A burr under the saddle
This comment by Mr. Ross at the “All the noise” post has been a source of minor agitation for the past two days:
...a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts. Like the existence of weapons of mass destruction? A refusal to agree on that kind of fiction would certainly seem to be something to be thankful for. In any case, I am less than convinced about the "discourse" you say people used to seek in newspapers, as almost all news consumers seem to select the sources which most closely reflect their prejudices. Internet is not really different in that way, but it is at least less susceptible to the kind of deliberate distorsion we have come to expect from the Murdochs, Berlusconis and Hearsts of this world. A little grafitti-level discourse is a small price to pay, at worst a nuisance, like spam in your email (and sometimes even spam can be entertaining).
The initial rhetorical question is an allusion to The New York Times, which the comment subsequently equates with the Murdoch and Berlusconi publications. The first thing that irritates me is this leveling, this shrugging that all newspapers are equally biased and unreliable as well as obsolete.
Surely there are distinctions. When the Jayson Blair scandal blew up, the editor of The Times lost his job. The newspaper published its findings in an investigation that I cite each semester in my copy-editing class; the printout runs to 17 pages. When the Jack Kelley scandal hit USA Today, the paper published a front-page account that ran to two full pages inside the section. It would have been a good thing had editors raised more questions about those gentlemen, and if the questions that were raised had been heeded, but it was responsible for the two papers to confront the lapses squarely.
And there are distinctions to be made. There are good reasons that so many people read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, even if they happen to disagree with the editorial positions of the papers. One of those reasons is that the two papers are rigorous in their editing, in their determination to verify the information they publish and to present it in clear and comprehensible English. That the results can fall short of the goal is a given in human experience, but it does not mean that the effort is pointless.
That effort, the struggle by editors, including copy editors, to make it right and make it clear is the second ground of my irritation. There are hundreds and thousands of copy editors still at newspapers and magazines and even some Web sites who are struggling every day to accomplish that feat of making the publication right and making it clear. I have worked alongside such people for nearly 30 years; I know how hard they work, and I know how much they accomplish. That our masters in these three decades have made boneheaded business decisions — for which we have had front-row seats — and that a changing business climate is decimating our ranks does not in any way detract from the effort and the accomplishment.
If you think otherwise, have a look at what you get without editors. I look at some of the offal available on the Web and marvel at the suggestion that the Internet is less given to distortion than the daily press. The writing is not necessarily any better, either.