Friday, January 13, 2012

Shantytown on the Fourth Estate

I think we were very deferential because in the East Room press conference it's live. It's very intense. It's frightening to stand up there. Think about it. You're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.
— Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times writer, March 20, 2003
Yesterday, New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane solicited reader input with an opening sentence so viscerally and efficiently dumb that it's almost sublime: "I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." Essentially, the ombudsman of the most important newspaper in America crowdsourced the idea that reporters might do their jobs.

The response was electric, and a majority of it featured the word "stupid," all of it deserving. Brisbane managed to pull off a stupid trifecta even before moving on from the lede:
1. He asked a question whose reply — YES — was almost guaranteed, making the asking a waste of everyone's time.
2. He asked a question whose obvious reply the Times might not embrace, trolling its readership with the illusion of valuing its voice in the discourse.
3. He showed the world that he was a person who had thoughts this simple and that the New York Times is willing to pay a person like this to head up its public accountability department.
Then, after provoking a giant readership on a topic this compelling and distressing, either Brisbane or someone else closed the comments section on his piece. Instantly, it evinced to critics that reader input — which was almost uniformly critical — would not be needed if it continued to fall on the undesirable side of the issue.

Still, as easy as it is to dismiss this as the unsupervised elementary thought experiment of a hack shunted to the reader complaint bureau, it's hard to shake the notion that the experiment was cannily structured. It's worth taking a look at how much work all its stupidity manages to accomplish in its favor.

I know it will probably sound weird, but I admire these politicians who put themselves out there before the American public knowing full well that all their warts will be exposed big time.... I've covered politicians long enough to know they certainly like the power that comes with elected office, but it's still a rough and tough proposition. You think it's easy going out there all the time and appealing for campaign cash? ... The cynics say they have huge egos and are simply seeking power and glory... But having covered many of them over the years, I also know some are trying to do the right thing, and I salute them.
Wolf Blitzer, January 12, 2012
Before you've even left the title, Arthur Brisbane has already inserted two ideas into the discussion. The question-begging of "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante" marvelously poisons one side of the argument with unsavory cultural images and fundamental illegality.

Consider: the vigilantism to which Brisbane refers is "reporters... [challenging] facts that are asserted by newsmakers." A vigilante is someone who asserts power without authority and engages in actions outside the bounds of legality. Brisbane implies that getting the story straight is not only an unsavory practice, it's not even his newspaper's job. The truth is someone else's problem. Reporters should sit idly in the newsroom, waiting for the feathered reality serpent Mencketzalcoatl to return and rescue them all by doing the fact-checking his damn self, at which point numbers and Lexis-Nexis search results will rain from the sky.

But what's worse than the complete abdication of facts as part of the Times' brief is how Brisbane can't even present the notion of reporters hounding the mendacious without larding it with nasty images. Vigilantism, chaos, death. Probably nobody over 30 can think of the word "vigilante" without thinking of Death Wish. Not only can those people associate the concept of "journalists" with the concept of "having to look at Charles Bronson," they can imagine a hysterical dystopia. (Or, if they have a misspent youth, four hysterical dystopias, including Death Wish 3, which had rocket launchers.) If things are that bad, it's obvious that the whole system has broken down, on a level beyond the abilities of editors — or anyone in charge — to repair. There could be roving FACT GANGS.

After loading his editorial's proposition with negative imagery, Brisbane moves on to falsely equate journalists holding public figures factually accountable with whatever the current New York Times' policy is. There is no equivalency here. This is what makes his question both laughable and insidious. Some nebulous "alternative" to truth-telling is not an acceptable option in printing a public record, but his piece is structured so as to implicitly establish that it's reasonable to balance a fundamental task of journalism with something that fails to meet any public standard. Brisbane's journalism debate pits journalism against a concept either imaginary or useless. He might as well be discussing long-term health care by weighing a public option versus walk-in consults with sharks that can talk.

As if the above weren't enough, Brisbane goes on to stack the deck in the "challenging facts"/"just not bothering, I guess!" game by choosing two examples so inherently problematic that the status quo wins by default.

The first involves determining whether Clarence Thomas failed to report his wife's income out of legitimate misunderstanding or outright falsehood. He provides no further information, which means that any decision reached on the issue amounts to editorializing based on isolated sample data. Granted, this scenario was brought up by a reader email, but Brisbane selected it. Unsurprisingly, he chose a letter highlighting an irrational demand of the readership that ultimately assigns wisdom to the Times' take.

Brisbane's second example is more insulting:
On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches "apologizing for America," a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the "post-truth" stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?
In general, the answer is, again, OF COURSE. But that kind of answer doesn't naturally flow from the example Brisbane provides, nor is his solution reasonable.

Brisbane suggests journalists could do keyword searches on Obama's speeches, then base conclusions on uses of "apologize" or various conjugations. It's such an absurdly moronic corrective tactic that one suspects he only mentions it because of how swiftly it can be rejected. It's the kind of disingenuous solution people supply when they believe that "this solution can't work, so the problem doesn't exist!" is a valid form of reasoning or quality control.

It gets worse, though. Because, of course, the word "apology" is ambiguous and can connote all manner of statements, and Romney's accusations themselves possess a meaning that extends beyond his specific charge. Romney isn't saying that all apologies for America are bad (even though he would never make one); he's softly selling the idea that Barack Obama doesn't believe in "American Exceptionalism."

Romney and Brisbane's scenarios thus provoke the cheapest, most exhausting and often most dishonest part of politics: the definitions debate. Romney isn't really talking about apologies but rather a greater, narcissistic and frankly idiotic American phenomenon. And Obama has apologized, but not in the way that Romney wants to suggest he has. While Obama has sought to shore up relations with Europe, the Middle East and Latin America by expressing regret for former administrations' dismissive statements, stereotypical critiques and economic/diplomatic neglect, he's never gone on some self-loathing warpath, saying, "America is a sucky place. It just plain sucks. We're the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked. Also, God would never bless us — both because we suck and also because there isn't one."

Looking at the examples he's chosen, it's easy to conclude that Brisbane's deliberately framing the solution here via false dichotomy. Either reporters can carry on as before, or they can call Clarence Thomas a liar based on inconclusive evidence and damn Romney because of his employing implication and ambiguous language, whose application to the president's ambiguous language is itself inconclusive.

For those scoring at home, it's taken Arthur Brisbane a mere 166 words, including the title of his piece, to frame a debate via question begging, false equivalency and false dichotomy. A soi disant guardian of the "first draft of history" has examined journalism's role in writing that draft with thought so dead and dishonestly crafted that it would get him laughed out of a tenth-grade debate tournament.

(Note: when Arthur Brisbane wrote an update to his loathsome column, he reemphasized each deeply flawed example above, as if bad-faith argument erodes fallacy via repetition.)

The right questions were asked. I think there's a lot of critics—and I guess we can count Scott McClellan as one—who thinks that, if we did not debate the president, debate the policy in our role as journalists, if we did not stand up and say, this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. And I respectfully disagree. It's not our role.
— David Gregory, current host of Meet the Press, on Hardball, May 28, 2008
This discussion doesn't need to be difficult. Arthur Brisbane can scatter mindless chaff that tends toward only one response, but the actual proposition, "whether... reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about," is a gimme even for readers. So much of the job of fact-checking and accountability isn't an airy linguistic exercise but basic math.

When Mitt Romney claims something untrue on the record, and the New York Times observes it, it can look in its "morgue" to find Romney statements that disprove his claim (or read Romney's own released policy papers) and enumerate what's in there. When Romney asserts a Reality Quotient of 1, finding zero documentary proof — or, better yet, contradictory documentary proof — results in a Reality Quotient of 0. Not every issue need be so bafflingly indistinct as an understanding of "exceptionalism" and "apology." For example, Romney's boasts that his tax plan benefits the middle class is disproved by a source as biased and fraught with danger as the terms of his own tax plan. When Romney nods at Herman Cain's championing of the value of a flat tax, no less an authority than Mitt Romney can explain why flat taxes are bad, and Mitt Romney is a fraud and a hypocrite for supporting them.

But the system to which we're returned by the stacked-deck propositions of someone like Brisbane is one in which math and historicity are the captive subjects of those paid to opine and exist on the record. Not only does this emasculate the Times as an organ of any worth to anyone seeking authentic information, but it makes "authority" a term so democratized and uncritical that it annihilates all meaning.

Journalists' inability to be an authority on even the self-evident makes every article an appeal to any other authority: essentially, anybody else, anyone at all, so long as they're willing to be captured by quotation marks. This fosters both a reader's disdain for discourse — quickly learning the empty tennis-match exchange of assertion and counter-assertion that attends each issue — and also a wariness on the parts of reporters that focuses attention away from reporting and onto protecting one's neck. Hence framing like: "Geological experts say in a study that the earth is round; however, a recent study from the Flat Earth Society challenges that." Hell, someone else evened it out, so we're safe.

Unfortunately, the last three decades of journalistic practices notwithstanding, reality is not determined by the Heisenberg Gutless Fuck Principle: objective shit does not remain an ethereality unless and until you can hear someone else tell you that it exists.

The old guard of journalism — the editors who, as Charles Pierce notes, foist these standards on reporters still young enough to recall their education or not co-opted enough by the process of editorial ascension — likewise deploy bad faith arguments to defend the dead end to which they've steered their respective mastheads. Brisbane's just the latest, most clownish salesman. Many of the arguments are so old now that they've crossed the familiar threshold from bad politics to statesmanship.

You can probably guess the big three right now:
1. "We'll lose access!"
2. "We're just responding to readers' desires!"
3. "We'll be accused of activism!"
1. Like all of these defenses, the first relies on appealing to the lowest common denominator and willfully degrading a brand. It's especially preposterous coming from the New York Times, which everyone recognizes as the paper of record. The Times might alienate some people, but narcissism or the need to try to push messaging in the most important outlet will always outweigh fear of scrutiny, at least to some degree. What makes this argument so foully specious is that it simultaneously tries to defend the paper's status as "the one of the record" by abnegating its duty to preserve a factual record, while also pushing the notion that the Times' existential purpose is to satisfy the desires of those it covers, rather than hold those it covers to its own standards. Further, while journalism is a difficult, grinding and direly under-celebrated job, "Not having access will make our jobs harder!" is not a valid explanation for not doing them in the first place. Apply this same "aw, dude, that's extra hard" standard to, say, bridge engineering, and people will die. Apply it to Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people die.

2. "But... readers' desires!" Print pundits have spent decades ascribing declining circulations to inroads made by TV and the internet. Rarely do they make the point that adapting print journalism to be more like TV and the internet — more pictures, shorter articles, more infographics, less analysis, punchier punchier punchier — has conceded the battle by abandoning work that makes print irreplaceable and embracing work that makes print an imitator of a shallower form. Those pundits have a point; they had to adapt to declining American leisure time and the increase of news platforms. But often this defense pushes the responsibility onto the dread lowest-common denominator with cries of helplessness meant to obviate any responsibility. You don't shore up your market by eliminating what makes it unique and instead efface its benefits in a mad chase after a format it can never be: that only generates cycles of diminishing returns that no award-winning five-part series of inner city drug abuse will halt. Meanwhile, the same old guard that ward off criticism of their declining social function by claiming that readers don't understand the insider demands of "hard journalism" gladly push their standards downward to meet the expectations of those unfit to understand their travails. You can't, in the same breath, write off the misinformed criticism of an under-informed readership while orienting your content downward toward it. When 20 out of 20 students fail a final because the teacher spent the semester teaching them the answers to the questions they got right on an entrance exam, the students' priorities and education is not at fault.

3. "They'll call us activists!" This is almost the worst excuse for reporters' not "[challenging] 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." Eric Alterman destroyed the bias fallacy in What Liberal Media? far more effectively than anyone can in a brief summary. Nonetheless, for 40 years, conservative think tanks and public figures have sounded the alarm about the LIBERAL MEDIA so effectively that outlets like the New York Times quaver at shadows, even as they staff their op-ed pages with conservative goons and farm out reviews and analysis to GOP think-tank staffers whose primary agenda is to obfuscate legitimate criticism of their peers and terrify legitimate journalists who would challenge them on issues of objective fact. Like virtually every other newspaper in America, the New York Times has leaned rightward over the last quarter century, only to be repaid with more histrionic accusations of Marxist bias and treasonous content. The Times is the most demonized newspaper in America, despite having employed Bill Kristol, coddling serial misinformer and dupe Kit Seelye, and perennially showcasing the shameless brain-barf of David Brooks. As such, fearing partisanship accusations is not only shortsighted but relentlessly stupid. Moving rightward has paid no dividends. To borrow a constant right-wing shriek of terror: appeasement has not stopped the aggressor. The Times, and newspapers in general, cower in the face of denunciations that will come regardless of their contents. When a party weds itself so fully to prevarication, distortion and demonization in the absence of fact, as has the modern GOP, the label of "bias" offers nothing less than an honor. Any agency trading in the actual will always be deemed biased by those whose arguments are maliciously confabulated.

sip no red no juice. kiss fruit. no. no red fruit. david water lonely. no no no no no. no kiss. no red fruit. no. toilet.
— David Gregory, speaking to his handlers at the Great Ape Preserve in Amparafaravola, Madagascar, 2012
At the last, we arrive at the beginning, which Arthur Brisbane surely intended. Nothing else could possibly ensue from his intellectually dim ourobouros of cowardice. In a column in which he speculated about the worth of journalists' abdicating any responsibility, he placed the evaluative responsibility on the New York Times' readership. In a way, it was like watching the greatest newspaper in the nation engage in real-time market-testing of which group is worth sucking up to more.

Brisbane wondered — in his mean, moronic way — what happens when newspapers get it wrong. He asked whether (and, apparently, "when") there was an alternative. To read his framing, one can't help but conclude that wrongness will attend any attempted "correction" of current journalistic problems. More wrongness. Solutions are hard, so, you know, let's not do them.

But the one thing he didn't do is account for the wrongs of the status quo. To borrow a term from a contributor here, he passively made the case for the suck-up/kick-down mode that the Times employs in terms of both power and readership. To be sure, letting journalists directly challenge falsehoods in their columns might lead to mistakes, even ones that slip by copy editors and bureau editors. Charging daily beat writers and even the low-men on the totem pole with the duty of putting accountability up-front in stories will create gaffes and problems that editors will need to walk back. Nobody would doubt this.

The endless tennis match, however, provides no antidote. Cleaving to insidership and power doesn't create an impenetrable margin of authority. Crafting stories only via deep-background advocacy and deep-background criticism is no preservation against being wrong. That change might generate a few poor outcomes is a coward's rationalization. Letting a writing staff loose to exercise good judgment and confound sloppy talking points can be dangerous, but it can't possibly be more dangerous than playing the current game.

Judith Miller played that game, with the blessing. And now at least 100,000 people are dead.