If the reporters really are going to act as refs in public debates, then at some point they have to *make calls*, whether the players or coaches are still arguing over what happened or not. That’s the whole point of the ref analogy, as I understand it. Waiting for the opposing players to agree is futile — they’re not going to, they have too much emotional stake in their side.

136

Metamorf 07.07.10 at 4:28 pm

If the reporters really are going to act as refs in public debates, then at some point they have to make calls, whether the players or coaches are still arguing over what happened or not. That’s the whole point of the ref analogy, as I understand it.

The real point is that the “ref” analogy is wrong, though in a revealing way — it assumes that there exists a game, with agreed-upon rules, enforced by agreed-upon officials. But that’s not the actual situation. Instead, we have reality, the nature and “rules” of which are in dispute. For some time now, there has been a widespread delusion, to which “intellectuals”, self-styled and otherwise, are particularly susceptible, that it’s possible to access a privileged position looking down on reality, as it were, much as we observe a game — but, alas, that’s just a profound, hubristic error, and when it comes to human reality it’s an error that’s been marked by some terrible consequences in the past century especially.

Of course, if we have to have reporters imitating referees, with some special insight into the “rules” of the real world, then they should at least be on my side of this issue (and others), since that’s the objective side. Right?

137

Salient 07.07.10 at 4:41 pm

I’m saying that they’re closed-minded fanatics simply because they can see as plainly as anyone else that there really is an ongoing debate

…where? Between whom and whom, conducted by whom, within what debate-facilitating structure? For all chris’ heroic efforts here and elsewhere, these talks get to be intolerably tendentious really quickly when the skeptic doesn’t at least point to their specific champions.

Name the debaters on the dissenting side, Metamorf, by name, so we can look them up and evaluate whether or not we consider their contribution to be legitimate, well-informed, and in good faith. (I’m not interested in what Mitch McConnell has to say about climate change, or, for that matter, John Kerry.) If we learn who these specific ‘debaters’ are you have in mind and dismiss them, you’re welcome to call that inappropriate of us, etc: but at least we’ve stepped out of vagary.

The age of the Earth is ‘under debate’ in the sense that a couple folks in the office next door (and thousands of other folks) believe it’s 6000 years, give or take a few scratches on the door. I don’t consider their contribution to the investigation of Earth-age to satisfy the ‘legitimate, well-informed, and in good faith’ criteria. Folks can hold that judgment against me if they like; at least we’re clear on where we stand, then.

138

Salient 07.07.10 at 4:53 pm

Oh, also:

The real point is that the “ref” analogy is wrong, though in a revealing way—it assumes that there exists a game,

(academic research)

with agreed-upon rules,

(peer review, etc)

enforced by agreed-upon officials.

(scientists working in community).

This is not a particularly problematic assumption to be making. In fact, by acknowledging the existence of legitimate debate, you’re acknowledging there exists an underlying structure in which the debate proceeds. It’s not Calvinball. If you didn’t agree to some structure which deems some voices legitimate participants and others illegitimate, you wouldn’t be advising us that debate is ongoing, because it wouldn’t matter to you: you’d recognize the futility of pursuing universal consensus and acknowledge an alternative decision-making process instead.

Instead, we have reality, the nature and “rules” of which are in dispute.

Umm, look, you’re going to get a lot of “Shape of Earth in dispute: opinions differ” type jokes in response to this, and before meta-dismissing them all you might want to think about why folks snicker when they read what you wrote.

It’s not that they hold a diametrically opposite view (in which nature and rules are all settled and we’ve found the unifying equations and ok, let’s go party). It’s that you’re taking a trivial claim (people don’t all agree about reality) and pretending it’s equivalent to a claim we view as wildly irresponsible (we ought to grant credence to a particular group of people whom you support, for particular claims they make involving climate). Classic knitted-forehead troll behavior, by the way.

139

Metamorf 07.07.10 at 5:24 pm

This post and thread is about journalism and reporters, but now I see you want to — what’s that called? Move the goalposts? Change the analogy to academics? Fine, but they’re not engaged in a game either — academics and scientists (not all of whom are in academia) do in fact dispute the nature and rules of reality. Re: the worn-out “Shape of Earth” jokes, we’ve had lots already and I’m sure will get more, largely because that’s the rut the believers on one side of this issue have gotten themselves into, and can’t get out of — snickers is about all that’s left them. For more on the rut, the shoddy tactics of the believers, and just a hint toward understanding that there might actually be another side, see this (which agrees with you on the substance, in fact).

140

chris 07.07.10 at 6:39 pm

Of course, if we have to have reporters imitating referees, with some special insight into the “rules” of the real world, then they should at least be on my side of this issue (and others), since that’s the objective side. Right?

Heh. Well, if a bunch of reporters all use their independent judgment and 97% of them side with you (without being told by their bosses to do so, etc.), then I’d at least take a long look at their stated reasons for doing so, if they gave any reasons. Because even though reality is not a democracy, when the consensus of informed people is that one-sided, there is probably something to it. You don’t ordinarily see 97% of people agreeing that the sun rises in the west (although at one time you could have found 97% agreement that the sun circles the earth, so you do have to actually look at the reasons for and against and not just rely on the collective judgment of others).

When a bunch of people all look at the evidence and the vast majority agree on how to interpret it, ISTM that at the very least the burden of proof is on those who want to say that the majority is wrong to explain how and why the majority is wrong, and not just say “Well, I dispute this conclusion for reasons I’m not going to specify, therefore you can’t draw any conclusions without being biased.”

141

John Holbo 07.09.10 at 12:07 pm

Wow. I checked out of this thread for a few days. Still going, huh? OK, let’s try to get somewhere. Metamorf, from our point of view you are speaking in tired cliches, repeating old talking points about ‘left wing bias’, which we – from our side – regard as somewhere on the line between discredited and incoherent. It is certainly not the case that we haven’t heard this stuff before. We don’t buy it. And we’ve given our reasons why we shouldn’t – I have anyway. And you have said you find all that ‘irrelevant’. Well, fine. But my reasons for thinking you complaints are incoherent look quite relevant to me. So we are a bit stuck, if you see what I mean.

So why do think we should believe what you say. ‘Belief’ is evidently the word of the week, courtesy of this thread. Belief and opinion and all that. You accuse our side of being True Believers, but surely you fit the bill just as well: you think yolu are right and that we are deluded and confused. So: fine. We’re all True Believers now. So what do we do about it?

For you it is important that there is a fact – belief/opinion spectrum, and that reporting should report facts and not beliefs. We regard that as incoherent. Please give us a reason to think it’s actually coherent. Let’s take the example of the fire downtown. Suppose there was a fire downtown yesterday. And the reporter reports that there was a fire downtown. Now this is perfectly factual (let’s stipulate). So we slide the pointer completely to the fact end of the spectrum. But it’s also perfectly believed. That is, the reporter believes there was a fire downtown. So we also slide the pointer all the way over to the belief/opinion end of the spectrum. So we are now firmly planted on both ends of the spectrum. This is fine, I guess (although it sort of confuses the visual metaphor). But where is the sense in suggesting that people should stick to the ‘factual’ side only? What we really need is not a fact-belief spectrum, it seems, but a distinction between the sorts of beliefs one should report and the sort of beliefs one shouldn’t. And I wonder what you think about that. How do you distinguish which beliefs should and shouldn’t be the basis for reporting? You suggested that ‘opinions’ are the ones we don’t want. But I don’t know what you mean by that, so perhaps we could get out of these tired old ruts by trying to say what the stuff is that should stay out. (That’s my opinion, anyway.)

142

bianca steele 07.09.10 at 4:57 pm

John, normally I wouldn’t jump in (and I deserved that last crack for calling your ideas “silly”: your blog, your rules), but: Are you suggesting that if, say, I said there was a fire in downtown Marlborough a week or two ago (as there was) and in response to your query used the word “belief” to characterize my relationship between my mind and “fire in Marlborough,” the ordinary rules would consider me incompetent to report on the fire? It sounds so absurd. We would have to get computers to report the news instead of people. (In fact, I think we would have to conclude that the people who report the news now are computers.)

143

bianca steele 07.09.10 at 5:15 pm

For one thing, it is certainly possible to report, for example, that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the legs of the same triangle, and not believe this in a detectable sense. It seems counterintuitive to call this “thinking like a computer,” but it is not entirely inappropriate.

144

John Holbo 07.09.10 at 7:52 pm

bianca steele: “It sounds so absurd.”

Well, I’m constructing a reductio on metamorf’s position, so I hope it not only sounds but IS so absurd.

“For one thing, it is certainly possible to report, for example, that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the legs of the same triangle, and not believe this in a detectable sense.”

I actually doubt that is true. You cannot ‘report’ x, in anything like the ordinary sense, unless, in your opinion, x is true (or at least likely to be true). I cannot ‘report’ that there is a unicorn in the garden. I can ‘mock-report’ it, in a Thurberesque spirit. I can utter the sentence ‘there is a unicorn in the garden’ without believing it, but that is not a report of a unicorn in the garden. The one exception is that I can lie. But this does not seem like a promising avenue to send the reporters down.

145

bianca steele 07.09.10 at 11:04 pm

You can believe the fact about right triangles, believe the Pythagorean Theorem is true and believe lots of true statements about the social, scientific and historical context of the Pythagorean Theorem without knowing how to find the hypotenuse of a triangle marked as a right triangle with sides 3, 4, and ?”. One explanation may be that the latter is knowing how and doesn’t involve belief, but I’m not sure it is the best explanation.

This is different from believing you ought to say the P.T. is true but not really believing what you say is true.

146

bianca steele 07.10.10 at 1:12 am

Or, say you and I agree that the waterfall method in software development is impossible for projects too large to be assigned in a weekly problem set. However, you believe something on a plane defined by the following axes: the waterfall method requires better education than US developers get, and the computer is crosswise to true reason and to human nature such that rational software development is impossible. I feel pretty comfortable saying you don’t really believe the method is impossible. This example is probably closer to what you have in mind.

147

John Holbo 07.10.10 at 11:52 am

Well, there are lots of complications having to do with not necessarily believing all the implications of your beliefs – because you don’t know what they are. And also with believing things without really knowing the reasons for the things you believe, because you take them on authority, say. But I don’t think any of these examples are close to what I have in mind because all these sound like real, plausible sorts of examples and the thing I’m talking about – the thing metamorf is proposing – isn’t something real or plausible. That’s the objection.

148

bianca steele 07.10.10 at 2:04 pm

John, I’m not sure what Metamorf is proposing. I looked at his blogs, and stopped when I saw he was ridiculing “postmodernism” and “‘French’ theory” in a way common to people of traditional intellectual tastes who are actually too old to have encountered those things at a university, and know about them only what is said about them in the media (because they find the texts too difficult and unfamiliar to read for themselves).

149

John Holbo 07.10.10 at 2:33 pm

I’m not sure what Metamorf is proposing. I’m pretty sure Metamorf isn’t sure what he’s proposing. That’s my point. What he has said is absurd, which puts whatever he may have meant behind rather a curtain of mystery. Presumably he does not wish to propose something absurd. So he should amend his proposal. Or at least propose it.

As to postmodernism and French Theory, my problem is rather the opposite of Metamorf’s, it may be: I’ve read too much of the stuff at university not to ridicule much of it. I don’t find these texts difficult enough or unfamiliar enough that I am constrained by the concern that perhaps I am just misunderstanding them, due to the unfortunate influence of snarky ‘bad titles of the MLA’ journalism. Anyway, it was all so long ago …

150

Substance McGravitas 07.10.10 at 2:43 pm

151

John Holbo 07.10.10 at 3:06 pm

That’s impressive, Substance. In related news, I have a receipt from a Japanese restaurant in my wallet. We were seated at table 11, on 1/11 and our bill came to $111.11. (True story!) It just goes to show …

But I think not enough consideration is given the the possibility that Paul is just unusually bad at predicting winners, such that actually he always picks losers.

152

Metamorf 07.10.10 at 8:46 pm

John gets mixed up about the difference between “constructing a reductio” and simply being absurd. Bianca, I see, believes she has extricated herself from “traditional intellectual tastes”, without realizing the irony implicit in still being mired in “French Theory”. And of course both derive obvious comfort from their surrounding herd of more or less like-thinkers — the “we”. Which is fine and understandable — the world itself must be especially depressing and even frightening for most of the left these days, and they should have a refuge where they’re not bothered by those not included in the group. And that’s why, apart from this final note, I’ve left the conversation.

If, as one parting comment, however, you ask “How do you distinguish which beliefs should and shouldn’t be the basis for reporting?”, and we can stipulate that rational opinions at least, however defined, are allowed, then clearly the beliefs that should be reported are right-wing, as opposed to left-wing, beliefs, with an emphasis on the libertarian as opposed to conservative version. That much at least is obvious, isn’ t it?

153

John Holbo 07.10.10 at 9:19 pm

“and we can stipulate that rational opinions at least, however defined, are allowed, then clearly the beliefs that should be reported are right-wing, as opposed to left-wing, beliefs, with an emphasis on the libertarian as opposed to conservative version”

We can stipulate anything we want, metamorf! That is the wonder of stipulation. And the closer I get to getting to boxing you in to admitting that rational opinions, at least, should be allowed, the closer I get to winning you over to the point of view of my post! Ah, the life of the mind.

154

bianca steele 07.11.10 at 5:24 pm

@152: Good God, Metamorf, WTF? I am myself too old to have encountered these things at university unless I had been a very intense English lit student, and maybe not even then as an undergraduate. I’m pretty sure postmodernism was known largely as an art-critical and architectural phenomenon then (I remember Ada Louise Huxtable talking to a group of students and explaining, with incredulity, that it even drew inspiration from Barthes, which I thought was spelled Barth). I’m fond of Foucault’s writing, but very aware that my understanding of him is not exactly correct.

And: What is this “should”? Do or do not. There is no “should.” That’s what Yoda would say. Whether that’s good or bad, I can’t always say.

155

Metamorf 07.14.10 at 8:29 pm

Apologies re: “French Theory”, bianca — looked to me as though you were (still) an acolyte, but am happy to be corrected.

And: What is this “should”?

You should probably ask John — it’s his “should” (see @141). But what is this “good or bad”? No “should”, no “good”, grasshopper.

156

bianca steele 07.14.10 at 9:57 pm

You don’t understand Yoda.

157

bianca steele 07.14.10 at 11:52 pm

Shouldn’t this thread be closed by now?

Comments on this entry are closed.