Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 9:25 pm

The New York Times may or may not be biased, but it is unquestionably inept; or, Cokie’s Law at work

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 9:25 pm
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Ordinarily I couldn’t care less about an investigative piece about a top aide I’ve never heard of who works for the governor of a state I don’t live in. But I have to call out this Times article about David W. Johnson, a top aide to New York Gov. David Paterson, because it is just a steaming, stinking, radioactive pile of Journalism Fail. Stories like this, far from illustrating — as the Times no doubt would claim — that big newspapers are indispensable, illustrate exactly why they’re dying and deserve to die.

Half a dozen reporters contributed to this dungpile, and presumably at least that many editors read behind them. Yet at no point in the story is it ever made clear exactly what the problem is. Is it that Johnson has a problem with women? Is it that Johnson isn’t qualified for his $132,000-a-year job? Is is that Paterson is showing bad judgment in hiring Johnson (and if so, why?)? Is it one illustration of a larger problem with Paterson’s staffing decisions? Is it some of the above, or all of the above?

I mean, c’mon, what the hell? Tell me: WHAT? IS? THE? PROBLEM? AND WHY? DO? I? CARE? If you can’t answer those questions, or at least give me a reasonable basis for thinking you’re going to answer them, within a few paragraphs, then do not waste my time.

I could do a blow-by-blow critique, but you’d be just as enlightened, and vastly more entertained, by reading Tom Scocca and Choire Sicca’s dialogue on the subject at The Awl (some language NSFW). This passage gets to the heart of things:

Tom: The Times is not a passive observer of these things. This kind of reporting is a prosecutorial activity. That doesn’t mean the paper is out to get someone. It means that the paper has, through reporting, come to a particular factual conclusion, and it needs to prove that conclusion to the reader.

Tom: It’s a very scrupulous kind of prosecutor.

Choire: That is a useful act.

Tom: The thing about a prosecutorial approach is, it assumes a vigorous defense.

Tom: Is the evidence you’re obtained solid and persuasive, or can someone contest the facts? Are there gaps in your logic that would allow someone to reject your conclusions? Is there exculpatory evidence that you’re overlooking? Would your piece survive the most skeptical and uncharitable reading it could get?

Choire: You mean, basically, someone asking over and over again: why are you writing this?

Tom: Yes. Why are you writing this, and how do you know you’re right?

Tom: That is what the editors’ job is.

Tom: But what the editing at the Times does is it fudges the indictment.

Tom: “We ain’t sayin’ nothin’, we’re just sayin’…”

And this charming conclusion, which illustrates the virtue of cautioning the reader about what you don’t know, and why:

Tom: You have six reporters on this story, and you are just asking the woman to offer evidence herself? Get the [investigative record pertaining to the crime she alleges], or shut the [expletive]  up.

Choire: I’d like to think a parenthetical was cut by the editors there about shoddy police record-expunging.

Tom: I’d like to think I’ve got a homemade ice cream sandwich right here, but I don’t.

As T&C observe, this is as bad, in a number of ways, as the Times’ “expose” of John McCain.

Back in 2003, the blogger Digby codified what came to be called the “Cokie Roberts law,” based on something that pundit had once said about the need for mainstream news organizations to cover even stories they themselves couldn’t document independently: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it’s out there.” To a certain extent there’s some merit to the point, in the sense that if, for example, the National Enquirer claims presidential candidate John Edwards is having an affair, then, yes, mainstream news organizations should look into it.

But truth does matter, legally, morally, intellectually and practically. Therefore, serious news organizations should NOT just publish whatever gossip, unsubstantiated allegations, uncorroborated claims, questionable conclusions and leaps of logic they can come up with on the subject. It means they should find out what the facts are, determine what if anything can be concluded from those facts, and test all that stuff carefully. And then publish, if there’s actually any there there.

In the story of David W. Johnson, there may or may not actually be any there there. That’s the problem: I can’t tell. The Times confused me and it wasted my time doing it. And if I’m this annoyed, I can only imagine how David W. Johnson must feel.

(I’m adding this quote from commenter Karen UhOh, although it doesn’t really define the precise nature of my problem with the article, just because I think it’s funny: “They yelled ‘Fire!’ and delivered fart.”)

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