33 thoughts on “Here’s One Of The Most Disturbing Things I’ve Read All Year”

  1. Jeffery Sachs seemed to call for more and better journalism, but curtailed free speech as well…those would seem to be mutually exclusive goals. Wouldn’t they?

  2. Prof. O’Neill even dares to invoke the name of John Stuart Mill. She’s goddamn lucky that Mill really did believe in free speech, or he’d crawl out of his grave and shove that microphone down her throat.

    The precedent she should be citing is Martin Heidegger, explaining why the media and the university need to serve the purposes of the National Socialist State.

    The British invented classical liberalism. And they invented the BBC, and the television signal detection van. I guess they’re not perfect.

  3. So I read the first of the little essays and thought, “Ah, this might be a bit of an overreaction.” Then I hit the second, by Onora O’Neill:

    Unconditional freedom just is not optimal for truth-seeking.

    I think it would be very difficult to come up with a more succinct anti-thesis of my philosophical position on knowledge, truth, and their pursuit.

  4. Then again, all of their comments were such a high level of abstraction that, absent outside context (i.e., knowing who these people are and what kinds of specific press-muzzling legislation they might support elsewhere) that you could read the quotes themselves as benign.

    Consider O’Neill’s position:

    Of course, if requirements for accurate reporting were too tightly drawn, the press would be intimidated.

    Nobody can be sure of getting everything right-even with zealous “fact checking”.

    So a press that serves rather than damages democracy needs to aim for accuracy in its reporting: its claims should be truthful, even if they cannot be guaranteed to be true.

    And this standard can be achieved. The media achieve it well in reporting football results and stock prices.

    In complex reporting, it can be achieved by providing evidence and qualifications, by telling readers and listeners when the information is uncertain, by editing that corrects errors promptly, and that explicitly distinguishes reporting from commentary, gossip and features.


    Better standards could be achieved without risking censorship by specific regulation to secure accurate reporting, or at least truthful reporting.

    I’ll finish with one example. Accuracy could be supported by requirements to declare and disclose conflicts of interest on reporters, editors and owners.

    So we can say she’s advocating conflict-of-interest disclosure. Most American media outlets already do a fair amount of that, anyway. It’s not at all uncommon to see CNN and Time mention the other as affiliates. So it really depends on what she has in mind by a “conflict of interest.” Maybe she’s really not saying much more than what we already do. Then again, maybe she does.

    Also regarding truthfulness and fact-checking: After Rathergate, TNR, Jayson Blair, etc., one would think that conservatives have just as much cause as liberals to want the media to pay a little bit more attention to fact-checking and quality control. Depending on how broad your interpretation of the First Amendment is, of course, you can make principled arguments against such provisions regardless of one’s political affiliation. However, I don’t think there’s necessary anything flagrantly left-wing about at least some of the sentiments expressed in that link.

  5. A.L.,

    I’m scratching my head here after reading the 3 discussions, wondering how you came to the conclusion that the 3 authors “don’t like freedom of speech.” Neither of the 1st two called for any restrictions on the speech, but talked of the need for higher journalistic standards, accuracy and fact checking, etc. They both sounded a lot like you, to me, when you talk about the shoddy work of the AP re: Jamal Hussein, and that magazine–i forget it’s name at the moment–with the fabricated Iraq diary.

    Certainly it is valid to raise the down sides of freedom of speech…we all do it all the time…without being criticized as not being in favor of it. We can discuss the down sides of democracy for that matter, or capitalism, free trade, many such things, without saying we don’t like it. Is there a perfect system?

    The 3rd discussion was more limited in its scope and seemed to me to be an argument against hate speech. It’s an issue I’ve always been conflicted about and I don’t think there is an easy answer.

    But over all I have to say that your introduction somewhat mischaracterizes the content of the BBC article. That said, I am grateful for your link to the article as I found it stimulating to read.

  6. O’Neil spends the bulk of her article dissing first amendment protections for the media that when we get to an example of one of her proposals (conflict of interest disclosures), we are relieved. And then we wonder, what next.

    And we wonder if she is being truthful:

    bq. _why do newspapers in some countries, including Britain, have particularly poor reputations and why do broadcasters in some countries, not including Britain, have particularly poor reputations?_

    In other words, why does the BBC have such a good reputation, while the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Times have such poor reputations? Government control?

    And what is the difference between truth and accuracy in O’Neil’s opinion?

    bq. _Better standards could be achieved without risking censorship by specific regulation to secure *accurate reporting,* or at least *truthful reporting.*_

  7. I wasnt all that upset with any of the essays per se- but i do think you can read a lot into them.

    Whats really a concern is the slippery slope of ‘hate crime’ to ‘hate speech’. And hate speech is already being defined down in many circles as many things not politically correct.

    Someone who argues against the party line on global warming, for instance, is now labeled a ‘denier’, and that connotation is quite intentional. If it should be illegal to deny the holocaust (as in Germany), why shouldnt it be illegal to deny what is considered (by those who propose to make these decisions) a more horrible threat yet.

    Admittedly, we are talking about some pretty hard left wingers here- but NOT fringe types. These are professors and scholars etc- the braintrust of the left. Its disturbing that the people who should be on the front lines engaging Conservatives are in many instances instead cloistered in liberal enclaves where the echo chamber is so complete they find it quite reasonably to brand any dissenting voices that happen to sneak through as malicious. Not just unworthy of debate, but hateful in their aims.

    That may happen on the right, but I would argue that the ‘thinkers’ in conservative circles that tend to be the vanguard of conservative thought are the most likely to be out mixing it up with the loyal opposition, as opposed to cut off.

  8. PD, my guess is that the by accurate reporting she means that the facts are correct—i.e., objectively true; by truthful reporting she means honestly believed to be correct–as opposed to deliberately manipulated for propoganda purposes. E.g., the NYT may have been inaccurate when reporting on Iraq WMD before the war, not realizing that they were being used by administration to plant false stories, but they were truthful inasmuch as they were reported in good faith and were believed to be accurate. I believe this is the point she is making. There are standards in a courtroom and in a laboratory that are designed to help reach an accurate conclusion. The question raised is whether journalism could benefit from such standards.

  9. mark, interesting distinction. Of course there are many of us who would note that the Administration was pushing stories in good faith as well that turned out to be untrue. So we are back to the barricades I guess. In other words- this search for objective truth is easier said than done, particularly when each side now openly questions the other sides motives and honor.

  10. mark (#9) thanks for the assist. That’s the opposite of how I use those terms. I might say that a number of the details relied upon by war supporters were “accurate,” but the conclusions they drew might not necessarily been “true.”

    O’Neil certainly must have been using those terms in the way you describe.

  11. AL, I think you commented under the wrong post (I said something very similar above).

    Yeah, I was not overly bothered by the first and the last. The first has been commented on. The last I saw as the “other” slippery slope between respecting religou s freedom, and acknowledging those who would rather let people suffer instead of breaking their “moral” codes.

    It’s a tricky question, even here. Is it right to perform an abortion to save the life of a mother? Should homosexuals be allowed to have children, or might the children be morally tarnished by the experience? Do muslims get to riot about cartoon depictions?(These are hypothetical by the way, please don’t answer them). Where is the line between reviling intolerance and respecting religious freedom? It’s not always easy to isolate.

    And yes, the second I didn’t like. I don’t think she neccessarily meant everything she implied, but she implied an awful lot. I think what she meant is best illustrated at the end, where she says that media must burden extra responsibility.

    I agree with that in the most part, media should have a responsibility to more than just free speech. However, this should not be a LEGAL responsibility (too sticky), but a MORAL responsibility.

    But since there aren’t many moral people these days…

  12. …we probably won’t have media dedicated to good, non-political(non-grandstanding) investigations into facts anytime soon.

  13. I’m kind of surprised that people missed the issues in the first and third interview. Here’s the money graf from the first one:

    In short, we need professional journalism more than ever, to tell – with detail, expertise, accuracy, accountability and sensitivity – the stories that can help the world to avoid the abyss.

    …not the true stories, or the accurate stories alone, but specifically ‘…the stories that can help the world to avoid the abyss…‘. What are those? Well, he’s told us:

    First, the media can present people of other cultures and political leanings, so that we can hear what they think.

    Such cross-cultural exchanges should be respectful and truth seeking, not insulting and point scoring. They need not veer away from tough questions and hard challenges, but they should not be games of “gotcha,” to humiliate or expose “the Other” in wars of propaganda.

    Second, the media can intensively scrutinise our own governments, which operate on the logic of power-expansion and self-preservation.

    Paths to co-operation

    In short, almost all governments lie and lie relentlessly. Yet governments can be made to lie less frequently by being exposed and held to account by the professional media.

    Third, the media can translate science to the general public, and the public’s concerns back to the scientists.

    It was a wonderfully wise decision for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to award half of this year’s Nobel Prize to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, since the IPCC, as it’s called, represents the most ambitious and successful global process to bring complex scientific understanding to the broad public.

    Can you hear it now? Good reporting tells us what needs to be known so we can do good things; it shapes out perception in the – correct – ways.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what the third interview was doing there…but yes, it was unexceptional…


  14. The first and third were unexceptional. The first was an ends-driven narcissistic rant. Akin to a sports-fan shouting conspiracy on the editorial page for lack of coverage of his favorite sports team.

    The third . . . well, I agreed with much of it. He complains about the hold that multiculturalism has over reason and whether haters like the Westoboro group should have the right to profane the free assembly of people gathered to mourn their losses. He’s wrong about gagging the religious leader spouting nonsense about AIDS; the dissemination of information in Africa to prevent the spread of HIV is hurt most by the conspiracies that would be abetted by censorship. His heart seems to be in the right place though.

    The second one . . . I don’t trust her.

  15. _Good reporting tells us what needs to be known so we can do good things; it shapes out perception in the – correct – ways._

    BBC director stepped down because of that, didn’t he?

  16. Yeah, I guess I was skimming for content more than giving a thorough reading. He appears to be saying that media should veer in one direction, which I disagree with. Media should veer in all directions, and investigate all the arguments. Clearly, there are cases where some arguments are full of crap, and the media should have the ability to implicate the government, or an individual, that is blantantly misinforming the public about what they’re doing.

    I also read what he meant by “gotcha” differently, and probably incorrectly. The image of “gotcha” that came to my mind was the quickly peddled crap that media spouts all the time. Anytime, the media simply echoes a talking point (either R or D), it is doing a disservice my misinforming the public. . For example: the recent Guillani story about security escorting him to his mistress, or the Bush DUI before the 2001 election, pick a political hack-job and the media has probably done a bad job of investigating it.

    It reminds me of a Bill Maher quote (sorry, I know he’s disliked here):

    News organizations have to stop using the phrase, “We go beyond the headlines.” That’s your job, dummy. You don’t see American Airlines saying, “We land our jets on the runway”

  17. A.L., Fine. So you disagree with their opinions about what are the important stories that should be covered by media outlets. We all have our opinions about that. I still don’t see how that justifies your intro: I mean, sheesh, if that’s the most disturbing thing you’ve heard all year, you’ve had a pretty damn good year. Also, not a peep in there to support your claim that they don’t like freedom of speech. If you were to suggest that the media would be more responsible if they reported more, I don’t know, say, more stories about progress in Iraq, for example, could you be accused of trying to manipulate, silence or restrict the media, and by implication not liking freedom of speech?

    And, if you ask me, you are focusing on peripheral issues raised in the opinions. Calls for greater standards and more accuracy seem to me to be the major thrust of their arguments. Again, they sound a lot like you in substance re the media; they just support different causes than you do and so believe, as you do, that if the media were more accurate and responsible, those causes would be better served. war’s of perception, and all that; your old argument that “americans are turning against the iraq war because the media is leading them by the nose” is not much different than the argument “if people only were given the truth, they would see the dangers of global warming.”

  18. Marcus: #4

    “Unconditional freedom just is not optimal for truth-seeking.

    I think it would be very difficult to come up with a more succinct anti-thesis of my philosophical position on knowledge, truth, and their pursuit.”

    I think you are missing her point, which is that in a courtroom or a laboratory there are rules of evidence, proceedure, etc., which are established in an effort to best get at the truth. Everyone running around and shouting and making claims without some sort of agreed upon standards will result in chaos, not in revelation of the truth. Of course, wikipedia may prove this belief wrong.

  19. mark – it goes faaaar beyond disagreeing about what stories they hold as important; it’s about a fundamental disagreement over the conceptual structure under which they operate.

    It’s one thing to say “tell the truth as best you can” and another to say “tell the truth as best you can, as long as it supports the things which we think are valuable”.

    Do you see the difference there?


  20. mark – in reality there are few rules in a laboratory expect repeatability. Once you introduce rules, you have to have judges. Once you have judges, the decisions become political – and the issue becomes who picks the judges and what is it that they will decide on.

    I’d be damn uncomfy having Pat Robertson or David Duke judging whether something could be printed as news – wouldn’t you?


  21. mark, I don’t think that’s her point. Her point is that freedom of press is overrated. She then (mis)characterizes the arguments for freedom of press so she can tear them down.

    In opposition to the argument that a free press is necessary to finding the truth, she says:

    bq. _Appeals to truth-seeking won’t justify unconditional press freedom because, as the philosopher Bernard Williams wrote in Truth and Truthfulness: “In institutions dedicated to finding out the truth, such as universities, research institutes, and courts of law, speech is not at all unregulated.”_

    Here is what Williams actually wrote:

    bq. _*Critics of the marketplace approach to First Amendment doctrine have pointed out* that in institutions that are expressly dedicated to finding out the truth, such as universities, research institutes, and courts of law, speech is not at all regulated. People cannot come in from outside, speak when they feel like it, make endless, irrelevant, or insulting interventions, and so on; they cannot invoke a right to do so, and no-one thinks that things would go better in the direction of truth if they could._

    First, let me suggest that O’Neill accurately quoted Williams, but like Mills, did not truthfully express his meaning or views.

    Second, the “critics of the marketplace approach to First Amendment doctrine” make no sense. The marketplace approach does not rest on one freedom. It assumes I own my own thoughts and should be free to convey them (at cost or no) and consume them. Obviously I cannot convey or consume in a din, which is why other rights are important too: the right to free assemble with people who wish to communicate with each other; the right of the press to convey thoughts in various media for consumption in private and the right to own property where I can exclude those I wish. The critics’ simplistic view of the marketplace is a place where I will be bombarded with apples.

    Marketplace adherents believe that government restriction of these freedoms can offer no greater improvement than their unimpeded exercise (with the narrow exception of Mill’s harm principle).

  22. “I’d be damn uncomfy having Pat Robertson or David Duke judging whether something could be printed as news – wouldn’t you?”

    Yes, of course, I would, A.L. But since no one is suggesting any such thing, it’s not a big worry of mine. I will say again that there were no calls for restrictions from the outside to determine what can and cannot be printed. (unlike, say, WoC, which has marshals with the power to delete posts when rules aren’t obeyed–not that I mind, mind, just saying is all).

    “It’s one thing to say “tell the truth as best you can” and another to say “tell the truth as best you can, as long as it supports the things which we think are valuable”.
    Do you see the difference there?”

    Yes, I see the difference. But again, no one is arguing for the latter. The only crime being committed by Sachs, as far as I can tell, is that he has a different set of topics which he thinks the media ought to cover than you do. He’s not suggesting there be any power that forces them to do so, nor he is suggesting they not cover other things. All he’s really saying is that the MSM does not reflect his point of view (which he believes to be correct) but rather their own bias (hmmmmm, sound familiar?)

    O’Neil explicitly states her belief that external censorship of the media is a bad idea. Her crime seems to be explaining that unconditional freedom is not really the great thing it is sometimes made out to be (again, I’ll reference WoC marshals as example of her point). She seems to argue for a standard of ethics in journalism.

    “in reality there are few rules in a laboratory expect repeatability.” I’ll respectfully disagree. There are many protocals regarding clinical trials, data-keeping, statistical interpretation, cleanliness, chain-of-custody and so forth (some of which, of course, are essential if repeatability is to be a realistic option). As with scholarship, as with courtroom trials, there are agreed upon protocals, i.e., methodologies, standards, disciplines, for those who are investigating the truth. You can’t just make up quotes in history book, e.g.

    It’s hard for me to understand how you could disagree with the principals enunciated by these two. My only guess is that you were distracted by the examples they use. They both seem to be much more distrustful of the government than you are and feel that MSM has failed to accurately provide a counterpoint to the government. But I don’t see any stalanists under the covers in this one. Nothing disturbing here. Just the age-old plea for the media to be more responsible.

  23. PD,

    I think O’Neil’s thesis is “Unrestricted freedom of press does not necessarily serve the best interests of the public.” O’Neil, of course, argues AGAINST governmental censorship or control of the media. She’s just arguing against a common belief that freedom of press leads to the truth.

    The extension of the Williams quote that you offer only furthers her argument. We do place restrictions, for very good reasons, on all public truth-inquiries. To pretend that we don’t is dishonest. It would be a mistake to then try to extend this mythical principle to journalism.

  24. PD

    “(WOC) marshalls are not the government.”

    Indeed they are not. So who is advocating governmental control?

    O’Neill: “How can this standard be achieved? Some demands on the press would do too much – notoriously censorship, state or other control of the media of their content is risky and counterproductive.”

    Sachs: “Second, the media can intensively scrutinise our own governments, which operate on the logic of power-expansion and self-preservation. In short, almost all governments lie and lie relentlessly. Yet governments can be made to lie less frequently by being exposed and held to account by the professional media. It is a media function that fails in authoritarian societies where journalists are locked up or murdered. It is one that can fail in our own societies, in the United States or the United Kingdom, through self-editing, or the allure of power and access, or the fear of government reprisals through regulatory retaliation.”

    WOC marshalls are just an example of how none of us really favor unrestricted freedom of speech. No one likes name calling.

  25. O’Neill is arguing against this:

    bq. _Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press._

    She says these are “[f]ine words, but arguments from authority don’t provide deep justifications. Other arguments do grow deeper.”

    Way too dismissive, but I understand her point. You can’t argue against a free press when someone can simply turn around and say the Constitution forbids it. What she is advocating, “specific regulation” may not amount to censorship, but it is abridging the freedom of the press.

  26. PD, she is not arguing against the first amendment, she is saying that mere reference to it is insufficient grounds for justifying the concept of unrestricted freedom of speech (i.e. the “appeal to higher authority argument”). We do abridge freedom of speech all the time. You can’t print troop movements, eg., or classified material, we have libel laws, you can’t claim a product does something it doesn’t; there are also copyright laws that restrict freedom of the press.

    When she writes that “Better standards could be achieved without risking censorship by specific regulation to secure accurate reporting,” I believe the phrase “censorship by specific regulation” is the entity she wants to do without. I do not think she means that specific regulations can be had without risking censorship. It’s gramatically ambiguous, I grant you, but my interpretation of the words seems to better jive with her earlier comments and the general thrust of her argument. I don’t see her advocating any sort of governmental control of content. (I can imagine her supporting things like US laws prohibiting monopolistic control of media in a single market.) The only thing she offers as a practical matter is the requirement that media outlets divulge conflicts of interest. As far as I can see, this requirement would be the extent of outside interference or demand. That hardly conjurs an Orwellian nightmare. I have to say that I am not opposed to better standards in journalism. I’m not sure how those could be enforced, but I’m not against them.

  27. mark, she’s not opposed to free speech for individuals, she’s opposed to unfettered free speech for the press because the media is comprised of “powerful institutions” and individuals are “powerless.”

    Do we restrict freedom of the press? Far less than suggested. When Novak was going to publish Valery Plame’s identity, he was asked not to do so. The force of law was not employed. The Pentagon Papers were published. I can’t know how many national security matters have been published in the last few years, but the press can’t be stopped unless a compelling case of dire consequences is demonstrated.

    The press can’t be sued for libel/slander unless a clear and convincing case of actual malice is proven. So even when Consumer Reports makes numerous false and misleading statements, its not liable.

    Copyright laws? Sure, the U.S. Today can’t take a copy of the NY Times, slap U.S. Today on the top and sell it. The Press can’t steal; it can be compelled to pay taxes and the minimum wage. Your press badge doesn’t exempt you from laws of general applicability; it largely exempts the press from specific regulation.

    All that said, “conflict of interest” disclosure is not a bad idea. Its very helpful to know that a political opinion writer is also working for the Edwards or Thompson campaign. But they do this voluntarily.

    What would be the harm of government regulation? Should TNR have discovered the identity of Beauchamp, his relationship with his fact checker, who he voted for in the last election and his position on the war? It would certainly have helped the reader assess his credibility, but if this was a compulsory requirement he may not have reported at all. And there is the hitch. We’re better off letting him report, letting other people scrutinize the info and publish their own thoughts.

  28. PD, you don’t have to convince me. I am for as unfettered a press as can be reasonably sustained.
    I am arguing that O’Neill is NOT “opposed to unfettered free speech for the press.”–at least not in the linked story; you may know something about her that I don’t. In the linked story she is merely saying that the belief that an unfettered press is the best way of discerning the truth is a false belief and that the arguments for an unfettered press are weak. She is not then drawing a conclusion that the press ought to be more fettered. I suppose she is just trying to destroy what she feels are myths and encouraging people to be more skeptical about claims by or about the media with regards to their accuracy. The only suggestion she offers to improve the press is the conflict of interest angle. I just don’t see anything diabolical, disturbing or authoritarian in her outlook. It’s just an analysis of various justifications for an unfettered press. Her only real conclusion is that an unfettered press doesn’t lead to accurate reporting. Her only call is for higher standards, i.e., greater accuracy. The only time she mentions governmental control or regulation is to exclude it.

    This seems to me to get the heart of what she wants to say:
    “In complex reporting, it [a higher standard] can be achieved by providing evidence and qualifications, by telling readers and listeners when the information is uncertain, by editing that corrects errors promptly, and that explicitly distinguishes reporting from commentary, gossip and features.”

    I think she is calling for journalism to aim for a kind of discipline that scholarship aims for. (Good luck with that, Onoroa) But I don’t see any call for governmental control of the press, i.e. more fetters, which is what the accusation here seems to be.

    I remain mystified by the reaction to this.

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