All You Zombies …

by Henry Farrell on April 8, 2010

“Scott’s post”: yesterday reminded me that I had never linked to Ethan Zuckerman’s “fascinating discussion”: of how much original reporting there is out there on the Internets, as measured through the admittedly imperfect lens of Google news.

This evening, Google News tells me that I have my choice of 5,053 articles on conflicts between Congressional Republicans and Democrats over healthcare reform. (Oh goody.) How many of those stories contain original reporting? In a world with thousands of professional media outlets at our fingertips – as well as hundreds of thousands of amateurs – how much original material do we really have access to? … What’s interesting in those numbers is the 14,000/24 ratio, implying 583 versions of each story. (That ratio is probably much higher today, with Google News following more news sources.) Jonathan Stray did a very smart analysis for Nieman Journalism Lab, looking at a universe of 800 stories about the alleged involvement of two Chinese universities in hacking attacks on Google. His findings were striking: 800 stories = 121 non-identical stories = 13 stories with original quotes = 7 fully independent stories.

Stray coded the 121 non-identical stories that had been clustered together by Google (the clustering algorithms are good, but not perfect – nine stories were unrelated to the specific case of these two universities) and looked for the appearance of novel quotes, which he considered the “bare minimum” standard for original reporting. (Interesting – it’s the same logic that led Jure Leskovec to track quotes to track media flow in MemeTracker.) Only 13 of the stories contained quotes not taken from another media source’s report. The essence of Stray’s piece is the question, “What were those other 100 reporters doing?” The answer, unfortunately, is that they were rewriting everyone else’s stories.

This hasn’t gotten the kind of pick-up that it deserves in the broader blogosphere – even if it’s not necessarily a representative sampling (other stories on other kinds of news might very plausibly do better in English language media) – it’s a rather startling finding.

Another Bloggingheads, this time with Brink Lindsey, covering the helicopter gunship attacks still being discussed below, David Frum, and the parlous state of Catholicism again. “One bit”: which is worth developing on a bit – I mention in passing that Ross Douthat made a ridiculous claim about the causes of the Catholic priest pedophilia coverup. The exact argument is “here”:

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.) But it was the church’s conservative instincts — the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics — that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished.

The problem with this claim is that one of the countries discussed by Douthat (a) did not have a permissive sexual culture during the 1970s (or, for that matter, 1980s and early 1990s), (b) did not notably overemphasize therapy (or, indeed, emphasize therapy at all), and (c ) was arguably responsible for the worst abuses and cover-up of all. That country, of course, being Ireland. Ireland’s public sexual mores did loosen up a little during the 1970s. In the late 1960s, a hint on public television that night clothes might be doffed on a couple’s wedding night was sufficient to produce public debate and episcopal fulminations on the rising tide of filth threatening to swamp the country. By the 1970s, the country had advanced to the stage where a soap opera could mention that a married couple might use birth control if a second pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother. By the time that I myself went to college in the late 1980s, it was still impossible to buy birth control without a medical prescription (the idea being that doctors would only prescribe to married couples), and there were regular battles between the Student’s Union – which kept trying to instal a condom vending machine – and the university authorities – which kept ripping it down in the middle of the night. Therapy was a decidedly odd notion, confined to Protestants and agnostics in a few metropolitan areas. Ordinary decent Catholics allowed their neuroses to blossom or fester, depending on their social acceptability; and in dire emergencies and near breakdowns, perhaps consulted their local priest.

Perhaps this all counts as sinful licentiousness by Douthat’s standards. What is curious, then, is how the causal impact of 1970s permissiveness extend backwards, as well as forward in time. Ireland’s “Child Abuse Commission’s report”: suggests that many of the worst abuses occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, some of the worst institutions had already closed down by the early 1970s. In the report’s description:

The Confidential Committee heard evidence from 1090 men and women who reported being abused as children in Irish institutions. Abuse was reported to the Committee in relation to 216 school and residential settings including Industrial and Reformatory Schools, Children’s Homes, hospitals, national and secondary schools, day and residential special needs schools, foster care and a small number of other residential institutions, including laundries and hostels. 791 witnesses reported abuse to Industrial and Reformatory Schools and 259 witnesses reported abuse in the range of other institutions. … 77% of witnesses were aged over 50 years and 3% were under 30 years of age when they gave their evidence to the Confidential Committee. … Witnesses reported being physically, sexually and emotionally abused, and neglected by religious and lay adults who had responsibility for their care, and by others in the absence of adequate care and supervision.

Sexual abuse was reported by approximately half of all the Confidential Committee witnesses. Acute and chronic contact and non-contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time. The secret nature of sexual abuse was repeatedly emphasised as facilitating its occurrence. Witnesses reported being sexually abused by religious and lay staff in the schools and institutions and by co-residents and others, including professionals, both within and external to the institutions. They also reported being sexually abused by members of the general public, including volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employers, foster parents, and others who had unsupervised contact with residents in the course of everyday activities. Witnesses reported being sexually abused when they were taken away for excursions, holidays or to work for others. Some witnesses who disclosed sexual abuse were subjected to severe reproach by those who had responsibility for their care and protection. Female witnesses in particular described, at times, being told they were responsible for the sexual abuse they experienced, by both their abuser and those to whom they disclosed abuse.

If I sound sarcastic in this post, it’s because it’s the only way that I can write about this without being overwhelmed by bitterness and rage. These vile abuses had nothing to do with a 1970s culture of permissiveness. Douthat’s claim to the contrary is worse than lazy. It is actually quite shameful. The “pox on both your houses” insulates him – and the church he is trying to defend – from the obvious fact that it was exactly the conservative features of the Irish church and its social dominance that were causally responsible for perpetuating the rape and sexual abuse of many hundreds of children in religious institutions. These included not only hierarchy and the conspiracy of silence among the powerful, but a terror of, and disgust for, both female sexuality and homosexuality. The victims of sexual abuse had nowhere to turn, because they were identified as complicit in their own abuse, if not indeed its instigators. Being the ruination of a priest or brother was an enormous cause of shame. Failing to acknowledge this – and resorting instead to a cheap conservative trope about the sexual license of the 1970s – is intellectually dishonest and rather contemptible.