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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top Ten Things Wrong with "Let's Provide the New York Times With a List of our Top Ten Lies"

The bad Kevin Drum who is a knee jerk defender of the MSM seems to have stolen the good Kevin Drum's password again. Drum beats Brisbane, but feels the need to introduce his endorsement of ohn Quiggin's proposal with a string of Obamanations.

Not in any particular order and I have no idea if I will get to 10.

1 OK this is the howler. Drum endorses Quiggin's proposal that the Times have a list of frequently lied about facts. To introduce this endorsement, he makes an absurd ridiculous attack on that which he is about to do. "Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?" WHAT !!!!! The question is whether the Times should print something. Drum asserts that if we allow reporters to assert something, then we make them the supreme arbiters of truth. He makes many claims of fact in this post. Who made him the supreme arbiter of truth. I ask Drum (and demand an answer) "Do you assert that you, Kevin Drum, are the supreme arbiter of truth or do you admit that you made a totally bogus nonsensical argument ?" I see no third alternative. How the hell did Drum manage to decide that saying it is OK for someone to make a claim of fact is the same as declaring that person the supreme arbiter of truth ? OK really he didn't. But how the hell could a person as intelligent as Kevin Drum write such nonsense ? I am asking for information and actually almost hope that I might get an answer.

2. Setting up a straw man. Drum notes that many of Brisbane's critics were not thrilled when Politifact named the Democrats' claim that Republicans had voted to end Medicare the lie of the year. How can they disagree both with Brisbane and with Politifact ? Drum asserts that Brisbane's critics wrote that political reporters should report that a claim made by a public figure was the lie of the year. There is no other possible justification for his argument. I must have missed that critic of Brisbane. All the criticisms I recall stopped with the proposal that a claim be labeled false. None proposed that political beat reporters should evaluate relative falsehood of falsehoods (the "of the year" part). The comparison is obviously totally invalid.

3. But aside from the "of the year" part, there is also the "lie" part. The vast majority of Brisbane critics (among the dozens whose criticisms I read) argued that political reporters should report that false claims are false. Not all false claims are lies, there are also honest mistakes. To call a statement a lie, one has to make an inference about the beliefs of the person who made that statement. People often think they can do this without reasonable doubt (people are in prison for perjury). But I really don't recall any specific case of a Brisbane critic thinking that a beat political reporter should write that a statement is a lie and therefore state that it wasn't an honest mistake.

4. But aside from the "lie" and the "of the year" parts, some Brisbane critics (at least one him being me) don't think that beat reporters should even write that a claim made by a public figure is false. It is enough to report the documented facts in the public record which would be cited in an effort to prove that the claim is false. If the conclusion is obvious, it would be redundant for a beat political reporter to state it. if it is not obvious, it would be improper editorializing. Say on global warming, if a politician says that there is no consensus on the science, a reporter could look up the survey in which roughly 98.5% of people who have published in the peer reviewed climate literature are reported as saying they believe in anthropogenic global warming (a half assed effort to cite from memory as the preceding would clearly not be acceptable in serious journalism which this blog sure isn't). The reader might conclude that consensus means 100% so the reporter's claim of fact confirms the politicians claim. The reader might note that the reporter just reported the claim by (I don't know who but he or she better get the cite) that there was such a study and also assume that it was fudged.

To me the question asked by Brisbane is whether assertions of fact which meet New York Times standards of reliability (not 100% which is impossible but waaay over 99%) can be made in articles on politics even though they contradict claims made by prominent people.

I can see two sub questions. One is whether they can be reported if they are important enough (aside from evaluating the prominent person who made the contradicted claim) and realiable enough (also including the prominent person's claim as evidence against them) to be reoported in that article. I see no possible justification for deleting a claim from an article, because one learns a prominent person said something which contradicts it and even though the prominent person's claim does not substatially alter the balance of evidence. I am also sure that this would happen (except for the fact that beat political reporters do not report on facts relevant to the political debate except for what candidates and campaigns said and wrote, local color and a few quotes from normal people in the crowd -- the implausible part is that they would report on facts in the public record relevant to the policy debate not that they would delete those facts if reporting them proved a politician's claim false).

The second question is whether a claim of fact which is reliable (even counting the politicians word as some evidence against) should be considred relevant enough to report of it contradicts something the politician said. This is, I think, the real question. I think the answer is that of course it should be reported and it is shocking that Brisbane asked the question.

For the case of Mediscare, I would have no problem if politifact quoted the text of the House budget resolution which describes the voucher program which Republicans name "Medicare." I don't think any Democrats would mind a debate over whether that program is reformed Medicare as Republicans and Politifact argue or a fundamentally different program from Medicare which Republicans chose to name Medicare. I have no problem with reporting facts which tend to undermine the Democrats claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare, because a debate about whether the Republicans so called "Medicare" is or isn't Medicare is a useful debate about reality and proposed policy.

My problem with Politifact (and the part of Politifact that I just love and can't resist) is the pants on fire graphic. Politifact doesn't just report relevant facts. It draws colorful conclusions. I really enjoy that. Hell I skip the rest and just go to the pants on fire posts. But I don't propose that the Grey Lady turn into the orange, yellow and red flaming lady. I'm no sure that this is what anyone at all criticizing Brisbane advocated and I can remember no such advocacy. I think the comparison of what Brisbane's critics recommend and Politifacts pantsing people is a red, orange and yellow herring.

5. Ballance ( (c) Chris Cilizza)"I've sort of ignored the whole kerfuffle because the quality of the conversation on both sides was pretty willfully obtuse, " Drum is free to ignore whatever he wants, but he provides no support for his accusation. For one thing, the false symmetry suggests that there are significant numbers of people on both sides. One the Brisbane side I counted Brisbane and one of n commentors on his post. For another, Drum seems to argue one of three things 1) all contributions before Quiggins were pretty willfully obtuse 2) one should ignore interesting arguments because other people reach the same conclusions via pretty willfully obtuse arguments 3) MSM basher bashing is always right whether or not it has anything to do with reason logic or evidence. I choose box number 3. Look there is no need for Drum to explain why he hasn't already posted on a topic when posting on a topic. why did he go out of his way to insult someone or other ? Yes I know see answer three. Plus you did click "Obamanation" didn't you ?

6. And yet, if you insist on real-time fact checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. What is "real time" ? Drum sees a choice between instant fact checking and quoting without fact checking. He assumes that reporters just must report what candidates said yesterday whether or not they have time to check the facts. Clearly it would be intollerable for readers to not learn what candidates say in "real time." Also "real time" does not mean "in tomorrow's paper." It is computerspeek and has nothing to do with the times of the New York Times. Drum's rule is that it is better to be fast than accurate. I think I am being entirely fair.

7. An omission. Drum passed up a chance to repeat one of his best points. Brisbane argued that it will become harder for political reporters to check facts, because they will be spending almost all of their time on the bus. The assumption is that it is more important to report on a speech from the site (and not a video feed) and to report local color than it is to check claims of fact. As Drum has argued (linking to Chait) there is no justification for this in the age of digital communication. In fact, real time fact checking (really real time) is possible (bloggers do it) but only by people surfing the web.

8. "There's fairly broad agreement that quoting public figures saying something wrong about Subject X in a news story, and then correcting the record on Subject X only in a follow-up fact-checking piece, is a lousy practice. After all, everyone reads the A1 story, but very few people read the A17 fact check. The current system just doesn't work." What is this current system of which you speak ? I agree that would be no good, and I certainly agree that Brisbane asserted that it is the current system. But it isn't. There are page A17 fact checking pieces, but there are many repeatedly made false claims which are never checked in page A17 fact checking pieces. I suppose I should try to find 10 examples of false claims of some importance made with some frequency such that there is no such fact check. But no way will I do the work. The way to do it is to look at non MSM fact checkers noting things such as Al Gore never claimed he invented the internet and such like, then look for the MSM page A17 articles noting the same facts. In my heart, I am sure that many false claims are not corrected even on page A17. Brisbane suggests that there is ample fact checking, just not in the same article in which the claim is reported. I don't agree. He presented no evidence. You present no evidence. The very clearly implied assertion that there is a debate about the location but not the amount of fact checking is highly controversial and completely unsupported by evidence. To be fair, I admit that I didn't bother to do the huge amount of work to support the competing claim which I made based on my heart.

9. The repeated presentation of the Politifact pants on fire graphic strongly suggests that this is what Brisbane's critics demand. I can recall no basis at all for this insinuation. Yes this is objections 2, 3 and 4 warmed over. It is hard to get to 10.

10. Why the hell did you type 10 ? If you had typed 9, I would be done by now. If you had typed 8, I would still have a shred of dignity.

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