Books, culture, fishing, and other games

October 11, 2004

Show your work!

Beldar's post on "The blogging mindset and the compulsion to "show your work" " got me thinking.

One of the things I love about this medium is the ease of and, perhaps as a result, the proliferation of, hyperlinks. I find I read nonfiction books (and I wish fiction used more footnotes) differently since becoming immersed in online media, but especially the more serious blogs. And a book that doesn't cite its sources doesn't come across as authoritative as those that do, unless the author is a known quantity and I am reasonably trusting that he is writing from personal experience.

I just read Daniel J Flynn's Why the Left Hates America after reading Tour of Duty. Flynn has copious and specific footnotes with references to specific articles. He's writing a polemic, but it comes across a lot more forcefully than Brinkley's Duty because Brinkley isn't specific. It's hard to verify Brinkley's assertions or even to tie his notes to specific assertions. It's amazing that what is more history/biography, Duty, is a lot less attentively documented than a polemic, Why the Left Hates America.

Perhaps the difference is that Flynn sees himself as putting out an argument that he knows will generate a direct response and severe criticism. Thus he's pre-enmpting the weakest form of criticism, "you can't prove that!" by proving he's basing his statements on verifiable evidence. Brinkley on the other hand is working largely from private documents that he knows will probably never be available to the general public: Kerry's private archive. Of course, should Kerry ever become President, that might change. But were that to be the case, Brinkley's book will have served its obvious purpose and any proven errors or misstatements of fact will undoubtedly be forgiven since all served to achieve a greater goal. And, Brinkley expected, and mostly got, a warm reception from the usual venues of criticism, the major media and the academy. Those two major outlets of criticism of books want Tour of Duty to achieve its aim, so they are unlikely to undermine that by pointing out issues in the book that might focus the wrong sort of attention on their candidate of choice.

We should impose the same standards on reporters that we have imposed upon lawyers, though perhaps not to the same degree. We can require reporters to cite their sources, and link to them where available (and make more available by posting them online). With the new media it's now a reasonable imposition. Old media remains stuck in old systems. Footnoting a newspaper isn't very practical, but there is no excuse (except inertia) for not correcting that in an online edition. Notes can be scanned and posted. Pictures alreaady are. More and more books are available online, if only through Amazon.com's "search inside this book" functionality in many cases.

Why should we accord reporters, who are not governed by any professional body that enforces a code of ethics, nor licensed, nor even required to prove competence, a special status that exceeds that of scientists or lawyers. Reporters are not even routinely subjected to peer review before what they publish is offered to the public as "the facts."

All of these things would, no doubt, be seen as infringements on "the freedom of the press" by the existing media establishment. But are they really? Is asking what likes to see itself as "the fourth estate" of government to immune from the same review standards as the other three? Judges are subjected to standards, and their work is reviewed and subject to appeal. Legislators and the executive (the Prez) are subject to public vetting (they are elected), which is reviewed on a 2-4-6 year basis. Do citizens somehow vet reporters? If one is performing subpar, can we elect to remove them?

It's an open question. We have seen a few removed following exposure of incompetence or outright fraud, but some of the more glaring examples recently are not yet resolved. Dan Rather is still claiming to present the facts as news. Dan Okrent still claims the New York Times is fair and balanced ("How Would Jackson Pollock Cover This Campaign?" hatip Powerline, "The Times Critiques Itself"). (Why must these guys have the name "Dan?") They are probably well-meaning, even Mr. Rather. But they are wrong more often than we deserve. They must be allowed to learn from being wrong by being punished for their errors. They rest of us are. Why should the media be immune? Freedom to fail, freedom to suffer the consequences of one's actions, and freedom to learn from experience are freedoms also. Right now there's a dearth of those freedoms in the press.

Maybe if we'd force the media to show their work they'd take more care with getting the facts right.

Posted by dan at October 11, 2004 10:45 AM | TrackBack

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