Thursday, January 7, 2010

post apocalyptic

My BS detector needs a little fine-tuning.

Some media wonks are jumping all over the Washington Post for publishing a Fiscal Times story which promotes a debt-reduction commission as news instead of opinion.

It's our fault, of course. The internet is slowly killing newspapers and magazines as we have known them. The old advertising-driven model is broken as content is distributed and aggregated on the web free of charge.

Rupert Murdoch is leading the charge to increase revenue as he tries to find a way to squeeze some dollars out of the sites that 'steal' stories from his media holdings, but he has got a lot of company.

At the same time, newspapers in particular are slashing costs by cutting staff. Ironically, newly unemployed editors and writers end up on the net competing with their former employers.

Perversity squared

But there is still a news-hole to be filled. Enter Fiscal Times (whose staff includes a couple of former Posties) and other special interest organizations. They are more than happy to provide content under the imprimatur of the Washington Post.

Which brings us back to our story and my BS detection. I read it, uncritically and quickly, a week ago and didn't notice a thing. After all, it was in the Washington Post. Yes, I knew better; I usually try to keep tabs on who is filling my head with trivia.

Mea Culpa

Look again. The article is full of attributions that are not quite exact, and conclusions without support. As Politico helpfully tells us, there is no mention of opposition to the proposal. (A wound that could easily have been healed with a sidebar even if the story was left untouched.) Worse, the Post had to wipe this egg from its face:
Correction to This Article
The article by the Fiscal Times, about growing congressional support for a bipartisan commission to address the nation's debt, contained a statement supporting the concept by Robert L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition. The article should have noted that the Concord Coalition receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson, but not his foundation, also funds the Fiscal Times, the independent news service that prepared the article.

Logical trap

Now, as I've admitted, that is my fault. Michael Kinsley points out an interesting bit of journalistic trickery in The Atlantic: the appeal to authority.

How many times have you seen a story quoting an 'expert' from the University of Ulan Bator or Bemidji State College (not to pick on either fine institution)? Sometimes that is understandable: you go to the nearest institution for an interview.

Sometimes it is more insidious. Reporters are not supposed to express their point of view. Ah, but if you cast your net wide enough, you can find an academic or spokesperson to express it for you.

That may be harmless, or not. There may be a point of view that needs to be presented more clearly or you may want to express your point of view.

But Kinsley goes too far: you can't cut out all of the extra words. Particularly because I don't trust stories just because they are in the New York Times or the Washington Post. In some ways, the internet can be used to make superior stories: the extra information that bloats them can be condensed: for example, instead of "Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee", just write the name and link to a short biography.

I need that information, just to keep the papers honest. I don't want to think 'no, I hadn't heard of Fiscal Times, but if the Post says they are experts...'

And you don't want to get me started on 'highly placed sources' who 'are not authorized to comment.'

One of the principal marks of an educated man, indeed, is the fact that he does not take his opinions from newspapers—not, at any rate, from the militant, crusading newspapers. On the contrary, his attitude toward them is almost always one of frank cynicism, with indifference as its mildest form and contempt as its commonest. He knows that they are constantly falling into false reasoning about the things within his personal knowledge,—that is, within the narrow circle of his special education,—and so he assumes that they make the same, or even worse errors about other things, whether intellectual or moral. This assumption, it may be said at once, is quite justified by the facts. -- H.L. Mencken

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