If You See Kay

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Weapons inspectors David Kay and Stephen D. Meekin dispute a Page One Washington Post story by Barton Gellman about Iraq's nuclear program. Gellman and Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. refute Kay's and Meekin's objections, to the satisfaction of Slate's Jack Shafer. However, they have to do so in other forums, not in the Post itself, and this Shafer doesn't like:

Had Gellman's piece appeared in, say, the Atlantic Monthly, magazine convention would have allowed Gellman to respond directly to Kay and Meekin's protesting letters, and he would have demolished them. To Kay, Gellman might have written, "Thanks so much for taking the time to allege inaccuracies in my story when you declined to speak to me when I was reporting it," before dismantling his argument. Or, had Gellman's piece appeared on the Web, a New York Review of Books-style exchange might have raged on for tens of thousands of words between Gellman and the inspectors or their proxies.

Alas, nearly all daily newspapers follow the rigid and somewhat phony doctrine that they deal in only facts. Under this conceit, as long as a daily newspaper believes it got the facts right and gives the aggrieved some sort of right of reply?as the Post did?it has done its job: no need to comment further in its pages about shades of meaning, interpretation, or context, or to deliver a death blow to the whining subject of one of its stories?nor is it newspaper convention to respond, even if the need were felt. But the Post's decision to run the investigators' letters without response gave some readers the notion that the Post's silence meant it was conceding error on Gellman's part, as Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler notes in his Nov. 9 column.

It's a good point, though I can easily sympathize with a working reporter who doesn't want to exchange "tens of thousands of words" on a web log about a story he's already finished to reasonable satisfaction. Though we all like to point out the blog-broken or -incubated stories the mainstream media picks up, the amount of news bloggers take from newspapers compared to the amount of news newspapers take from blogs is still as the roaring of the ocean to the tooting of a teakettle. And there's a reason for that. But Shafer makes another interesting point about story development:

A newspaper's fealty shouldn't be to decorum or convention but to its readers and to the truth (even though that "just the facts, Ma'am" convention is used in pursuit in of the truth, it can obscure the truth as well). If a newsmaker mentioned prominently in a Page One story insists that the newspaper got the story wrong, that's news! It's an opportunity to get closer to make more phone calls, write another piece, and unmuddy the stream! No matter how laudable their intentions, newspapers shouldn't duck for cover from their critics. Nonpartisan magazines that have reporting standards as high as those of the Washington Post prove every day that a publication is in no danger of degenerating into the wild orgy of an Internet message board just because, from time to time, its reporters reply to critics and newsmakers inside its own pages.

I think the crux here is the newspaper convention that facts and opinion are somehow independent or divisible, and that once the story is written it's all over but (literally) the shoutin'. Not replying to criticisms like Kay's and Meekin's is really the Post's way of saying those criticisms are beneath notice, and the paper's accuracy is assumed. Functional as that position is, it's getting easier all the time for readers to assume exactly the opposite. Needless to say, Reason, which provides ample room for and responses to its critics, remains the gold standard for both fact and opinion.

NEXT: In a Presidential Pissing Contest

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  1. I agree that the distinctions are not concrete, but I think it is still important to maintain a division between places where reporters will attempt to report and those places where everyone knows to expect editorialized content. If we lose the idea of these two separate venues that serve two separate purposes, I am afraid of the resulting lies of ommission.

    If the stated purpose of a front page is to tell the story, then we can have a reasonable expectation that relevant information will be included in the prose. If relevant information is left out, we can take the paper to task for not telling the whole story.

    An editorial, by contrast, is prose dedicated to advancing a position. You should not expect an editorial to include all information, you should only see if the prose supports the author’s position well or badly.

    To have only editorials is to have information presented only by advocates of a policy. The muck of accusation and counter accusation can get thick for a reader to wade through.

    I have always admired the WSJ for keeping the boundary more or less intact. Isn’t there some way we can have a front page that at least attempts to report ‘just the facts’?

  2. Tim,

    I didn’t read your whole item, but I do love that headline.

    Phil

  3. At this point, I don’t think I’d trust Laurie Mylroie if she told me my house was on fire and I smelled smoke.

  4. That is a great headline… the next best one I could come up with was:

    “Oh Kay, Can You See?”

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