Trust but don't verify

August 22, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Newsweek publishes a cover story by Niall Ferguson severely critical of President Obama. That is fine; there is ample ground to criticize the president from both the right and the left, and the First Amendment makes criticism of public officials a sacred right. The problem, as Paul Krugman painstakingly pointed out, is that Mr. Ferguson's article is open to repeated challenge on factual accuracy.

Evidently Newsweek thought that anything written by a Harvard professor would be beyond reproach, and besides, the magazine dismantled its fact checking staff in 1996. Instead, Newsweek spokesman Andrew Kirk told Politico, "We, like other news organisations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."* And who would have thought that someone might be tendentious and intellectually dishonest in the middle of a presidential campaign?

Imagine Newsweek's principle applied elsewhere.

The Internal Revenue Service: "We rely on our taxpayers to submit accurate accounts of their income."

The meat packing plant: "We rely on our suppliers to furnish healthy animals."

The Food and Drug Administration: "We rely on our manufacturers to produce therapeutic drugs with no harmful side effects."

It's rather a pity that Newsweek's expression of its childlike faith in writers should come at the same time that Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker after admitting to having fabricated material and that Fareed Zakaria has been accused of plagiarism.

This is what we have come to. Discharge the fact checkers to cut expenses. Decimate the editing staff, so that the remaining handful of editors will process copy rather than edit it.* Anything that anyone writes can be published, because, hey, it's just opinion, and people don't really care whether anything is true or not so long as it's provocative enough.

In the early days of the Republic, journalism was openly partisan, any kind of scandal or abuse was gleefully published, and truth didn't enter into it. It took American journalism a long time to achieve any respectability through a discipline of verification. And now that discipline is being discarded, with contemptible rationalizations, just to go cheap.

*Peristalsis rather than editing is how I have described the process in the past. 

*Besides, it's way cheaper than paying editors.

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