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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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:25 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

And the acknowledgment of errors is not any better. "Oh that? That's yesterday's news. We're only concerned with what's new today."

I'm enormously flattered that Mr McImtyre should dedicate an entire post to a comment of mine, so I must respond. And in fairness to his other followers I'll warn that this response will be longish, so if anyone finds my ramblings irritating, they would probably be better off reading another post or listening to the next day's joke.

John, you're putting words in my mouth (and so illustrating my point, I'd say). You probably think you are interpreting my ideas accurately but you aren't, and if you do that with me, a more-or-less harmless blog commenter speaking more-or-less the same language as you on more-or-less the same level of polite exchange of opinions, it isn't really surprising that the press distorts the truth as found in circumstances remote to it. To whit:
- My comment had nothing to do with the NY Times, but with your idea that arriving at agreed-upon facts is generally desirable. It often is not, particularly when the people doing the arriving represent and are addressing a specific social group, such as white middle-class college-educated Americans (not that I have anything against anyone corresponding to any combination of those characteristics).
- I only chose to highlight press-baron manipulation of the truth under the apparently mistaken apprehension that the existence of that kind of distortion of the facts was a generally accepted phenomenon. It is far from the only way the press misrepresents things.
- I don't believe and I haven't suggested that "all newspapers are equally biased and unreliable as well as obsolete." I value my daily paper and would greatly miss it. I am, however, aware of its shortcomings (one of which is precisely that it is written by and for people like me, and that I usually think it less biased and more reliable than other papers. I can't be right all the time).
- And I did not say that "the Internet was less given to distortion than the daily press," indeed I said in so many words that it was "not really different in that way."

None of the foregoing is a criticism of the work, dedication, skill, craft, honesty or anything else of copy editors or any other profession, but however hard people like yourself may honourably try to eliminate it or reduce it to a minimum, bias is inherent to the printed press for lots of reasons, including some which are not generally applicable to the Internet. Such bias-inducing factors include the ownership structure of the press (and its essentially capitalist nature), and its limited public (what's the proportion of newspaper readers in the population as a whole - five, ten per cent?). Huge numbers of people are simply not reached by the newspapers. How many twenty-year-olds not studying journalism read a newspaper regularly? Or the elderly, who find television or the radio more accessible as a news source, and so on, without taking socioeconomics or cultural factors into account. These groups are not catered for properly by newspapers, perhaps because they are not consumers and it would be commercial idiocy on the part of newspapers if they were to dedicate more resources to such groups than they were worth. The press, then, exists in a certain isolation, not conducive to objectivity, however hard you may strive for it.

It is good of Mr. Ross to explain his views in greater detail, and I apologize for any misconstruction of them in my post.

Of course, once he alluded to "weapons of mass destruction," anyone in the business would immediately think of Judith Miller's suspect reporting in The New York Times.

But we are in perfect agreement that newspapers are written for an educated middle class, which has been their prime audience since the 18th century.

And since we understand that the way people speak and write betrays their educational and cultural backgrounds, it comes as no surprise that the bias of such viewpoints can be discerned in what is published.

And I must therefore also be in agreement that the same biases of viewpoint can be identified in texts on the Internet.

But I continue to take issue with the contention that there is no difference between the two. I applaud that the Internet has given a voice to multitudes who were previously unheard. But there is still this: On the Internet I find all manner of rumor masquerading as established fact, of unsupported assertion, of crackpot views, of outright fraud. The thing that my colleagues at daily newspapers offer is a sincere and earnest effort to verify the accuracy of what we publish. You cannot necessarily count on that elsewhere.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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