Friday, December 11, 2009

Sarah Palin, doctoral candidate

Enjoyed the Sarah Palin op-ed on climatology and Carbonhagen, did we? Should it have run or should it have been left out on the plain for polar bears to eat? The Post is happy with it;* others disagree. I want to take a bit of a detour into the pile of Neat Stuff That Keeps Getting Pushed Into The Background before getting back to Palin.

A few months back, Jan Freeman brought up a good example of the general concern that's at issue here -- why does journalism's claim of relentless accuracy fall apart so badly on the opinion pages? Her case in point was Maureen Dowd rehashing the specious claim that women are just getting gloomier all the time (as Jan pointed out, the sort of thing Language Log excels at skewering). And Jan is, as usual, worth quoting at some length:

But then, the next day (or two), the letters column teems with contributions from people who have swallowed the guff entire and are busily spinning theories to explain the nonexistent "trend" (feminism! contraception! rock 'n' roll!).

It seems to me that a responsible press, even if it allows columnists to Make Stuff Up -- not that I approve of that -- should resist helping readers spread the false information. (One would hope a refutation would come in, and be printed, but that rarely seems to happen.) ... Have J-educators ever addressed this in a formal way?

Not so much that I know of. I'm open to contradictory evidence here, but when questions of that sort come up, J-education -- like journalism in general -- defaults quickly to a version of the "balancing" norm: print both sides (feminism! no, rock 'n' roll!) and let people make up their own minds. It's tempting to say this has been around forever, but it's actually been around since the late 19th century, whence we get a lot of the building blocks of objectivity.

You can see why critics of science reporting put "balancing" high on their lists of journalism's faults. The classic contention is that routines like this are what allowed the tobacco industry to game the system so well for so long. So here's a suggestion from the tag end of a paper** at the latest AEJ conference: We're categorizing content the wrong way. We stovepipe it vertically -- reporting, analysis, comment, editorial -- when we ought to be slicing it horizontally: Stuff that's true and stuff that isn't true. Put in terms we could take into the classroom, stuff that's falsifiable and stuff that isn't, or presentation of evidence and presentation of argument.

The balancing norm doesn't necessarily make for bad journalism. It makes for bad science journalism, but journalism was a kind of political communication long before it was a kind of science communication. If we carve the categories differently, we can start to make a better assessment of the stuff on the op-ed pages as well as the stuff on the news pages.

That doesn't mean Maureen Dowd isn't allowed to pontificate about how hard is the fortune of all womankind. It means an editor needs to bring her up short when she misinterprets or fabricates research results to support her lament (and, of course, that when Cal Thomas lies about the electoral practices of leaders he doesn't like, he's called to account as well). Ideally, it would also mean that the news pages introduce a new level of caution. When one source introduces a piece of evidence and the balancing response is an ad hominem attack, news stories no longer pretend the two are equal: "Asked to respond, Smith instead attacked Jones's character."

What does that have to do with Sarah Palin? Gov. Palin is a prominent American political figure whose views are evidently of great importance to adherents of both major parties. She's also malicious, dishonest and (quite frequently) laugh-out-loud stupid. That poses a particular challenge to the WashPost op-ed*** folks: Is Palin offering political opinions, which we encourage and publish, or is she asserting facts, which need to pass the same tests they do in the real world?

Short answer, a bit of both. Palin lies a little bit (the e-mails in question don't show deliberate destruction and manipulation), but the column isn't drastically more dishonest than some of her campaign stunts from 2008. She employs the same sort of ad hominem attacks that have long given the lie to her leave-my-family-alone schtick (if the Climategate perps are "so-called experts," critics are justified in describing Palin as a "so-called governor"). And -- like it or not -- she indulges in the sort of straight-up political speech that we take to the barricades to defend.

It's skidding up to the edge of dishonesty (Palin was a point guard; you expect her to move well with the ball) to claim that "this scandal obviously calls into question the proposals being pushed in Copenhagen." To believe that, you have to have spend a lot of time sharing the nitrous oxide mask with your friends at But like her or not, when Palin makes cost-benefit claims -- "We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs" -- we're obliged to put them forward. Doesn't matter if she could put together a sentence that long on her best day or not; cost-benefit arguments are what the "balancing" arguments of objective journalism are all about. But if you can't tell arguments from the evidence that does or doesn't support them, you came to the wrong party.

The Guardian**** has a phrase for it: Opinions are free, facts are sacred. The Palins and Dowds and Thomases are welcome to their opinions. When they claim to base those opinions on facts, they should have the facts at hand, and the facts should resemble the sorts of things we can trust in the real world. If the asserted facts don't match the offered evidence -- well. come on,WashPost! The obligation to consider is not an obligation to print.

*And let the record show that the world will not be the same without Editor & Publisher. RIP.
** Now out under review, so ... go destabilize that peer-review process, kids!
*** Disclosure-wise, the op-ed editor in question was a HEADSUP-L member from the earliest Listserv days. Should you see her, buy her one on the house.
**** They always do, the bastards.


Blogger John Cowan said...

Dan Gillmor complained loudly about another falsity in that op-ed, namely the byline, since obviously someone on Palin's staff wrote that. My view is that attribution on op-eds is conventional: we care whose views are being put forward, not whose words we are reading. What's your take on that?

3:57 PM, December 13, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Complicated question, and interested parties are encouraged to click the link John provides for details. I'm sympathetic to Dan's arguments, but I think it's misleading to proclaim a higher standard for journalists and then flog Palin for not meeting it (certainly in her current guise; as I've said before, she doesn't have much room to give lectures on the ethics of news practice).

To the point at hand: I think it's fair to say that op-ed bylines are often closer to news bylines (meaning that they're a signal of something that may or may not have anything to do with the amount of writing the named person contributed to the story) than to, say, your sports or local columnists, whose "voice" is expected to correlate with the words appearing under the name and photo.

I'm not too deeply bothered by that. The Post has run a lot of op-eds that represented institutional voices, as opposed to individual ones. Often, those are useful, not just to journalism but to the broader idea of an informed public that journalism is supposed to enable. And I doubt anyone who saw Gov. Palin on the teevees would long retain the illusion that she put those sentences together.

Verdict: A useful and not especially harmful illusion; no blood, no foul.

Disclosure-wise, I don't think Dan is a reader of this site, but he has been a passenger in the Official HEADSUP-L-Mobile (the Saturn, that is, not the Orange Peril).

12:08 AM, December 15, 2009  

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