Why Oh Why Are We Ruled by These Liars? (Karl Zinsmeister Department)
Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another National Review Edition)

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Gee It's Hot in Here Edition)

John Quiggin writes:

John Quiggin: This Joel Achenbach piece on global warming sceptics... [is] a great instance of how the truth can be told while sticking to the much-criticised rules of journalistic objectivity.... Achenbach reports the scientific evidence on global warming then investigates the "parallel Earth" (his words) of the soi-disant "sceptics". As he says

It is a planet where global warming isn't happening--or, if it is happening, isn't happening because of human beings. Or, if it is happening because of human beings, isn't going to be a big problem. And, even if it is a big problem, we can't realistically do anything about it other than adapt.

Achenbach then proceeds to interview the sceptics, lets them speak for themselves, and lets the readers draw their own conclusion...

I used to think as John Quiggin does. Then I learned better. Now I think as the excellent and incisive John Emerson does:

John Emerson: It was an artfully written piece designed to get past the "balance" censor while still telling the well-informed what's really happening. Thus, everyone gets something. (This kind of writing was called "Aesopian" under the czars. Its better than pure misinformation, but it's far worse than actual honest journalism. It's pretty telling that czarist-era terminology works so well in analyzing contemporary US journalism).

Someone who just skims the first part of the piece will get an entirely different impression than someone who reads it carefully, and most newspaper readers are skimmers. I believe that Jonah Goldberg has already used this article to justify some of his ludicrous claims.

Part of the art of very bad, high-paid journalism is telling the truth in such a way that it won't be understood. The mealy-mouthed choice of the lead is extremely important: "As evidence mounts that humans are causing dangerous changes in Earth's climate, a handful of skeptics are providing some serious blowback". Not directly rebutting false claims in detail is another. Conforming the story to a storyline ("some say.... others say") is another. Just giving sympathetic treatment to a poor guy who lost his grants because his science was no good is misleading.... We've gotten to the frightening place, however, that it's more or less unthinkable that the Times or the Post (much less TV or cable) will write a straightforward unspun piece on global warming....

Many readers will get the wrong impression, and that's no accident. (The Times gets more careless readers than diligent readers, and even the careless readers of the Times are much sharper than the average citizen.) William Goodwin has apparently come to believe that direct, non-Aesopian writing is impossible and undesirable, and that it would be illicit editorializing to write a news story portraying loony disinformation specialists unmistakably as dishonest loons. And Goodwin is also, almost certainly, more thoughtful and better informed than the average citizen. We really are in bad shape.

Another way to look at this is to look for defensive writing in Aschenbach's piece. Where are the places that the author, hoping to ward off accusations of bias, softened what he wrote or changed the emphasis? The first line is obviously one of them, and that's usually the most important line. And the last line of the piece can be properly understood only by a careful, well-informed reader.

Am I saying that Aschenbach should have spelled out his conclusions in direct, unmistakable language? Yes! What problem would there be with that?...

William, neither the lead sentence nor the concluding sentence spelled out the conclusion. It would have been perfectly normal to have done so, in a healthy journalistic environment. Nothing on the first page tells you anything bad about Bill Gray or his ideas....

[You say] Aschenbach shouldn’t be worried about what less-than-careful readers are going to think of global warming after he’s done. Why not? Journalism isn’t Chekhov or Henry James. You don’t let the reader figure out from subtle hints that the narrator is unreliable. You show the reader directly that the narrator is unreliable, by juxtaposing the facts and the falsehoods. that’s what good journalism should be.

But what I’m really saying is that Aschenbach was thinking about the less-than-careful reader. He (or the Times editors) wrote a deliberately mushy article so that the right-wing political commisars wouldn’t get mad. The commissars don’t care what well-informed people think. Bush wins elections with the careless readers...

Can American journalism be saved? I'm beginning to think that the answer is "no." Joel Achenbach is one of the very best relatively young people the Washington Post has writing for it. Mike Allen was one of the Post's very best reporters--he has since jumped to Time. Yet Matthew Yglesias found Mike Allen saying that he, Allen, was not an idiot, that he knew perfectly well, but, as Yglesias put it:

Brad DeLong's Website: April 2005 Archives: [Mike] Allen... said that news writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the 'he said, she said' quality to it, but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story...

This is, when you think about it, an astonishing admission. Allen says that if you are a careful reader, that if you read past the fold to the end of the story, that if you are already sufficiently familiar with the issue to have the relevant background knowledge, then you can tell which of the "he saids" in the first four paragraphs on page 1 before the jump is a lie.

If not, not.

From this, I think two conclusions follow:

  • Unless you have time to read them carefully and completely, searching for Aesopian language, don't read Achenbach or Allen--or other reporters of their ilk. If you are a hasty reader, they're not trying to tell it to you straight. Don't waste your time. Read somebody else who is trying to tell it straight, like http://realclimate.org/ or http://taxpolicycenter.org/.
  • As time passes, reporters trained in the Achenbach/Allen "truthiness for the masses" mold will find themselves losing that audience that looks for information and retaining only that audience that looks for entertainment.

And one question:

As newspapers lose their classified ad business to the web, and as newsmagazines find themselves competing for the internet as well, who will pay for the Post or for Time? The Economist, yes; the Wall Street Journal, yes; the National Journal, yes. But the others?