Friday, February 20, 2009

Steady As She Goes, Andy

Image credit: The Franklin Institute

Updated at 10:35PM PST

For a while, after the departure of the much celebrated Deborah "Lil Debbie" Howell, some among us were afraid that journalistic standards might be enforced by the next ombudsman of the Washington Post. Perhaps one of the best summations of the problem with Howell, and her role at the WaPo, was written by Jane Hamsher back in 2006, when many of us were trying to get the paper to correct an obviously false story about Jack Abramoff and the Indian tribes he was fleecing:

Somebody much more intelligent than Lil' Debbie obviously held her hand and put up some charts for her showing Democrats took money from the Indian tribes, listing Patrick Kennedy as one of the largest recipients. As they well know from their own reporting, Kennedy had a relationship with the tribes that predated the appearance of Abramoff. Do they have any evidence to support that Abramoff's "lists" were not somehow taking into account donations that the tribes themselves insisted on covering? Have they interviewed anyone at the tribes to see what their involvement was, were they the ones that demanded that Kennedy be included? We'll never know, at least not from the Post, because it clearly does not serve their purposes to ask these questions.

Somebody from the WaPo: please, please go check out Wampum. They are so far ahead of you on this one you should have the good sense to be embarrassed.

The propaganda assistance rendered to the White House and the GOP by such obfuscation is immeasurable. By pointing to carefully chosen "facts" which may be technically true (people like Kennedy did take money from the Indian tribes) without placing it in the proper context has lead to polling results that must have Ken Mehlman doing the lambada. According to the latest Diageo/Hotline Poll, a plurality of voters now do not associate Abramoff with any political party (PDF). That is just a remarkable achievement, considering everyone involved in this little wool-pulling scam -- with the exception of Lil' Debbie, of course, whom we assume is just too stupid -- knows that Abramoff was nothing but a bag man for the GOP.

WaPo You’ve Outdone Yourself

[links from original. My guess is that some don't work, but I didn't check. The Wampum link just leads to the blog address of that time. Please post any updates in comments.]

FDL was on them like a tick on a dog's back. Taylor Marsh was running a blog called Open Letter To The Washington Post, which administered almost daily brow beatings about its inaccuracy. Wampum and Think Progress, among others, were way ahead of them. The comments pages at the online WaPo were inundated with complaints and criticisms. Yet Lil' Debbie withstood all that, and kept her job. From this, you can only conclude that her employers felt she served them well.

Cynics among us noted that the same people who hired Howell hired her successor, Andy Alexander. Well, I know I did, anyway. I, and anyone cynical enough to agree with me, assumed things weren't going to change one bit.

Anyone who is still in doubt needs to read this article by Hilzoy at Washington Monthly, regarding Alexander's response to numerous complaints about George Will's preposterous column on climate change in last Sunday's WaPo:

Until I read this, I had been under the impression that newspapers didn't do as much fact-checking as magazines, because of deadline pressure; and I had imagined that the inaccuracies in George Will's column might result from applying standards designed for reported stories to columns. But on reading that Will's column had been subjected to a "multi-layer editing process", and that this "process" had checked the facts "to the fullest extent possible", I realized that I had been wrong. Naturally, I clicked the link Mr. Alexander provided, and read it. Did he? I don't know what would be worse: that he did, and takes it to support Will, or that he didn't take his job seriously enough to bother.

The Washington Post's "Multi-Layer Editing Process"

(h/t Dana Hunter)

(Hilzoy's article is well worth a read, by the way. It points out the sort of quote mining that is often used to justify climate change denialism.)

It doesn't matter what Alexander's motivation is, does it? From an organizational perspective, Alexander has found his niche. What the Washington Post expects of its ombudsman is to be the human equivalent of voice mail or those "webmaster@" e-mail addresses. He's an obstacle put in place to frustrate anyone trying to get the newspaper to correct itself when it quite clearly doesn't want to be corrected. Howell played that role admirably, and it appears that Alexander will be a worthy successor.

UPDATE: Apparently, I missed this article on my first pass through Pharyngula today. It's written by Carl Zimmer, a science writer who publishes in the New York Times, among other publications. Here is his description of how the fact checking by the WaPo should have gone:

If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.

The Sea Ice Affair, Continued

This article is also worth reading, because it provides some insights into both the sea ice phenomenon, as well as how science articles are fact checked by serious publications.

It's hard to imagine that a science writer could get away with such a badly-researched piece, or even a sports writer. But political columnists write utter tripe on a daily basis and no one seems to think anything of it.


Dana Hunter said...

He's certainly keeping the tradition of failed fact-checking alive, innit he?

I seem to remember a time when the national newspapers were expected to get their facts right, correct errors when they failed horribly, and in general engage in a little something we used to call journalism. Apparently, that was a mere aberration. If we pressed, I'd imagine they'd say they're just correcting reality's well-known liberal bias, because they're supposed to be fair and balanced. Or something.

I wonder if today's captcha had Andrew in mind? It seems to find his fact-checking a bit "fisha."

Cujo359 said...

There are times I think that captcha is chosen by some of Google's content analysis software.

We seem to be back to the days when the news told us the story that the management wanted us to see. It was nice while it lasted, but I'm beginning to wonder if the era of serious commercial journalism has reached its end.