Do Butterflies Have Stronger Wings?

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For those looking for a blow-by-blow deconstruction of Newsweek's peculiar sourcing in the Koran Flusher story, Jay Rosen's your man.

As is my annoying habit, I'd like to pull out one of Rosen's side claims:

Under these conditions, it is imperative that journalists in the United States raise their standards for reliability, because the consequences of being wrong–for themselves, for their profession as a whole, and for others far removed–are graver.

Italics his. I agree with the first part, and who wouldn't, even though I'd also throw in my crude guess that if you had some way to measure reliability, the dominant media (large dailies, newsweeklies, evening newscasts) would be shown to have slightly increased said reliability bit by bit over time, even though their public reputation has taken a battering. And though "the consequences of being wrong" are indeed greater for themselves, largely because it's thankfully so easy for them to get caught and shamed, I'm not convinced that the consequences are greater "for others far removed."

It would seem to me common sense that when you eliminate scarcity in media, the potential impact of individual news items decreases, despite the greater possibility for global distribution. Every day there are tens of thousands of reports on National Security matters alone—including previous articles on Koran-flushing—that quickly sink down the memory hole. It is a frequent complaint of reporters, and of regulationists like Ralph Nader, that investigations and gory eyewitness reporting lead nowhere, in terms of response. Or maybe the average & median impact of a given story has been drastically reduced, but the set-up of a worldwide distribution channel, plus the magic of network effects, has created vastly greater kinetic potential for a few isolated reports to shoot like an electric current through the world's consciousness. Anyway, I'd be curious to hear what the rest of you think.

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  1. I’m going to repost something that I put in another thread, because it goes to the issue of fact-checking and reliability:

    The MSM is being bashed for allegedly not doing enough fact-checking before going public with the Koran-flushing story. Fair enough, but let me ask the bloggers this question: How would a blogger handle it?

    Since most bloggers don’t have the same extensive contacts and army of reporters and interns and fact checkers as a typical major news magazine, I always understood that the blogosphere relies on “distributed expertise”: A story starts to circulate, and as it circulates more and more people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise weigh in on it.

    That’s certainly how Dan Rather’s memos were revealed as fakes. It wasn’t any single source that persuaded me (indeed, there were a few supposedly knowledgeable people who initially said that the right kinds of typewriters were available in the 1970’s). It was the sheer volume of evidence: Such typewriters, though available, were rare; no typewriter had the same combination of features; it was a perfect match to Microsoft Word; it didn’t use appropriate military jargon; etc.

    So my understanding is that the blogosphere’s way of operating is not to sit on stories. Rather, it’s to let information circulate and be exposed to analysis by many different people.

    Anyway, the point in all of this is that, as I understand, the blogosphere’s approach to this story would have been to let it circulate just as Newsweek did. The provocative nature of the claim suggests that it would have circulated quite widely in some circles. Some angry guy in South Asia still could have picked up on the story and started telling people, local newspapers could have then run with it, and the whole sordid affair could have unfolded in the same way.

    I don’t know that the blogosphere approach to reporting would be any more responsible than the approach of consulting a few government sources to verify. It would still get out.

  2. Bloggers are like the crazy-looking men standing on street corners, shouting at whoever will listen. Their screeds may contain more than a kernel or two of truth, but the rest is partisan rants and personal spin-doctoring. Most passersby simply ignore them, or listen for a sentence or two before dismissing them, but a select few will stick around to hear what these self-proclaimed prophets have to say.

    MSM’ers are the ones who control the PA systems mounted on poles all over town. When they speak, everyone hears them at once, and assumes based on the authority projected by their immense network of speakers that what they say holds more truth to it.

    I do like the “open-source” evolution of news stories as circulated through the multiple filtration systems of web logs, but I’m not ready to cede total credibility to any of them. Weblogs are personal soapboxes for expressing opinions on the events of the day, sometimes presented as “objective” reporting. And the old saying about opinions has never been more appropriate.

  3. Weblogs are personal soapboxes for expressing opinions on the events of the day, sometimes presented as “objective” reporting. And the old saying about opinions has never been more appropriate.

    While I’ve no doubt that there are blogs out there that claim to be impartial, you, me, and everyone else realizes this is patent bullshit. The nice thing about (most) bloggers is that they don’t buy into the impartiality crap, and therefore are less likely to get testy when you call them on their bullshit.

    I worked at a television station doing news broadcasts and hung out with a fair amount of reporters. They all claim to be impartial, and refuse to even entertain the thought that mainstream nooze can be biased. Damn near like talking to a cult member when it comes to that topic.

  4. mediageek,

    I think it’s hard for anyone, especially journalists, to admit that their take on the world isn’t tarnished by some personal bias. Your experience at the television station is an excellent example of that.

    I don’t get offended when Drudge admits he is a conservative, or when Arianna Huffington or Al Franken deliberately help to establish a leftist counterbalance to what they view as a right-leaning mainstream media. As long as they are willing to admit that the “news” they all present is being done from the viewpoint of a liberal or conservative, I know what to expect going in. To me, that is perfectly acceptable, because from between the two sides of the table I may come closer to finding the truth. Call it “factual triangulation,” if you will.

    If only more news sources were willing to come forth and admit their particular affiliations, instead of insisting beyond the breaking point of credibility that they’re just about the facts. Mother Jones and National Review seem to be doing well enough despite wearing their partisan colors on their sleeves.

  5. They all claim to be impartial, and refuse to even entertain the thought that mainstream nooze can be biased.

    What do you expect? Some conservatives paint the NYT and Newsweek as worse than Pravda. Compared to the completely biased, absurdly partisan attacks on the MSM(tm) they *are* reasonably impartial. Take a look at some of the comments on the previous Koran thread and see the bile spewed over Newsweek. Some critics are completely disconnected from reality.

  6. What do you expect? Some conservatives paint the NYT and Newsweek as worse than Pravda. Compared to the completely biased, absurdly partisan attacks on the MSM(tm) they *are* reasonably impartial.

    This simply fails the “smell test”. The MSM has claimed to be nonpartisan for a long time; it has also had a leftist bias for a long time. Both of these predate conservative attacks.

    Back when Walter Cronkite was reporting from Hue (Tet ’68), sounds of heavy fighting was dubbed into the soundtrack, as a Marine officier reported to Cronkite that the fighting was almost over and limited to small pockets of surviving NVA. At the time, Cronkite was well respected (although a lot of Marines who were at Hue haven’t repected him since, oh, ’68), but that kind of crap wears out your repect as time goes by. And that’s what happened to the MSM in general: it’s their damn fault for leaning left.

    Now, I think the MSM has attempted to be nonpartisan; I just don’t think they are up to it, and given their clout (now fading), even minor left wing tilt can significantly shade events.

  7. Maybe if CBS acquires Newsweek, it would save their critics a lot of effort.

  8. Let’s face it, most bloggers suck information out of their fingers, to use an old Polish expression. Growing legions are scientifically illiterate and ready to believe anything. From politics to health, evidence is an alien concept. What matters is whether the results of a study or a news report or just a rumor fits a cherished set of beliefs. If it does, it must be true. If it doesn’t, the government or some other evil force is trying to suppress the truth.

  9. I don’t think that the reliability of the MSM is really the issue. It’s their selectivity. A good part of the reason for the Newsweek flap is that it is so rare for a professional journalist to be shown to have their facts wrong. But anyone who studied debate in high school knows that a perfectly accurate set of facts can be marshaled to support either side of most any argument. The “war or terror” is a case in point: Is it a good thing or a bad thing? That is certainly debatable, but it would seem that the MSM can only report facts supporting one side of the argument.

  10. Getting back to Matt’s post, I think the key element here is the supposed reliability of Newsweek (and other MSMs) as a source of “solid” news combined with the White House’s marshaling of its conservative allies some selectively worded denouncements from on high.

    In other words, yes, the blogs might circulate this bit of salacious news, and it might even stir up some riots, but blogs have a tarnished reputability image to begin with. They’re oh-and-two already, Drudge and Rathergate included. Newsweek’s supposed to be above that, and when they fucked up, the White House pounced because it was a win-win for the Administration.

    Consider the forged Dan Rather documents: the White House never denied the content of the memos, just their origin, and even then, the denials only arrived when the blogs began pointing out the inconsistencies and the larger media outlets began reporting them. Likewise, the White House demanded Newsweek’s retraction because its source caved. I’ve yet to hear the White House or the Pentagon categorically deny the substance of the charge. Rather, they deny that some papered-up report lists the charge as one it is investigating. “Cover your ass” never worked on so many levels!

    Well, whatever. The final proof of Reason’s basic logic that the media is growing more diverse rather than consolidating is that the mainstream media has been relentless in covering the fuck-up of one of its own, as well as the CBS imbroglio and the New York Times’ mess, and so on. This, Matt, is one more tic mark in proof of (and in favor of) a variegated press corps and its contribution to our culture.

    That said, I still wish the press was asking harder questions and digging far, far deeper. If we the public are passive and short-memory spanned, that’s our problem, to be sure. But I’m not convinced the press is going the full mile to begin with.

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