advice for journalists

Andrew Sullivan writes,

Online is increasingly where people live. My average screen time this past week was close to ten hours a day. Yes, a lot of that is work-related. But the idea that I have any real conscious life outside this virtual portal is delusional. And if you live in such a madhouse all the time, you will become mad. You don’t go down a rabbit-hole; your mind increasingly is the rabbit hole — rewired that way by algorithmic practice. And you cannot get out, unless you fight the algorithms to a draw, or manage to exert superhuman discipline and end social media use altogether. […]

In the past, we might have turned to more reliable media for context and perspective. But the journalists and reporters and editors who are supposed to perform this function are human as well. And they are perhaps the ones most trapped in the social media hellscape. You can read them on Twitter, where they live and and posture and rank themselves, or on their Slack channels, where they gang up on and smear any waverers. They’ve created an insulated world where any small dissent from groupthink is professional death. Watch Fox, CNN or MSNBC, and it’s the same story.

Point out missing facts or context, exercise some independence of judgment, push back against the narrative — and you’ll be first subject to ostracism and denunciation by your newsroom peers, and then, if you persist, you’ll be fired. The press could have been the antidote to the social media trap. Instead they chose to become the profitable pusher of the poison.

This is precisely and tragically correct.

I immediately wrote to Andrew to tell him that he needs my new book, stat. But even Andrew, who writes on a weekly basis, who has stepped back from the moment-by-moment insanity of journalistic Twitter (and from the hour-by-hour insanity of the old Dish), probably doesn’t have time to step back a bit further still over the next few weeks and read some old books.

Or doesn’t believe he has time. Maybe, and maybe for journalists more than for anyone else, this is in fact the perfect, the ideal, the necessary moment to recover “real conscious life outside this virtual portal.” One might begin with the epistles of Horace, a man who in exile from Rome learned to love the countryside. Just a thought.

more on the Dish

Since I wrote about Andrew Sullivan’s renewed Dish, Andrew has reported that subscriptions are near 60,000 — probably over that mark by now — and David Brooks has weighed in with a smart take. As always, David is hopeful:

Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.

And as always, I’m a little less hopeful than David — or maybe I place my hope in slightly different places — in ways that I can explain by quoting another passage from his column:

Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber bases. The Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.

The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.

Is it really true that there’s “no canceling” on Substack? I think we’ll only know that in time. We’re about two weeks, by my reckoning, from #BoycottSubstack becoming a prominent hashtag on Woke Twitter. It would be stupid for Substack to care. But in the past year or two a whole lot of organizations have been stupid enough to fold in the face of a few red-faced social-media scolds.

So maybe there will be canceling on Substack — but there are many alternatives to Substack. And the really good thing about all this is that newsletters are built on email, and email is transmitted through a series of open protocols that no one controls. It would be perfectly possible for people like Andrew and Matt Taibbi and other independent thinkers, if they got canceled by Substack, to hire someone to build out their own distribution system and continue as though nothing had ever happened.

The woke mobs are apoplectic, but not always stupid: they have reliably gone straight at the gatekeepers of culture, and the gatekeepers of culture, faced with a handful of people with plenty of spare time and no rhetorical restraint, have reliably folded like a cheap tent. So what’s the point of reading, much less paying for, a magazine or newspaper where, as Bari Weiss has rightly said of the NYT, “Twitter is the ultimate editor”? You know that almost everything you read will have been vetted to ensure that it conforms to the Authorized Narrative, so why bother? Even if you actually believe in the Authorized Narrative, do you really need to pay money to have your opinions confirmed, day after day?

No; I think even some of the woke, or at least the wokish, will send their money to venues,and writers, who say what they actually think. What a concept! And what makes this possible is the open web and the pre-web internet. How cool is that?

One of the greatest things about the open web and the pre-web internet is that they work at any scale. There is no difference, from the reader’s perspective, between reading a newsletter with 250,000 subscribers and reading one with ten subscribers. As I wrote a while back,

Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace…. Whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.

And in case you don’t know, my own little contribution to the Republic of Newsletters may be found here.

return of the Dish

I’m really glad to learn that The Dish is returning — especially in a form that will allow Andrew to write fewer but longer pieces than he did in the old days, and, I trust, by such means to retain his sanity. The former Dish was pedal-to-the-metal every single day, and even Andrew, the hack than whom no sharper can be conceived, couldn’t over the long term flourish at that pace, either emotionally or intellectually.

A slower-paced Dish of his own is surely the best venue for Andrew, who is the most independent of thinkers and therefore a constant threat to the “safety” of any colleagues whose mental cabinets have just two pigeonholes, Correct people and Evil people. (Apparently at New York most of his colleagues were two-pigeonholers.) I subscribed instantly, and I know I won’t regret it.

But Andrew is not the only thoughtful and unclubbable journalist who’s going indie these days, and that poses a problem for me. In that introductory message I linked to above, Andrew mentions the similar Substack-based endeavors of Jesse Singal and Matt Taibbi, and while I think both of those guy as are superb journalists, if I were to subscribe to their work as well as Andrew’s that would cost me 150 bucks a year. I still might do it — but that’s a lot of coin for three voices.

There’s an economies-of-scale problem here. At a newspaper or magazine, writers share an editorial and technical infrastructure, so costs of production are distributed. Those who go it alone don’t get to benefit from that, and neither do their readers. So the cash outlay for those readers can escalate in a hurry.

On the other hand, it’s nice when the money you send to pay the writer actually pays the writer (minus Substack’s cut, of course). I have long wished that places like the New York Times and Washington Post had tip jars for the good writers — if I subscribed to the damned things I would have to subsidize the clueless, pompous, self-righteous, yappy-dog incompetents who dominate those once-distinguished institutions.

One hand, other hand, one hand, other hand. The work of the subscriber-supported solo practitioner doesn’t get seen by nearly as many people as something on the open web — but maybe that’s a feature rather than a bug! Fewer morons to insult you without reading what you write.

Given the hostility of our major media venues to anything that even resembles thinking, there’s no easy solution to this problem. Perhaps some kind of non-partisan, non-ideological journal of ideas will eventually emerge — Lord knows there are enough tech zillionaires to fund one — but in the meantime what does a reader do? This reader is gonna look for some fat to cut from his media budget and pay one or two more writers.

unsolicited advice

Here in America, it’s a news week like any other.

I could go on. And on, and on. And there will be more of the same next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, ad infinitum and especially nauseam.

Here’s what I’m trying to do, and what I would encourage you all to do the same: First, take note of the people, like the ones listed above, who do not care whether what they say is true, but only about whether it serves their preferred narrative.

Second, look for people — politicians, journalists, academics — who do care whether what they say is true.

Third, studiously ignore the people in the first group and pay close attention to the people in the second one.

It won’t be easy to find those truth-concerned people. Sometimes you’ll feel like Diogenes with his lantern. But it must be done, for the sake of our collective sanity.

two quotes by Jesse Singal

One:

I am not arguing for a return to some sort of view-from-nowhere style of journalism. I have no problem identifying as both a journalist but also as a progressive and someone who dislikes Trump rather fiercely. There is nothing wrong with having your journalism be driven by a sense of general ideological mission; some of the best journalists covering the working poor care deeply about the working poor, believe they are treated unfairly, and want to see their station improved. They’re still capable of, and produce, honest journalism.

What I am saying is that if you call yourself a journalist, there needs to be some distance, somewhere, between your tribal allegiances and the way you do your job.

Two:

Accuracy norms are about, well, accuracy: People who subscribe to accuracy norms are most concerned with spreading true claims, and with debunking false ones. Rightside norms are about being on the right ‘side’ of a given controversy: People who subscribe to rightside norms are more concerned with showing that they are on the right side of a given controversy, and that the people on the other side are morally suspect, than they are with accuracy, at least in a zoomed-in sense. […]

If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:

1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false

2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness

3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures

Imagine experiencing all this over and over, outrage after outrage.

my expert opinion

Americans have never more desperately needed reliable knowledge than we do now; also, Americans have never been less inclined to trust experts, who are by definition the people supposed to possess the reliable knowledge. There are many reasons why we have landed ourselves in this frustratingly paradoxical situation, and there’s no obvious way out of it. But I want to suggest that there’s one small thing that journalists can do to help: Stop using the word “experts.”

Of course, expertise is a real thing! — though perhaps not quite as commonplace a thing as is widely believed. In most of life’s situations we understand the value of expertise: few of us try to repair our own computers, and none of us decides to remove his own spleen. But occasionally we draw a line.

Some are inclined to draw that line in strange places — say, believing that the moon landing was faked, or that the world is ruled by lizard people. But the really common dissents seem to come in matters of health: you might not know any moon-landing skeptics or lizard-people True Believers, but you surely have an anti-vaxxer cousin, or an aunt whose belief in the healing power of essential oils persists in defiance of her doctor’s counsel. And if you’re going to try to persuade those dissenters from standard opinion to change their minds, almost the worst thing you can do it appeal to “experts.”

There are three reasons for this. The first is that many people with genuine expertise in a given field have a difficult time staying in their lane. I have long thought that the perfect example of this is the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The question of whether we are close to nuclear war is a political question, not a scientific one; an “atomic scientist” has no reasonable claim to knowing any more about it than you do, at least, not by virtue of being an atomic scientist. (Factoring climate change into the Doomsday scenario doesn’t help matters much, because atomic scientists aren’t climate scientists any more than they are psychiatrists or nutritionists.)

A second reason that invocations of expertise often fail is simply that people with equivalent expertise in the same field often disagree. This leads to the phenomenon, familiar to anyone who has ever flipped from one cable news station to another, of Dueling Experts.

The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.

My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.

It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.

All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?

the seductions of prediction

Derek Thompson is an outstanding journalist, but this piece strikes me as way premature. I mean, good heavens, we’re not even two months into our current order. Even the Italian lockdowns only started in late February, and the shelter-in-place directives in American cities several weeks later. The most essential questions about the long-term effects of COVID–19 — How much long-term damage does it do to people who survive it? Will it weaken in the summer months? Will it come back in the fall, and if so, how strongly? When will we get a vaccine, and how effective will the vaccine be? — remain unanswered, and only when we have answers to them will we have any reasonable sense of the long-term effects on the economy. This is an article that simply should not have been written.

But everyone’s doing it, I guess. The seductions of prediction are irresistible. Note how Thompson regularly slips from the conditional — “The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store”; “The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy” — to the unconditional: “Many of these spaces will stay empty for months, removing the bright awnings, cheeky signs, and crowded windows that were the face of their neighborhood. Long stretches of cities will feel facelessly anonymous.” It’s hard to tell whether these alternating verb forms reflect different levels of confidence, or whether Thompson just gets caught up in the mug’s game of prophecy and forgets to hedge his bets. I suspect the latter.

But in any case, if I were the world’s greatest computer hacker, I’d inject some code into stories like this that would insert, every five sentences, William Goldman’s justly famous and transcendently wise line: “Nobody knows anything.”

the unpundit

In what has become a famous passage, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” My view of this matter, which is of course the correct one, is that GKC wasn’t in fact encountering people who were modest but rather people who wished to be polite. And in such circumstances “Of course I may be wrong” is easy to say — whether you believe it or not. 

Our moment is not a polite one, so rarely do I encounter even the pro forma I-may-be-wrong kind of statement. All of our politicians evidently believe that the problems they want to solve have simple solutions, solutions to which only the stupid or wicked could be blind. Whatever it is, they have an infallible plan for that. And partisans and pundits follow in the politicians’ train. (Though perhaps the politicians occupy the caboose rather than the engine.) 

What’s missing in our whole political discourse is something that Edmund Burke understood: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.” Prudence is therefore required, and discernment, and a wise balancing of acts and policies, and an awareness of how often the best-laid plans go awry. “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.”

Politicians and pundits alike believe that it’s in their interest not to know this; and it may well be the that the series of echo-chambers that many of us live in have ensured that they genuinely don’t know it. You get the sense when you listen to Bernie Sanders that he hasn’t reflected on views other than his own in at least half-a-century. He just waits for the other person to stop talking and resumes his habitual harangue. And in this he’s not unusual. Any regular reader of any major political columnist can predict that pundit’s views on any subject — and can probably anticipate the details of how those views will be expressed.

Ross Douthat is the unpundit. You know the general tendency of his thought, of course, but you don’t know what he’s going to emphasize at any given time. That’s because he’s the most temperamentally Burkean of our political writers, always aware that “the nature of man is intricate” and that “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” This makes him self-reflective and self-doubting to a remarkable degree. For instance, in his new book The Decadent Society, Douthat argues that our society is far more likely to continue a long slide into acedia than to suffer a cataclysm. Then, having made that argument, he concludes: 

I think it is precisely the history-as-morality-play element in all these narratives that makes me skeptical that the catastrophe will come, or that it will come in the semipredictable high temperatures plus population imbalances plus migration equals fatal political and economic crisis that this chapter has described. But perhaps that is my own fatal participation in decadence at work — the extent to which, as a member of a decadent American conservatism, I have imbibed too much climate change skepticism over the years, and the extent to which, as a member of a decadent society, I cannot lift my eyes to see the truth: that “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is already written on the wall. 

The interesting thing about this, to me, is that Douthat doesn’t just say “I may be wrong” but says “If I am wrong, then here are the likely reasons.” Which suggests that he has actually thought it over. Again: the unpundit. 

There are basically three stages to Douthat’s argument in The Decadent Society, and three corresponding levels of confidence. 

  1. He is quite confident that our society has descended into a decadent period. 
  2. He is pretty confident that he knows the primary causes of this decadence. 
  3. He is unsure how, or even if, we might at some point emerge from our decadent state. 

This distribution of confidence seems about right to me. 

I think everything about this book is worthy of serious consideration and debate, but I find myself meditating especially on an idea that Douthat raises near the end: 

But I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization — not ours, not any — has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it. If we have lost that confidence in our own age, if the liberal dream of progress no less than its Christian antecedent has succumbed to a corrosive skepticism, then perhaps it is because we have reached the end of our own capacities at this stage of our history, and we need something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” runs one of the earliest admonitions ever given to humanity. Well, we have done so, or come close; maybe it does not fall to us to determine what comes next. 

Note the diffidence: perhaps, maybe. I can’t help thinking that this is how a conservative keeps a job at the New York Times — a more assertive character wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place, and if he had gotten it, wouldn’t have kept it — but any speculation about divine interference in human plans has to be tentative to be worthy of our attention. It’s something I hope to be discussing with some intelligent people in the coming months: What might religious revival in America look like? “Mentally modest” as always, I have to admit that I’m not sure, but I’ll say this: Given the choice between the most likely options and decadence, I’ll take decadence. 


UPDATE: Just after posting this, I came across Farhad Manjoo’s new column, which says: 

Now, I’ve been a pundit for a long time, and I learned early on not to sweat being occasionally wrong about the future. I figure if I’m not wrong sometimes, I’m probably thinking too small. What I do regret about my virus column, though, is its dripping certainty. I wasn’t just pooh-poohing the virus’s threat; using the history of two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, as my guide, I all but guaranteed that this one, too, would more or less fizzle out.

In retrospect, my analytical mistake is obvious, and it’s a type of error that has become all too common across media, especially commentary on television and Twitter. My mistake was that I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected “black swan” event that upends historical expectation.

A projection of certainty is often a crucial part of commentary; nobody wants to listen to a wishy-washy pundit. But I worry that unwarranted certainty, and an under-appreciation of the unknown, might be our collective downfall, because it blinds us to a new dynamic governing humanity: The world is getting more complicated, and therefore less predictable.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s been too complicated for us all along, but we took great pains not to admit it. 

plugged into the machine

Alexis Madrigal:

As the platforms age, their devotees become more and more distinct from the regular person. For more than a decade now, many people in media and technology have been feeding an hour or two of Twitter into our brains every single day. Because we’re surrounded by people who live their lives like this — and, crucially, because so many of the journalists who write about the internet experience the internet in this way — it might feel like this is just how Twitter is, that a representative sample of America is plugged into the machine in this way.

And thus I renew my plea to journalists.

a plea to journalists

Peter Hamby:

Candidates who make policy-by-Twitter, the ones who chase every micro-news-cycle, risk losing sight not just of what voters care about, but also why they’re running for president in the first place. […]

Those loudest voices on Twitter aren’t marginal. The platform has become a petri dish for the formation of elite opinion, with outsized power in the political press, and it has provided a lane for smart and clever people who deserve a voice to have one. But the convulsions of everyday Twitter, a small club of media elites and professional opinion-havers, are plainly disconnected from the concerns of most Democratic voters. There’s a real risk that otherwise smart, promising 2020 candidates begin to self-sabotage in their haste to appease this microscopic cluster of social-media activists just because they’ve got a megaphone.

This pattern of self-sabotage-by-Twitter is being repeated in various circles of our culture. Consider, for instance, the knots that publishers of young adult fiction are twisting themselves into by trying to appease tiny groups of angry people who have declared themselves the voices of their ethnic group — a pathetic phenomenon that Jesse Singal has recently been documenting, in depressing detail, in his excellent newsletter.

It’s really astonishing how few people can summon the critical facility necessary even to ask whether a person who claims to speak for all black or Latinx or trans people actually does. But I think it’s very relevant that this dance between triumphant resentment and instantaneous appeasement happens on Twitter: the pace of the medium seems to activate users’ fight-or-flight instinct. And then the ordinary mechanisms of human pride kick in, and people double down on their first responses rather than step back and question themselves.

I’m not even going to bother asking politicians to get off Twitter, because how many of them have ever declined the offer of a megaphone? But if we’re going to start repairing the damage that Twitter has done, and continues to do, to our social fabric, the leaders in this endeavor need to be journalists.

Recently a journalist commented to me that he is on Twitter because, for better or worse, that’s where the conversations in his profession take place. I think that’s definitely for worse, not better, and I think every journalist would be better off not participating in those conversations. Here’s why:

  1. Journalists talking to other journalists ad nauseam all day long leads to a kind of professional hermeticism, which in turns leads to limited intellectual horizons and a lack of independence.
  2. The utterly false assumption that people on Twitter are characteristic of the society as a whole leads to laziness: asking questions to the people who follow you on Twitter is something you can do in bed — way easier than putting on some clothes and going out to talk to your fellow citizens.
  3. That assumption also leads journalists to treat lunatic-fringe ideas as though they are commonplace. When your daily journalistic practices render you unable to distinguish between the most vitriolically-expressed ideas and the most widely-shared ones, you cannot do fair and accurate assessments of the national, or even the local, mood.

I truly believe that the climate of hatred that Thomas Edsall documents in his recent column has arisen in part — and maybe in large part — because of journalists who spend too much time on Twitter and as a result become mouthpieces of the anger and hatred that dominates the lives of some of the worst among us. American journalists, by immersing themselves so regularly in that anger and hatred, have extended its reach. They are passing along the contagion; they need to start washing their hands.

So, journalists on Twitter, for the sake of accuracy in reporting, for the sake of your professional integrity, for the sake of our nation: Delete your account.

insincere controversialists

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

— G. K. Chesterton, from What’s Wrong with the World (1910)

advice for Der Spiegel

In Der Spiegel’s report on how their star reporter Claas Relotius got away with fabricating stories for years, Ullrich Fichtner writes, “Already, every text printed in DER SPIEGEL goes through a thorough fact-checking and vetting process to review the accuracy of every fact stated in an article.” But immediately after making this claim he demonstrates that is is not true (Where are the fact-checkers??) and indeed could not be true. After mentioning a few small facts that could be and were checked, he continues,

But the problems with Relotius’ articles relate not to details like that, but to his on-the-ground reporting. That work is based on the fundamental trust the editorial staff bestows on all journalists under their oversight. The fact-checking and research department at DER SPIEGEL is the journalist’s natural enemy — and that’s just how DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein wanted it. But the department also assists with reporting, providing information and details while also seeking to prevent mistakes. Ultimately, the department is also working to put out the same product. The idea that a colleague would deliberately cheat is not part of everyday considerations in journalism. The honest effort to seek truth and veracity is the rule. Cheating is the exception.

There is simply no way to find out whether Relotius was telling the truth when he describes the music he heard playing in an abortion clinic in Mississippi. Could you, if you were a Der Spiegel fact-checker, even know whether he visited the abortion clinic at all? Perhaps you could, by demanding in advance that he photograph every place he visited when researching his story. But that’s quite a demand, and Fichtner is right to suggest that it would be hard, and probably counter-productive, to sustain such an adversarial relationship between reporters and fact-checkers. And it would be too expensive, as well as kinda creepy, to send fact-checkers along with reporters on their travels.

So Fichtner is right to say that when editors send reporters out they basically have to trust them to tell the truth. The need for trust cannot be eliminated from the equation. The problem posed by Relotius’s fabrications is basically insoluble.

But I do have a suggestion for Der Spiegel, and it’s based on this evisceration of Relotius’s story about Fergus Falls, Minnesota. The first thing to note is that Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn point to a great many factual errors in Relotius’s piece about their town that could have and should have been caught by fact-checkers. The second thing to note is that several of the claims he made in his story — for instance, that there was a sign at the town limits reading “Mexicans Keep Out” — are prima facie highly implausible and deserved some serious looking into.

But the third and most important thing to note is that none of the ridiculous things Relotius says about the residents of Fergus Falls would be implausible to an educated German — and here we get close to the heart of the matter, at least for me. Reading Fichtner’s postmortem I couldn’t help noticing that most of the Relotius stories that are almost wholly fictional concern the United States, and it seems highly likely that Relotius knew exactly what kinds of stories about this country would lull the fact-checkers to sleep: stories that confirmed all of their prejudices about the culturally limited, fearful, Bible-thumping yahoos who elected Trump and support capital punishment and oppose abortion. If he had written stories that challenged any of those stereotypes, no doubt the fact-checkers would immediately have roused themselves from their slumbers. But Relotius knew better than to do that: he spoon-fed them their own bigotries, and they slipped back into their snoozing. And so he was able to spend years just making up a bunch of crap and winning awards for doing it.

So my suggestion for the editors and fact-checkers of Der Spiegel is this: In the future, when one of your reporters starts smoothly murmuring in your ear precisely what you want to hear, immediately strive to awaken your comatose suspicions. You’ll need them.

Knuth, Lutheran

This is a nice — not a great, but a nice — profile of one of my heroes, Donald Knuth, but it does have an odd little moment: 

Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional — usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd. Driving home, he got philosophical about mathematics. 

Hmmm, isn’t that interesting? Knuth is the deepest and most wide-ranging of computer scientists; plus, “many consider Dr. Knuth’s work on the TeX computer typesetting system to be the greatest contribution to typography since Gutenberg”; and he’s a Sunday-school teacher? Might it not be worth our time to explore that a little bit? Apparently not. 

But if you, unlike the NYT, wanted to explore these matters, then you might take a look at the book of calligraphy and commentary that Knuth put together called 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated; or, if you’re really interested, listen to or read his lectures on religion and computer science, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About

not our fault

Chuck Todd:

Reporters, I fully acknowledge, bring their own biases to their work. The questions they ask, and the stories they pursue, are shaped by things as simple as geography. I grew up in Miami; I follow Cuban politics more closely than many other Americans did. As a result, when I covered the White House, I was more likely than my colleagues to ask questions about Cuba. A New York–based reporter may approach reporting on guns, or on evangelical Christianity, differently than a reporter in Pensacola, Florida.

The charge of media bias can encompass a great many different problems. Critics, for example, may be pointing to the way that certain journalists pay more attention to some issues than to others, or complaining about the unquestioned assumptions reflected in journalists’ work. These are real issues, and most journalists labor to correct them.

This, in my experience, is as far as MSM journalists ever get in acknowledging their role in the rise of alternative-facts-alternative-media like Fox News. They will not face — they cannot face — the fact that for decades they systematically excluded responsible conservative voices from their platforms. And now our civic fabric is being shredded by irresponsible conservative (or faux-populist) voices. The media world is about as self-critical and self-correcting as the American Catholic bishops.

the end of hypocrisy

Today, many critics on the right are noting that the New York Times is extending to Sarah Jeong gracious understanding that they refused to Quinn Norton, and that the Atlantic refused to Kevin Williamson. These critics then go on to accuse the Times, and the center-left journalism world more generally, of hypocrisy. 

Hypocrisy occurs in the presence of an agreed-upon standard which people in power — perhaps the power is only local — apply variously according to preference. If a standard helps someone I like, I’ll apply it to them; if it helps someone I don’t like, I’ll carve out an exception and say it doesn’t apply to my enemy. Thus I become a hypocrite. 

But as Stanley Fish pointed out decades ago, during the first round of political-correctness culture wars (ca. 1985-95), in this sense hypocrisy is simply what human beings do. According to the definition given above, it is virtually impossible to find non-hypocritical judgments. In his famous essay “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” Fish describes John Milton’s famous celebration of free speech in “Areopagitica,” which commends “the virtues of toleration and unregulated publication in passages that find their way into every discussion of free speech and the First Amendment,” after which “Milton catches himself up short and says, of course I didn’t mean Catholics, them we exterminate.” Here’s the key passage: 

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate . . . that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself. 

Beneath every commitment to free speech, Fish says, is this unspoken but essential question: “Would this form of speech or advocacy, if permitted to flourish, tend to undermine the very purposes for which our society is constituted?” If the answer is Yes, then that speech is unprotected by our laws. 

Supposed commitments to “free speech” and “fairness” and “equal access” and “inclusiveness” are always — always — smoke screens for some commitment that is both narrower and more fundamental. Fish summarizes it thus: 

Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict. When the pinch comes (and sooner or later it will always come) and the institution (be it church, state, or university) is confronted by behavior subversive of its core rationale, it will respond by declaring “of course we mean not tolerated ——, that we extirpate,” not because an exception to a general freedom has suddenly and contradictorily been announced, but because the freedom has never been general and has always been understood against the background of an originary exclusion that gives it meaning. 

The general failure to understand this point leads to a pathology of thought that is extremely common but rarely acknowledged for what it is. You see it when people say that they’re all about empowering women’s voices, but of course pro-life women aren’t really women at all. You see when people who advocate for true freedom for black people in America say that a black person who supports Trump isn’t really black at all. You see it when Republicans call other Republicans RINOs. You see it when people say that Catholics who don’t support the Pope against ancient tradition aren’t really Catholic, and when others say that those who don’t support ancient tradition against the Pope are the ones who aren’t really Catholic. You see it when people want to celebrate the beautiful unity of Christianity, but those who don’t hold our views about sexuality aren’t really Christians at all. “Of course we mean not tolerated __________, that we extirpate.” 

I think this chasm between what one claims to stand for, who one claims to speak for, and one’s actual loyalties happens because most people have two conflicting desires: (a) to feel that they belong to a majority, they they speak for and with a great cloud of witnesses, and (b) to exclude and punish dissenters. It is very difficult to face the possibility — and it’s more than a possibility, it’s a certainty — that those two desires truly are irreconcilable, and that you’ll at some point have to choose one rather than the other. So it’s easier to pretend that there’s no choice to be made. This is how you get to “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” 

For those of us observing such scenes, the best practice is simply to ignore what any institution says it stands for, and pay attention to its actions. The self-descriptions of institutions are meaningless, because, to borrow terms from William Butler Yeats, they tend to be either rhetorical or sentimental: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, the sentimentalist himself.” There is really no point in your calling attention to the hypocrisy of institutions in applying their professed standards. The lack of fit between their words and their deeds is inevitable, and precisely the same is true of the institutions you love and pledge your loyalty to.

The idea that you can somehow back an institution, or an individual, into a corner by drawing attention to that lack of fit is absurd. When has that tactic ever succeeded? The accused parties merely tweak their definitions to disguise the inconsistencies and resume their self-soothing. 

It is better, then, just to pay attention to how institutions act and draw the conclusions the conclusions that are generally obvious. The New York Times has room for Sarah Jeong but not for Quinn Norton; the Atlantic has room for Ta-Nehisi Coates but not Kevin Williamson. Churches, universities, businesses all likewise define themselves through their inclusions and exclusions, their actions and inactions. If you’re not distracted by institutional self-descriptions, the math is rarely hard to do. 

saving journalism:

Megan McArdle:

What can be done? Start figuring out how to make journalism work as a philanthropic enterprise. If you’re a journalist at one of the countless struggling papers, get together with other journalists and start feeling out philanthropists. Make the case that local journalism’s traditional mission — poking around in the details of city budgets, monitoring what the school board is getting up to, investigating self-dealing politicians — benefits the community and is worthy of their involvement. Who knows, maybe a few subscribers will turn up when they see the local paper as a philanthropy instead of as vulture bait.

There are no obvious treatments for journalism’s profound malaise, but I think Megan has identified the most plausible direction to take. 

how Rebecca West set fire to everything

Sam Jordison on Rebecca West:

She had written troubling accounts of the Nuremberg trials, spoken up about repression under communist regimes (and had done the same for fascist ones in the decades before the second world war) and taken to the streets with suffragettes (later falling out with many of their leaders). She had set down hundreds of thousands of sparkling words in novels, non-fiction books, reviews and journalism. And throughout it all she had demonstrated an enviable ability to set fire to everything.

“folks”

David Von Drehle writes:

I say this with love: Folks in Alabama do loyalty and clan as well as anyone in America. That’s a virtue — up to a point. They would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace. But they hopped onto the shore when Moore asked them to strap in, and that ought to give pause to the polarizer in chief.

May I make a plea to journalists (and for that matter everyone else)? Don’t  say “folks” when you mean “white folks.” Ain’t a whole lot of black folks in Alabama would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace, and there are a lot of black people in Alabama. So let’s sort out our folks, shall we?

In yesterday’s election, 93% of black men and 98% — ninety-eight percent — of black women voted for Doug Jones. Meanwhile, 72% of white men and 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore — they weren’t hopping onto shore, they were riding right over the falls with their hebephile-in-chief. Now, in comparison to the previous election for that particular seat, which Jeff Sessions won with 97% of the vote, that’s some slippage. But I think we’d do well to consider than when offered a candidate who — I’ll set aside for now his romantic proclivities — when he was a judge regularly swept aside the law with contempt if it conflicted with his personal preferences, and who as a candidate openly longed for the good old days of slavery because back then “families were united,” two-thirds of white voters in my home state said: That’s our man. I’m not celebrating the good  judgment of those particular “folks.”

why copy editors matter

The ugly secret of newspapers is that copy editors do a great deal of what non-journalism people think reporters or other editors, with fancier titles, do. They have for generations caught typos; deleted potentially horrifying factual errors; made 20 inches of bloated copy into a tight, bright, and juicy 12; noticed inconsistencies in a narrative and put a reporter on the phone to walk through fixing them; pushed back against the use of empty political jargon; made sure the photos matched the story; made sure stories get to the point before readers become bored; and done what is easily one of the most important jobs of all—crafting the headlines that make people read the stories.

Diana Moskovitz

Jimmy Wales and journalism

“If we have a community guiding the work and we have people who are paying to be monthly supporters we can do the numbers and say, well for this many monthly supporters we can hire another journalist…. Which means if a group wants us to hire a journalist on a particular topic, whatever that might be, then we can do that.”

— Jimmy Wales. And I’m sure that the people who commission a journalist and pay his or her salary won’t in any way influence the conclusions that journalist reaches.

unfair, unbalanced, and afraid

I admire British journalism and have always thought American papers should be more like the British. But it is startling to see how vicious the New York Times has become and a little unfair to Trump. If he is paranoid, you can’t completely blame him. There is also the argument that you help him by encouraging victimisation, the idea that the eastern media elite is out to get him.

Michael Kinsley. I think Kinsley is right about this, and as a result, though I think Trump is a nightmarishly terrible President, I no longer read anything in the NYT except Ross Douthat’s columns. In general, and with only the occasional exception, the Times does not care whether what its reporters say about Trump and his supporters is fair or not. Trump’s description of the major news media as his “opposition” strikes me as an essentially accurate description, and while on one hand I think he deserves all the opposition he gets, on the other hand I’d like newspapers, magazines, and even some television networks to be places where I can go to find out what’s actually happening in the world — rather than places to accumulate anti-Trump ammunition.

want to know what “begging the question” means?

Here you go:

So most likely when Trump refers to “the media” as the most dishonest people on the planet, he refers only to professional journalists. This is a contradiction in terms, because modern journalism is a profession predicated on conveying truth. Journalists’ currency is credibility. To quibble with a particular journalist’s motives is to quibble with their identity: Are they journalists? Or entertainers, ideologues, or advocates?

The goal in journalism is to be the best at identifying and conveying said truth. The entire concept of the profession is antithetical to lying. So it’s difficult to imagine objecting to the idea of journalism, in principle: To have people whose job is to act as dispassionate arbiters who discern truth. People who are fair, who are trustworthy, who do not slander, who are not beholden to any particular interest but seek transparency, to highlight injustice, and to hold people in power accountable.

James Hamblin. I’ve never seen such a laboratory-pure case. To the charge that journalists care more about pursuing political ends than telling the truth, Hamblin replies that that’s not possible because journalists are intrinsically and necessarily people who care about telling the truth more than political ends. Quod est demonstrandum.

what Twitter does to journalism

Earlier today I tweeted: “Gap that needs to be filled: the journalism that journalists ignore while spending all day every day insulting each other on Twitter.”

I’m serious about this. I only follow one account on public Twitter (a truly vital one), but I had for some time a Twitter list called “Politics” that contained the accounts of some of the reporters I have the most respect for. I just deleted that list because all these people do is snark at each other and at commenters. They call each other names, they trade insults with random people who criticize them, they RT most such insults — basically, America’s political reporters think and act like sixth-graders. And they’re on Twitter all the time. You can’t learn a damned thing by following any of them — or any of the ones I know of, anyway.

Journalists are always saying that they have to be on Twitter because that’s where the information is. I think that’s bullshit. Twitter is where the childish bickering is, and that’s what seems to make journalists happy. I’m now going to begin my search for journalists who aren’t on Twitter, or are rarely there: those are the ones who are more likely to be doing some actual research and reporting.

the blame game 

In June, racist Dylann Roof massacred nine black Christians meeting for a mid-week Bible study. He hoped to launch a race war, as he explained in a manifesto you can read over at Mother Jones. The second paragraph of the manifesto begins, “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case.” He talks about all the media coverage of the case and how it radicalized him. Some in the media immediately linked the shooting in Colorado Springs to videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing human organ harvesting and trade as part of their abortion business. The implication — if not outright claim — is that people shouldn’t talk about what Planned Parenthood does, much less speak against the injustice of abortion, because some people might take such discussions the wrong way. But you may remember that nobody in the media suggested that they shouldn’t have highlighted the killing of Trayvon Martin for fear that some racist might be set off of by the discussions. And that’s a good thing, because the idea that the media shouldn’t cover news because someone might be so bothered by it that he goes on a rampage would be very stupid.

Mollie Hemingway

Journalism follies, Catholic edition

Pope Francis has done a big, big thing: he has made it dramatically easier for women who have had abortions to be reconciled to the Church. But take a look at this NBC News headline: “Pope Francis: Priests Can Forgive Abortion If Women Are ‘Contrite'” — as though before this papal statement contrite women could not have received forgiveness!

The distinction between making forgiveness — more accurately, reconciliation and restoration to Communion, but even I won’t be a stickler for that — easier and making it possible is an important one and easy to grasp, but a reputable religion journalist insisted to me on Twitter this morning that such headlines are perfectly accurate and that my questioning them shows my ignorance of Catholic doctrine.

Apparently the BBC doesn’t agree with him, because the headline and article they posted earlier —

— has been revised: “Pope on abortion: Francis relaxes forgiveness rules.” Which is a big improvement in accuracy, though at least one, ahem, reputable religion journalist will think it wholly unnecessary.

Why defend the indefensible? The NBC and the original BBC headlines are plainly and simply wrong, and the stories accompanying them are factually wobbly at their best and in several places incorrect. So why say otherwise? An ideological axe to grind? Misplaced professional solidarity?

Who knows? What matters is that religion reporting in the MSM continues to be astonishingly poor, and that won’t be fixed if people in the business who know better won’t be truthful about the problem.

 

Repeatedly (but not often enough)

Zoe Corbyn in the Guardian on Nick Carr’s The Glass Cage:

Not everyone buys Carr’s gloomy argument. People have always lamented the loss of skills due to technology: think about the calculator displacing the slide rule, says Andrew McAfee, a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management. But on balance, he says, the world is better off because of automation.

Ah, the perils of writing about a book you clearly haven’t read – either that, or the perils of a journalistic model that requires you to set up simplistic oppositions. By contrast, from my review of The Glass Cage:

It cannot be stressed too strongly that resistance does not entail rejection. Carr makes this point repeatedly. “Computer automation makes our lives easier, our chores less burdensome. We’re often able to accomplish more in less time—or to do things we simply couldn’t do before.” And: “Automation and its precursor, mechanization, have been marching forward for centuries, and by and large our circumstances have improved greatly as a result. Deployed wisely, automation can relieve us of drudge work and spur us on to more challenging and fulfilling endeavors.”

Carr could have said something like that on every single page of his book and people would still say, “I don’t agree with Carr that we should eliminate automation.”

I think there’s some semantic game-playing in how you chose to summarize our debate. My view of journalism absolutely requires both fairness and rigorous adherence to facts. But I think those values are promoted by being honest about one’s perspectives and subjective assumptions rather than donning a voice-of-god, view-from-nowhere tone that falsely implies that journalists reside above the normal viewpoints and faction-loyalties that plague the non-journalist and the dreaded “activist.”

Embedded in The New York Times’s institutional perspective and reporting methodologies are all sorts of quite debatable and subjective political and cultural assumptions about the world. And with some noble exceptions, The Times, by design or otherwise, has long served the interests of the same set of elite and powerful factions. Its reporting is no less “activist,” subjective or opinion-driven than the new media voices it sometimes condescendingly scorns.

Glenn Greenwald

In general, I think Greenwald’s position looks better than Keller’s in this exchange, but Greenwald’s arrogance is titanic. Keller encourages him to be willing to learn to say that he is wrong, when he’s wrong, but it’s hard to imagine Greenwald doing that — at least, without insisting that if he’s wrong about one little thing he’s right right right about a thousand really big things. 

the intimidation of Glenn Greenwald

And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

Whitehall was satisfied, but it felt like a peculiarly pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age. We will continue to do patient, painstaking reporting on the Snowden documents, we just won’t do it in London. The seizure of Miranda’s laptop, phones, hard drives and camera will similarly have no effect on Greenwald’s work.

David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face. Two comments to make here.

First, I’m fascinated to see how nakedly the UK government is attempting to intimidate Greenwald. There is no even remotely plausible alternative explanation for their behavior, which suggests a couple of possibilities: they may be supremely confident that they cannot be touched or restrained in any way from their violations of civil liberties; or they may feel desperately helpless to stop the ongoing leakage of knowledge. Possibly both.

Second, as Alan Rusbridger points out here, their actions are utterly pointless, unable to achieve any of their desired goals. I’m reminded of how, in the 1530s, the Bishop of London gathered up copies of William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and had them burned in public places. He thought that by so doing he had eliminated his problem, but only because he failed to understand that he was creating more sympathy for Tyndale, and that the reformer’s sympathizers would soon send much more money to Amsterdam where more and more and more copies of the English Bible would roll off the presses. The bishop was assuming that book-burning would have the same effect in the age of print that it had had in the manuscript age. He completely failed to grasp that new technologies were changing the rules; and today’s London laptop-smashers aren’t getting that message either.

In one view, both the revelations of WikiLeaks and of the Telegraph would, if they became the norm, encourage a more truthful public sphere. Conscious that everything was potentially transparent, we—and especially our leaders—would develop into super-rational beings uncomprehending of the notion of mendacity. Politicians would give the whole range of their thoughts on every subject, in support of their party or otherwise; officials would make public their plans at every stage; diplomats would reveal all conversations and the public would have the maturity to understand and take no unfair advantage of these disclosures. But no conceivable society could live in such transparency. It is more likely that a transparency culture simply causes a displacement of the semi-private into the wholly private—with public figures relying more on public relations to act as a shield, and turning an increasingly bland face to the outside word.