Arrogance or Honesty? You Decide…

Just back from a wonderful motorcycle ride with Tenacious G and a friend who’s moved to New York but is back visiting (we stopped for a long time and enjoyed the incredible, rain-washed views from the intersection of Stunt and Saddle Peak), came home and picked up our L.A. Times.

I usually read the funnies first, but media critic Tim Rutten’s column (intrusive registration required, use ‘laexaminer’/’laexaminer’) caught my eye. It is entitled ‘Fact or opinion? Yes, it really does matter,’ and it’s a peach.

Here’s the money quote:

There is a certain kind of bright but brittle mind that loves this sort of either/or thinking. What such minds cannot accept is the common-sensical notion that real life — including that of the press — is lived mostly in the pragmatic middle. There, experience has demonstrated that intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline enable journalists to gather and report facts with an impartiality that — though sometimes imperfect — is good enough to serve the public’s interest in the generality of cases.

I have to go do chores, but will comment pretty extensively later in the day; meanwhile I’ll toss this out for your review, edification, and amusement.

Don’t forget to go back and look at this old post of mine when you’re thinking about it.

[Update: OK, here’re my comments on this:

Rutten seems to have missed that whole Reformation thing; the notion that truth might not have to be derived from a priesthood – and make no mistake, when he starts talking about ‘intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline ,’ he’s talking about a priesthood – is something that went by the wayside became central in Western society a number of years ago. Frighteningly, it appears to be coming back.What he says has the ring of truth; it describes an attitude which I believe is consistent with the behavior of the media over the last few years. It’s certainly consistent with my direct experience with the Man In The Hat at Brian Linse’s, and it’s consistent with the kind of institutional arrogance that brought Howell Raines down at the NY Times.

I share his belief that it’s the ‘pragmatic middle’ where most things happen in societies; like supertankers, they turn slowly. But – I also am convinced that here is some interesting sociology to do in studying how journalism works in this new century; the web of relationships and obligation and even more important the filters that decide who will and who won’t get a job at the NY or LA Times.

As I’ve noted before, I think that one of the most important functions of the blogosphere is to provide some public check on journalism, and to do so not because any one blogger is better-informed or smarter, but the because the dialog among blogs can quickly knock down bad facts or unsupported ideas.

Rutten, (and his boss Jon Carroll) in closing journalism off from that kind of dialog, are taking the position of Linda Ham, the shuttle manager for Columbia who cut off discussion of the possible damage from the foam strike. (Ironically, the Times just ran a series on Columbia; note that they appear to have joined ProQuest in making all their archival materials only for-pay)

Sadly, more than the lives of seven individuals are at risk because of the arrogance of the media.

(Corrected dumb error on Howell Raines’ name, thanks to Kaus)
(Corrected dumb grammar mistake…my editor must have missed it…)

34 thoughts on “Arrogance or Honesty? You Decide…”

  1. Ooooh….the arrogance just oozes from this piece. So Rutten has a problem with ‘value-laden politics’, completely missing the point. If politics isn’t about competing values, then what the hell is it suppose to be?

    Ruttan can’t see that the challenge to his industry is coming from a plethoria of new information technologies. No longer is the LA Times a ‘gatekeeper’. People collect info from a wide array and compare it to what’s in mainstream publications like the Times. The trend seems to be they find the Times lacking.

  2. Two plus two equals four.

    But that’s just my opinion.

    You may feel differently.

    And your fact – that 2+2=8 – is just as valid and worthy an opinion as mine.

    So let’s split the difference. Two plus two equals 6.

    Now there’s a fact we can all agree on.

    Except for those hard bitten, right wing partisan haters, who keep insisting 2+2=4.

    Can somebody call me a journalist or a lawyer, so we can straighten this out? And I don’t want a pundit who will insist it equals 4 or 8. I want a journalist, who can divine the eternal truths, who can tell us that the answer is 6…

  3. And you know what else is really great about professional journalism? They have a highly developed sense of self awareness that would keep them from writing something pompous like this at exactly the time when their credibility to say such things is especially laughable!

    For the LA Times to write this a couple of months after serving as the Davis Anti-Recall Daily Bulletin is like Courtney Love writing parenting tips right now.

  4. “Intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” describes a priesthood? On what planet? What is being described are professional traits, what Matt Welch calls his “journalist B.S. detector”. Say what you will about the LA Times, or the NY Times under Howell Raines, but in their pursuit of objectivity, they are more likely to get the facts right than Instapundit or other mega-bloggers, who often do little more than link to third parties without performing even the slightest due diligence. Bloggers would actually achieve their oft-boasted goal of “(knocking) down bad facts or unsupported ideas,” if they did that, rather than whining about the placement in the Gray Lady of minor anti-terrorism demonstrations in the streets of Baghdad.

  5. Funny, all of the arrogance appears to be in the comments, not in what Tim Rutten actually wrote. He said that facts matter, which is why reporting matters, and reporting is what journalists mostly do, despite all of their human failings. Steve Smith is right: The facts are much more likely to be accurate in the “big media” than in the blogosphere, even though the web can serve as a useful corrective device. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life teaching students and new reporters about the importance of getting facts straight, of considering other possiblities and points of view, of giving people who are criticized a chance to respond. To see that sort of “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” dismissed as arrogance makes me fear not for the future of journalism but for the future of democratic debate.

  6. I found it interesting that Rutten didn’t provide one example that would lend credence to his claims. Granted, he had space constraints…but without that single example it becomes hard to see his piece as anything other than a callow rant.

    What is becoming increasingly pervasive given bureaucratic constraints is the reliance on the “both sides” approach as the hallmark of objectivity. And THIS is the problem. It isn’t that journalists seek to be objective and dispassionate…it’s the method they use to attain this objective. Krugman gets it right here…and I’m paraphrasing. If the Democrats say the sky is blue, journalists are likely to report the following:

    “Democrats say the sky is indeed blue….while high ranked officials within the Republican Party differ.”

  7. And I might even agree with you, if I saw “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” on a nightly basis while making my “rounds” catching up an all that happened during the day.
    Unfortunately, that is not the case. What I do see is reporters letting their own worldview creep into their reporting. I see it in the phraseology they use, in the stories that are covered, and more importantly, in the stories that are not covered.

  8. “stories that are not covered” Indeed. I’ll argue further that 70 years of communism and 30 years of terrorism in part only existed/exists because the way media behaved.Bin Laden appeared because Arafat made that path before and was rewarded in media.

  9. David Crisp: the reason the “arrogance” is in the comments and not in Rutten’s piece is because it’s a matter of the very facts that AREN’T in Rutten’s piece. The LA Times spent most of the last year getting everything wrong about the gubernatorial race except the correct spelling of Gray, for the most nakedly partisan reasons. They wound up with not just egg but a full Denny’s Platter on their face.

    Everything Rutten says is basically true and wise– but I don’t care to be lectured on chastity by whores.

  10. Steve, the notion that you’d defend Raines as having a ‘b.s. detector’ which I or others should rely on is fairly amusing given recent history (ask Lynette Holloway…); but you’ve flatly missed my point.

    As a lawyer, I’d assume that you’d reject a system which based legal determinations based on the ‘intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline’ of judges, rather than an open process of argument subject to review (and, in my mind, to ultimate determination by a collection of laypersons). A legal system like this wouldn’t be too far from the French magisterial system, and I’ll take ours over their any day.

    I explictly rejected the notion that individual bloggers have superior knowledge when I said:

    to do so not because any one blogger is better-informed or smarter, but the because the dialog among blogs can quickly knock down bad facts or unsupported ideas.

    Did you miss that?


  11. David, of course facts do matter.

    Sadly, the major news outlets have in recent times done a mediocre job – at best – of neutrally presenting facts.

    From your post, I gather that you’re a j-school professor; I’ll suggest that the monoculture (albeit a narrowly politically diverse monoculture) that the schools are putting out – and the media are hiring – is close to the root of the problem.

    And yes, I’d love to see professionalism in the media. I’ve been an actor in three moderately significant local stories that were covered by the Times and other Southern CA papers, and in each case they managed to get both the facts and essence of the story flatly wrong (fortunately, their bias was in my team’s favor, so that error had utility for me).

    And I’ll suggest that professionalism., combined with a ‘check my work’ series of checks and balances is a damn good thing.

    Isolated, it leads to the kind of institutinal arrogance I saw so much of when I lived in France.


  12. David Crisp wrote:

    I’ve spent a big chunk of my life teaching students and new reporters about the importance of getting facts straight, of considering other possiblities and points of view, of giving people who are criticized a chance to respond.

    If the attitudes displayed by much of “big media” are an indication of how well you taught those lessons, I’d say you did a rather poor job. For a good example, with analysis, of a piece of blatant journalistic dishonesty in today’s NY Times, look here.

    Riyadh delenda est!

  13. Cato the Youngest provided a link that took me by a way of a blog to a Washington Post story, not a New York Times story. I don’t think he would have passed my class. But those big media are all alike, aren’t they?

  14. Actually they are, David. But you’re correct that the story I quoted was from the Post. I apologize for my error (which is more than the Post will do).

    The fact of the matter, is that the so-called “mainstream” media is strongly sympathetic to the Democratic Party, and will present any news story in the manner that favors Democrats over Republicans (provided they run the story at all).

    This story, which did run in the Times, bundles previously reported KIAs in with KIAs from the publication date, in order to make the butcher’s bill look bigger.

    BTW, would the Post story have passed your class, David? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Riyadh delenda est!

  15. > I’ve been an actor in three moderately significant local stories that were covered by the Times and other Southern CA papers, and in each case they managed to get both the facts and essence of the story flatly wrong

    With the exception of the society pages, I’ve yet to run into any news event participant or personal bystander who hasn’t said “the coverage had significant error”.

    I suppose that things could be worse, but are they adequate? Are they grounds for sneering at folks who do run substantive corrections?

    And, why is media so damn resistant to running corrections? Do they not know that they’re making mistakes or is it something else?

  16. OK, once more and then I’ll shut up. Cato the Youngest: Yes, the Post story would have passed my class, although I would have had him rewrite the line about “tapered off.” Your critique, however, flunks at every point. He compared the first four months after major combat with (almost) the next four – certainly more useful than comparing two weeks in December to four in November. While caualties have slowed in the two weeks since Saddam’s capture, the reporter’s statistics show (and you do not dispute) that it remains more dangerous to be an American soldier in Iraq today than it was from May to August. But your worst error was attacking the reporter for a “damned lie” for printing a prediction from a Duke University professor. Not only was the prediction not the Post’s, the article contained other quotes that dispute the professor’s assertions. Your attack just ain’t fair.

    Armed Liberal, I’m not a prof, just an editor who teaches on the side. But I think the real problem is what goes into journalism schools, not what comes out. Journalists typically rank among the very worst-paid college graduates. Even the best can look forward to three to five years of scraping along at $15,000 to $25,000 a year, often working nights and weekends with uncompensated overtime, before getting a decent paycheck. Many quit before that happens, and many of the brightest never even take that first job. It’s a scandal. I keep hoping that the rise of new technologies will make publishers understand that they have to nourish and compete for talent, but I see no evidence that this is happening.

  17. Well, David Crisp, then why don’t we compare 2003 to 2002? American deaths in Iraq have shot up alarmingly, haven’t they? And we can only expect more of the same in 2004… You can’t really be so naive as to not recognize that the first trick in lying with statistics is framing the period they cover to produce the most damning case, can you?

  18. David –

    Since I like comments because it means I get to talk to people who think differently than I do and know different stuff than I do – and sometimes one or both of us actually learns something from them – I’d encourage you to stick around. You have an insider’s perspective, and while I’m pretty critical of the media right now, it’s always useful to bounce ideas back and forth with people who have some direct knowledge.

    I thought Cato had simply mis-linked, given the NYT item that I found by scrolling down, but I appreciate his correction.

    But I’ll strongly disagree w/David about the stats; not the conclusions, but the simple fact that I can dice a time series in a number of ways and prove out a number of different conclusions with them. The sampling method used by the Post journalist was pretty clearly defective; I won;t go into a long stat rant, but I’ll suggest that taking a time series and dividing it in half isn’t necessarily a useful way to sort out trends.


  19. Yes, it’s very self correcting, why just today, Glenn has corrected his post. NOT.

    It turns out contrary to the instapundit, that meat from the mad cow has been distributed for consumption by humans.

    Has Glenn corrected this? No. Has any blogger pointed this out? No.

    Yes, the blogosphere is sooo much better than the old journalism.

  20. David, December is almost over (less than a week to go), and KIAs are running at half of November’s average daily rate. That’s not just “tapering off”. That’s a statistically significant change, which Loeb glossed over. It’s also not just “two weeks in December”, as you assert. Also, the KIAs didn’t just drop after Saddam’s capture, Pre-capture KIAs in December were down, too. Our guys just did better in December. Loeb tried to hide that fact with bad statistics, and you seem willing to give him a pass on it.

    My sense, from reading the article, was that Loeb agreed with the prediction (or at least hoped it would come true). Loeb also quoted several sources who supported the proposition that a “tipping point”, where Americans would turn against the war, was likely. Most of those were even sillier than Prof. Feaver’s prediction.

    It’s a common practice in “mainstream” journalism to include quotes that support “both” sides of a proposition. However, it usually doesn’t take a great deal of effort to recognize the author’s “real” position. Loeb’s obvious intent was to obscure our recent successes, and undermine people’s confidence in the war effort.

    Finally, I’m not trying to be a reporter. I look for examples of good, bad, or otherwise interesting reporting, and try to point them out to others. When I see a polemicist pretending to be a reporter, I “raise the hue and cry”. IMO, that’s what Loeb was doing, and I called him on it.

    Riyadh delenda est!

  21. A.L.:

    In order to sort out this issue of what is, or isn’t a “priesthood,” and what that involves, I’m going to crib a bit from Bucky Fuller. One of his most revealing observations is that there’s no such thing as an absolutely straight line. Not practically, and not even theoretically. However, you can always construct an approximately straight line to be as straight as you need it to be, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.

    A “priest,” however, believes unequivocally in absolutely straight lines, although he may be willing to admit that humans only approximate them. That’s not what Fuller is talking about, though. He says, you can’t even imagine a perfectly straight line, so there is actually no transcendental standard of straightness to which a believer can compare. There’s only an ad hoc standard, based upon the requirements of the task, and for which priests are unneccessary and inadequate.

    Which reminds me that there was a nice discussion on today’s Face the Nation, with Bob Schiffer, and the only person who sounded like they had a real clue about the polarization of US politics was David Brooks. He says we’re actually less polarized on most issues now, with the exception of attitudes about the President himself. Now, Schiffer and the others were fumbling around urgently in their priestly robes after this obvious display of good sense undercut their entire thesis, trying desperately to come up with something that made them sound wise and knowledgable. But they just came off like the driver who pays more attention to the rear view mirror than the road.

  22. It seems astonishing to me that in all this commentary, nobody yet has noted that Tim Rutten included a functional defense of slavery in his article. He faulted the pre-civil war press as not being objective. Objective, cold, impartial reporting would have had slavery continue far beyond its eradication by Lincoln.

    One, we’ve been there before. On the eve of the Civil War, Americans were per capita the greatest readers of newspapers in the world. Hardly a hamlet or frontier settlement was beyond the reach of the era’s ubiquitous newspapers and emerging weekly magazines, which had begun to circulate nationally. Every single one of those publications was passionately — in fact, bitterly — partisan. A very good case could be made that the free press of that period, though vigorous, not only failed to arrest the nation’s slide into civil strife but also played a major role in provoking it.

    It’s possible that a cool, objective press would have allowed the South to maintain its ‘peculiar institution’ well into the 20th century. Why not? Those who laud the creation of such a press really need to explain how slavery would have ended in such a regime. As for those who looked at the article and found little arrogance to it, I refer to the quoted paragraph above and suggest they think a bit about what the US would have been like without the irritation that a partisan free press provided.

  23. I recognized the same thing about slavery and the Civil War when reading this. I am sick of journalists’s objectivity as some Holy Grail and we are supposed to think rightly and follow their lede. I do not believe much in any newspaper and recognize no one has the whole truth. I would trust newspapers more if they recognized that they do not know what is best, they should REPORT FACTS.

  24. Anon – what is your criticism of Glenn Reynolds? Is your point that he typically doesn’t post corrections of errors on his site? That charge would be scurrilous, because he famously does. Or is your point that in this particular case (mad cow) he didn’t issue a correction? Even that point is weak, because the Professor Bainbridge post on Instapundit has 6 (count ‘em) updates as of this morning – not bad for this time of year. Those updates include several different points of view on the story. And as A.L. said, it isn’t about one blogger or one post. If Glenn didn’t post the latest update, others did. All of us are smarter than some of us.

    In fact, your comment here is evidence of how well the blog system works. You’ve drawn attention to Glenn’s mad cow posts and got me to check on it and respond with another perspective. And to point out that, according to CNN, none of the meat from the infected cow distributed for human consumption included any spinal cord material, which is the tissue that can transmit BSE.

  25. Ooops! I got that old proverb wrong in my earlier post in this thread, replying to Anon. I should have said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

    If this had been important, someone would have pointed it out before too long!

  26. A.L.:

    As a lawyer, I not only don’t reject a system which based legal determinations by judges on “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline”, I demand it. As the nation learned to its sorrow during the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, a judiciary that even gives the appearance of being biased in favor of a particular partisan objective loses its credibility. In any event, I see no contradiction between “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” and an “open process of argument subject to review”.

    I believe TM missed the point of Rutten’s commentary about the pre-Civil War press, or at least believes the myth that it was the bellicosity of Northern abolitionist papers that forced the South into seceding. In fact, the partisanship of which Rutten speaks manifested itself in the Southern press’ support of secession, which ensured that no peaceful, democratic end to slavery could be possible.

  27. Steve, the problems with using “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” as a test of “good journalism” include:

    1. The difficulty in getting opposing partisans to concede that the other side has used “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline”
    2. It fosters a tendency, within any organization, to suppress “unorthodox”, or “heretical” views.

    The Christian Church used to have a real problem with item #2. Had a bunch of people, called Inquisitors, who went around torturing people and burning them at the stake. They were, ex officio, the only ones using “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline”, and therefore, they got to decide what was “right” and “wrong”, and therefore, they got to burn “heretics” at the stake, in order to save the heretics’ souls.

    I’ve nothing against intellectual rigor, per se. But I’m leery of people who want to attribute it, ex officio, to any selected group.

    BTW, the only court involved in Bush v. Gore that favored Gore, was the Florida Supreme Court. I find it interesting that that court just happened to be made up almost enterely of Democrats. Only two U.S. Supreme Court justices held that the interrupted recount was constitutional, the other two minority members wanted yet another recount. Anyone who thinks the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion in Bush v. Gore showed a lack of “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline” probably needs to work on their own “intellectual rigor and emotional self-discipline”.

    Riyadh delenda est!

  28. Steve, I’m a bit flabbergasted.

    You’re suggesting that mere rigor on the part of judges – absent any process for review, reversal, or check – would be the foundation of a good legal system? Quis custodiet?

    And you’re suggesting that the only partisanship in the 1859 – 60 period was Southern? It’s certainly possible to be both partisan and correct, I’d hope.

    I’m perplexed indeed.


  29. AL:

    My argument was that it was important for judges to have IR & ESD; I was not calling for the tossing out of our “open process of argument subject to review”, ie., the adversary and appellate systems. In fact, I said that I didn’t find the two standards to be contradictory.

    As for your second point, I agree the Northern press in that era was no less partisan. However, it should be remembered that it didn’t drive Lincoln (or the North) into going to war over slavery, or forcing the South into seceding. It should also be pointed out the partisanship in the Northern press was divided between abolitionist and compromise factions; the latter group in particular wanted to appease the slave states (sort of the DLC of that era). During the Civil War, it kept up a drumbeat of “conciliation” with the South; had Lee prevailed at Antietam, the aims of that “partisan” press probably would have prevailed, and the Confederate States might still exist.


    Your argument proves my point. The Florida Supreme Court ruling was attacked as partisan by the GOP; Democrats saw a Republican conspiracy in the workings of the U.S. Supreme Court (and it was a 5-4 decision, not 7-2, to overturn the state court).

  30. Steve –

    Thanks for the clarifications!

    I’m similarly in favor of professionalism, and in fact very much believe it to be a good thing in journalism, among other disciplines. But I’m loathe to allow the profesionals to self-define their standards, as Rutten seems to want to do, particularly absent any kind of ‘open process of argument sand review.’ Such a process doesn’t exist in the corporate-owned mainstream media today.

    Where we may disagree is in my belief that the mainstream media aren’t showing much of that vaunted professionalism, and my displeasure when – on being challenged about it – they shield themselves behind a self-enforced claim to it. A claim that apparently only they can validate.

    As someone who’s dabbled in reading comtemporary Civil War sources but doesn’t claim expertise in it, I’ll suggest that the politics around Lincoln’s election made secession inevitible, given the attachment of the Southern states to slavery (which was being challenged).

    Personally, I don’t think that was a bad thing, as I have a hard time believing that any compromise would have explicitly and suddenly ended slavery. I’m obviously aware of the tragic nature of the war, but to me – and here I’m stepping off the deep end a bit – it was the debt, payable in blood, that we owed for allowing slavery to take root here in the first place.

    Re the Florida fracas, without reresearching it, I can only say that had the Dems fought for a full statwide recount and been turned down, I would have been demonstrating in Westwood alongside my friends. Having chosen a partisan weapon (in the form of a limited recount), they were felled by an equally partisan one, and my sympathy went elsewhere.


  31. Steve, the 5-4 vote was to shut down all further recounts. Two of the minority justices believed that the recount which was in progress violated the 14th Amendment, but that a properly done recount would be constitutional. That was the 7-2 majority I was referring to.

    My point was that the Democrats’ claim of a “partisan” decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is crap. Whatever “partisanship” was involved came from their side of the dispute. The best proof of that, is the fact that the lower courts (which have to follow the law, not make it), were almost unanimous in siding with Bush, even though their political backgrounds suggested that they would prefer Gore. Only in the higher courts, where law is frequently made, not merely interpreted, and justices felt free to vote their politics, did Gore do well.

    The law was on Bush’s side, and fortunately for the country, the politics did not quite manage to negate that fact.

    Riyadh delenda est!

  32. This is just another instance of the new age religion, expressed most potently by the environmentalist movement. Rutten is repeating his postmodern catechism and stating liberal dogma that is no long subject to argument within the Community: Bush wasn’t elected; The war is illegal; etc.

    It won’t change until newspapers start linking to comments on their stories. Which will be the first to stick its neck out?

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