THE BLOG
03/04/2008 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When Dumb Articles Happen to Smart Newspapers

Thursday I posted a little exercise in pattern recognition at the New York Times. Today I am back with the answers I received, plus some commentary on the Washington Post's "women are dumb" article, which fits the pattern in some ways.

Here are three "vetting" stories that went awry at the New York Times: Obama's youthful drug use (Feb. 9). Hillary's marriage as Topic A among prominent Democrats (from May, 2006.) And of course McCain's friendship with a lobbyist. (Feb. 21. I wrote about it here, and here.)

Each story left people scratching their heads: what were the editors thinking? Each was part of the "vetting" ritual in which the press imagines itself asking the hard questions of politicians who actually could be president. As Time's Michael Scherer wrote, each is "a story that doesn't exactly say what it is saying, or only says part of what the reporters seem to believe, or seems to be saying something it is not."

What is going on here? Where's the pattern, if there is one? My plea ran at PressThink, the Huff Post, and the Letters column at Romenesko, the news trade's online gathering place. Brad "Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps" DeLong also ran with it.

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The best answer I got was at Romenesko's Letters. It's from a former newspaper journalist, Larry Kart.

The common thread here, and the main reason for the bizarreness, is that the real subject of all these stories is the Times itself, [the] image the Times thinks it's creating or would like to create for itself when it runs an ostensibly major story about a subject that is or will become of common interest.

I agree with this. The glitches in editing have to do with self-image at the Times.

The same is true of many other broken-backed stories in the Times and a host of other papers since, probably, the mid 1970s or early 1980s. At least that's the time when I began to see that sort of stuff in action at the paper where I used to work. A particularly revealing early warning sign was when that paper, with a long tradition of rock-ribbed Republicanism, began to seach for some attractive, young, fairly liberal candidates for local offices that it could endorse, while it never dreamed of endorsing (and hasn't done so to this date, I believe) a non-Republican for president, governor, or senator. It slowly occurred to me that these seemingly against-the-grain local endorsements were in effect advertisements for the paper, a way of signaling to a body of potential readers that the paper very much wanted and needed to attract that the paper was an attractively against-the-grain enterprise, a place of supple independent thought rather than a stern grandfatherly GOP bastion.

...an "attractively against-the-grain enterprise." That is dead on.

...The Times is dancing in front of a mirror here, trying to move in ways that telegraph to a somewhat imaginary audience that it is a truly supple paper -- iconoclastic toward its own perceived liberal image (if the "facts" of a story require that it be so) and certainly capable of seeing all sides of all issues. Thus these Times stories were mis-conceived and mis-edited so as to incorporate and express the paper's own image-shaping needs; and the "facts," such as they were, were pushed about one way and another toward the end. The paper is not so much a paper anymore; it is itself a candidate.

And here's a poll showing how that candidate is doing. (High negatives.)

"To provoke, but not to offend."

"Iconoclastic toward its own perceived liberal image." That, I think, was the variety of mischief afoot at the Outlook Section of Washington Post Sunday when it published We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?-- a dubious essay by a dim woman about how dumb most women really are. This was a deeply foolish act of publishing. Yesterday, the editor responsible, John Pomfret, told Laura Rozen that he "ran Charlotte Allen's piece to provoke, but not to offend." But if that were the case, he would not have chosen as provocateur a political opponent of the people who needed to be poked.

Let's provoke people by suggesting that women really are dumb is supposed to scan iconoclastic. I mean, what other logic could it have? If the Post is willing to smash idols that big--women's equality--it must be a pretty broad-minded place... right? This is not only a crude, formulaic way of demonstrating independence of mind; it misreads the cultural politics of the thing.

Thus, Glenn Reynolds demurred, Ed Morrissey fled in disbelief, Jessica Valenti and Jezebel seethed on behalf of millions who might, Jay Newton-Small of Time found the editors judgment "unbelievable," Jane Hamsher gave a shout out to Posties: "clue me in to what happened here," and the Post ombudsman started scribbling notes with an angry look on her face. (Our own Rachel Sklar has more. And Lisa Schiffren at National Review is not impressed.)

John Pomfret, you misread. But what did you misread? Good provocations do not begin with an intention to provoke, but with an author who has something real to say, and an editor willing to provoke in order to see that it gets said.

Find something on everyone

"Candidates create narratives of themselves, which are almost necessarily not wholly accurate portrayals of themselves, " writes Christopher Colaninno at Brad Delong's blog. "I think the media gets tripped up when they can establish that candidates narratives are not accurate in someway."

Because what could be bad about that, right? "They're committed to the process of anti-veneration and creating an alternative narrative for these political figures, but they don't actually have the goods. So they write these half-baked stories, not realizing that they're narrative is a lot easier balloon to pop then what any of the candidates have put out there."

Anti-veneration is not a guarantor of truth but an invitation to truthiness.

At the Huffington Post, tdbach spake: "I think the Times has undertaken this project, if you will, to demonstrate their fair-and-balanced bonafides... rather than really dig deep and unearth God knows what, where one candidate may end up with a much bigger scandal to deal with than other candidates will (and thus appear to be out to get him or her) they float a vaguely suspicious story on each, and each story is comparably weightless but apparently critical.... You're the journalism professional, not me. Does that make sense?"

The pressure to "find something" on everyone? Yeah, makes sense. Could be a factor. Times people would say no, I'm sure. But let me show you something...

The candidates with the biggest noses

The Washington Post has this nifty "truth squad" feature called The Fact Checker. It's Michael Dobbs putting questionable campaign claims to the test. The Post is bold: it has a scale for falsehood-peddling: one to four Pinocchios. (Two for "significant omissions and/or exaggerations.") If you want a press that calls bullsh*t on claims that are bullsh*t, then you have to like the Pinocchios, and the fact that a Post journalist stands behind them: reporter Michael Dobbs. Way to go Post!

Now try to find at The Fact Checker a chart, tab, feature or widget listing who's ahead in total Pinnocchios. This would tell us which campaigns the Post has thought to penalize for being loosest with the facts. I couldn't find such a running total anywhere. Can you? If you've got the information, but you're not displaying it that way--the candidate with the biggest nose--some of your more attentive readers might think you don't want to advertise any imbalanced results, even when they emerge from a fair-minded procedure. There's a politics to that decision that remains undisclosed.

Howard Kurtz is concerned about hostillity to Hillary in the press. Let me ask him: Has the Post's Pinnochio test shown her with a bigger nose than Obama in the aggregate this year? Or is he ahead in bad truth claims? Do you know why I can't find out from the Fact Checker home page, but I can read about the top ten fibs of the year, which is more entertaining but less important? Please advise.

Newsroom cuts are responsible

In Long Winter for the Media, Jim Hoagland, columnist for the same Post, tries to explain what happened with the McCain story, which he called a "seriously undersourced account."

What effect did a string of well-publicized, morale-damaging crises in the newsroom, as well as the industry's darkening economic skies, have on the decision to print before the story was ready?

Good editors protect their staffs as fiercely as they prod and push them. Awarding prime front-page display to stories with heavy investments of sweat and resources is an important tool in lifting morale. The decision might have looked less urgent in a more confident, more settled newsroom.

Here's what he's saying: Used to be that lots of good reporting never made it into the (expensive!) newspaper, and editors kept everyone in line that way. Now in a new economy there is pressure on the editors to run the story if a lot of (expensive!) staff time has already been invested. It's morale-sapping, as well as a sign of an investment gone bad, to have to conclude: sorry, people, we just haven't got it. Maybe that explains how an under-sourced story got through.

I did like Matt Welch's exasperated reply to Hoagland: "How 'bout just doing a better job next time?"

Absence of a finding

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings over at Delong's joint: "I actually liked the Obama drug use piece, except for the 'did he exaggerate?' bits, which were silly. But the actual information the reporter came up with was quite interesting. I think they should have had the guts to just report it straight -- it's interesting the way scientific studies that fail to find an effect can be, and I suspect people have the same kind of reluctance to just report the absence of a finding straight."

Could be. "We checked into his drug use and didn't find much..." does not reflect back to Times-people their ideological suppleness or intent to vet. "Maybe he exaggerated" does. Or what Hoagland said: There's a kind of silent economic pressure to run the story whether you found anything or not.

A few other reactions:

* Marilyn Ferdinand "This "vetting" may seem to reveal skeletons in the closet, but what what it really seems to reveal to me is that the NYT editors are Freudians looking for keys to character."

* Weldon Berger: "I don't think there's an institutional link between the three stories other than that the people who run the paper live in an alternate reality from most people."

* Benjamin Melançon: "All three 'tough-on-the-candidates' pieces, driven by the New York Times' own choices and research rather than breaking events, have in common a great lack. Each goes out of its way to turn something arguably tangential to being president into a character issue."

"It's not hard to recover from a mistake," writes Laura Rozen today, reacting to my post. "It takes just a small dose of humility and sense of accountability and frankly good business sense." Well, yes. But when the mistake involves the peculiar style of misguided contrarianism I've talked about here, fixing it becomes a complicated dance with the newsroom's self-image as a fighter for truth beyond faction.