This is a piece I wrote about the importance of media outlets sharing the raw data on which their articles are based, as they do with prose (e.g., FOIAed documents) with increasing frequency. →
Pete Stark, a twenty (!) term Democrat from San Francisco, accused a San Francisco Chronicle reporter of contributing to one of his opponents. This took place while he was being videotaped, in the Chronicle’s offices. The reporter, who was in the room, said that wasn’t true. Then he said that he’d gotten the name wrong, and provided another name, the name of somebody who doesn’t work for the paper. This shortly after he accused his primary challenger of taking enormous bribes, another charge that he couldn’t prove, and wound up apologizing for. Watching the video, I think that a reasonable person would have to conclude that the 80-year-old Stark is experiencing the symptoms of dementia. His family and staff would do well to encourage him to retire from politics. →
In January, the always-excellent “This American Life” had a really stunning episode turned over almost entirely to an excerpt of a monologue by Mike Daisey, about working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese company that manufactures products for Apple, among other companies. Daisey actually went to China, to the factory, and interviewed people about what it was like to work for Foxconn. What he learned was really bad—it made both Apple and Foxconn look just awful. Marketplace’s China correspondent found that the story just didn’t jibe with his own knowledge, so he investigated Daisey’s reporting, tracking down Daisey’s interpreter. It turns out Daisey lied. A lot. About crucial facts. Daisey’s defense? “It’s not journalism, it’s theater.” Lame. →
From the AP: “The White House organized a conference call with two senior administration officials to preview an announcement by President Barack Obama about an important China trade issue but told reporters that no one could be quoted by name. The officials were U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman.” This business of senior White House officials holding on-the-record but anonymous meetings with media outlets is very weird. It’s been going on since at least the Clinton administration. You’ve got to be impressed with reporter Richard Lardner for bucking tradition and naming names. →
Further to this happy trend of media outlets pointing out when the subject of their coverage is lying comes a piece by Lucy Madison, writing for CBS News, regarding Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke: “In her testimony, Fluke largely discussed the high cost of contraception and the important medical benefits it can offer women. She did not make any comments suggesting she is advocating for contraceptive care coverage because she is ‘having so much sex,’ as Limbaugh suggested in earlier remarks, or because she wants to ‘have sex without consequences.'” I wish this were at the head of the story, rather than towards the end, but it’s a good start. →
Good for the New York Times’ Justin Gillis and Leslie Kaufman for this passage in a story about the leaked Heartland Institute documents detailed their plans to discredit science teachers: “Heartland’s latest idea, the documents say, is a plan to create a curriculum for public schools intended to cast doubt on mainstream climate science and budgeted at $200,000 this year. The curriculum would claim, for instance, that ‘whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.’ It is in fact not a scientific controversy. The vast majority of climate scientists say that emissions generated by humans are changing the climate and putting the planet at long-term risk, although they are uncertain about the exact magnitude of that risk.” →
I have recently been lamenting the media’s habit of allowing subjects’ false statements to stand, without challenge. This morning I spotted a great example of the right way to handle this, in a story about Mitt Romney from the AP’s Kasie Hunt: “‘I will never apologize for America,’ Romney says often—suggesting that Obama has done just that, even though the president hasn’t.” Simple and to the point. →
Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” the PRI show carried by NPR affiliates across the country, has long struck me as a bit of a parody of NPR. The name, for starters. I can’t remember the names of any of the faux NPR stations in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” but they’re all names exactly like “To the Point,” created by some sort of random NPR show name generator. But the problem is more how Olney hosts the show. He regards himself as a referee, rather than a host.* He’ll get a pair of guests, one on each side of an issue, and have them take turns talking. So if the topic is global climate change, he’ll have a climate scientist and an Exxon-funded lobbyist debate its reality. The lobbyist will say “climate change doesn’t exist, and there’s no evidence that it does,” and the scientist will say “actually, there’s really no question about it at this point,” and Olney simply has them take turns talking. No common ground is found between the guests; or, if it is, Olney really can’t take any credit. (Olney got in trouble for doing this in particularly awful form a couple of months ago, when he let an anti-gay bigot make hateful, outlandish claims and never once called him on it.)
Compare this to Diane Rehm. When she’s being bullshitted by a guest, she doesn’t just turn to another guest and say “John, what’s your take?” She says “Sara, what you’re saying isn’t true, you have to know it’s not true, don’t you?”
Olney had a pair of guests on a couple of years ago, and the exchange that they had was so extraordinary that I’ve been telling people about it ever since. One of the guests looked like an idiot, but Olney was the worst for the exchange—he came off looking like a buffoon for his unwillingness to acknowledge that his guest was a huckster.
On the January 1, 2010 episode of the show, the featured topic was Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I’m a fan of Ehrenreich’s work, and she used to live in Charlottesville, so I tuned in while I was driving somewhere or another. Ehrenreich’s thesis was that a lack of critical thinking was part of what led to the collapse of Countrywide and companies like it, touching off the recession. That the people who advance and do well in those businesses were the people saying “nothing can go wrong with bundling sub-prime mortgages,” not the people saying “I think this is a bad idea, because it could end disastrously.” Olney had a few different guests on the show alongside Ehrenreich, and one of them was John Assaraf.
I’d never heard of John Assaraf before, but a mere glance at his website makes obvious that he’s a shyster. He’s in the business of taking money from suckers by selling them the message that they simply need to imagine themselves rich, and then they will be rich. Of course, somebody listening to the show wouldn’t know this about the guy. They’d only know that he’s a “business growth expert and motivational speaker,” as Olney introduced him.
What Assaraf says is stunning enough, but it’s Ehrenreich’s surprising reveal in her response that led me to exclaim “oh damn!” to my radio while listening. I’ve trimmed this interview down to the illustrative bits, 2:18 in length:
For those who want to hear the entire, unedited portion of the show that includes Assaraf, here it is, 7:05 in length:
So Assaraf spends a minute making outlandish, utterly unsupportable medical claims, with absolutely no education or experience that would allow him to evaluate them—sheer bullshit—all about how disease can be stopped on a cellular level by thinking happy thoughts, and that’s when we discover that Ehrenreich has a doctorate in cellular immunology. Who saw that coming? Nobody! Nobody could have! It’s astounding! But you know who doesn’t care? Olney. Not in the least. He continues his “so what’s your response?” back-and-forth between the two, never acknowledging that Assaraf has been hopelessly owned by Ehrenreich, or that Olney or his producer have erred enormously in matching up a motivational speaker with a cellular immunologist to debate cellular immunology. Olney, presumably not having just fallen off the turnip truck, surely knew he was being bullshitted by Assaraf and that, by extension, his listeners were being bullshitted by Assaraf. But instead he followed his lousy script where he just has two people say their piece, and lets the listeners sort out who they agree with. But that requires honest actors, it requires evenly matched debaters, and it requires that the topic be something on which intelligent minds may disagree. This was not such a topic.
This is what’s wrong with journalism. Right here. Earlier this month, the New York Times‘ public editor publicly pondered whether the paper should point out when interview subjects are lying. The response was swift and vocal that, yes, that’s precisely the purpose of journalism.
It’s not just Olney, of course. This approach is standard, on NPR and elsewhere. I’m not holding him to a higher standard, I just found this incident to be so laughable, so egregious, that I’ve been telling people about it for the past couple of years. Incidents like this highlight why this approach isn’t just bad, but fundamentally dishonest. It allows dopes like Assaraf to stay in business, and surely makes people like Ehrenreich wonder what the point of a doctorate is if it doesn’t make her more of an expert in the field than some random person and why she should bother to be a guest on such shows again. Impartiality is great, but when a journalist is providing a forum for a liar to peddle his wares, it’s time for him to do his job and start ferreting out some truth.
* On reflection, this is not entirely fair to referees. Imagine if, in a game of tennis, Player A called a foul on Player B and, in response, the referee simply asked Player B if he thought he was guilty? My wife suggests that, in this tennis analogy, Olney’s self-assigned role is simply to act as the net. ↩
The 71-year-old paper isn’t convinced that endorsements mean much anymore, and are worried that the practice gives the appearance of bias in their coverage of politics. So they’re giving it up. I wonder if this is the beginning of a trend, or of the Sun-Times will stand alone? →
The Times’ public editor is asking, in the form of a blog entry, whether the media should be in the habit of pointing out when a subject is lying. That is, a politician says that black is white, should the reporter covering it point out that, in fact, black is black? It’s shameful that this question even needs to be asked. Websites like Richmond Sunlight are in the business of reporting straight-up facts. That has value, no doubt. But the job of media outlets is to take that information, review it, interpret it, package it up, and provide that to readers, to help them to understand the world around them. And the Times is wondering if it’s necessary to point out when their facts are wrong? Yes, yes it is necessary. Get on it, Times. →