Journalists who think “factual accuracy” is a fad
The Washington Post’s Michael Kinsley doesn’t seem to like the practice of fact checking. This is because, in his words, “the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.” Except, of course, the “it” he’s talking about in the quoted sentence is not “set of employees, called fact checkers” who he was making fun of at the beginning of the op-ed; he’s talking about the “corrections” column which, as he himself notes, is basically a daily set of mea culpas printed in response to people who catch a newspaper saying wrong things.
In other words, he is carefully or obtusely ignoring an important difference between having a system in place to make sure that mistakes don’t get made in the first place and a practice of apologizing for (and correcting) mistakes once they’ve already been made. The former is necessary and valuable, if it actually gets done. The latter is basically haphazard and essentially irrelevant. Yet he’s seamlessly transitioned from a (snide, glib, and basically un-serious) criticism of one practice to offering as evidence red herring anecdotalia of a basically different practice, using the irrelevance of the latter as an argument for the dispensability of the former. But the question of whether or not post-facto corrections are of any use has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not it’s better to print actual facts or to print lies. Someone who actually cared about factual accuracy would observe this difference.
Kinsley seems not to; instead, all this sound and fury is leading up to the claim that factual accuracy is a “fad.” And I suppose he has a lot of time on his hands – since he obviously isn’t burdened by the need to do actual reporting – yet the fact that a Washington Post columnist would not only attack the notion that journalism should be non-fiction, but do so in such a basically un-serious and sloppy way is sort of breathtaking. As Lindsay Beyerstein points out (who I’m only slowly beginning to forgive for not being Hilzoy), he’s basically writing the words “I don’t mind printing lies” on his forehead.
Now, it’s possible to argue that journalists should be more forthright about the subjectivity of their work, that instead of pretending to pure objective truth-telling, they should be willing to put themselves in their stories. This sort of debate exists and smart people on both sides have said smart and serious things. And I’m partially sympathetic to the argument for a more openly subjective approach, for the idea that acknowledging and foregrounding human bias is actually a net plus. But the thing is this: for it to work, it would have to be done by responsible and thoughtful journalists, by people who actually set out in good faith to both better understand reality and communicate it to their readers. The argument, after all, would be that putting the reporter into the story would allow us to see the different sources being used, that we could then judge and consider the manner in which the variety of pertinent facts get made into a single narrative, making it a story we could learn from even (perhaps especially) if we don’t agree with the mind driving it. It would be, in other words, the argument that such an approach would actually make the story more true (albeit by reference to a slightly different notion of truth). And given that we live in a world where “America’s most trusted newscaster” calls his show “fake news,”* this is the discussion we should be having.
But Kinsley is not making this argument, perhaps because he is neither a smart nor serious man, nor is he operating in good faith. While casting the people who demand accuracy in newspapers as “ideologues,” he holds himself up as speaking for the “profession,” by implication, for non-ideological reporting:
“The fad for elaborate and abject corrections, and factual accuracy in general, is based on the misperception that when people complain about the media getting it all wrong, what bothers them is [two examples of trivial getting-the-name-wrong kind of mistakes]. What bothers people is the refusal of the Times and other papers to call President Obama a socialist or a Muslim, or to say outright that talk radio hosts are vermin. In short, most complainers tend to be ideologues whose vision of an accurate newspaper is far different from that of the professionals.”
Let’s go over that again: people who demand truth in reporting are the ideologues, while a reporter who calls factual accuracy a “fad” is the one manning the barricades for professionalism?
The fact that his argument makes no sense at all, in fact, only illustrates how uninterested he is in the process of figuring out the truth on any level. And it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the Washington Post as a whole has developed a culture of contempt for accuracy (the George Will affair in February is just one example of what has become a monthly routine for them; reading Glenn Greenwald’s columns, for example, will give you a pretty damning record of the Post’s comfortably casual relationship with the truth). So I suppose it’s not surprising that he’s trying to score some points on the Post’s competitor for actually espousing factual accuracy as an objective. Nor is it coincidence that the defense of professonalism happens as a shrill complaint against people who point our the untrue things that professional journalists say; after all, the elephant in the room is that fact that it’s on the blogosphere that all the big “Washington Post tells big stupid lie!” scandals have been reported, and it’s as “professionals” that journalists like to heap scorn on mere bloggers.
It’s also quite telling that Kinsler equates people demanding that newspapers call Obama a “socialist or a Muslim” with people who demand that the news-media perform the function of correcting the lies that get passed for truths on talk radio. It is simply a fact that there are no “death panels” in any health care proposal under discussion, yet the fools on talk radio and elsewhere who are making that claim (and being believed) don’t get repudiated by truth-seeking journalists, they get “reported” as if those delusions are worth taking seriously. And it’s not like this is a grey area: there simply is nothing in any proposal under discussion that looks anything like the thing people like Sarah Palin are describing. It is as verifiably untrue as anything can possibly be, yet people who would like the “big” news media to point this out are the same as people who believe Obama to be a Muslim socialist?
There’s a certain irony that someone like me, a fully post-modernist, post-structuralist deconstructerator who believes that there’s no such thing as reality and occasionally uses the phrase “already always,” finds himself upset that the Washington Post has decided to transition into publishing fiction instead of non-fiction. But this is why, for example, David Simon’s defense of journalistic professionalism, however much I would like it to be right and however well intentioned it might be, is simply wrong. You can’t defend journalistic professionalism when professional journalists take a pride in being unprofessional.
* And of course, there’s a certain rightness to the fact that Kinsley used to do his song and dance on Crossfire (a show which Jon Stewart pretty much singlehandedly destroyed).