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We Report... You Deride

Thursday, July 01, 2004  
The Iraqi Morbidity & Mortality Conference

What's the correct response to a repentent hawk? Kevin Drum wants to welcome everyone into the tent. Digby thinks they need to appear before the rush committee and explain themselves before anyone gets in. And Brad DeLong wants to haze them a little.

Digby is right. He's trying to impose professional standards on a group of people that operate without any restraints. In any professional field, taking the wrong position on an issue has consequences; people act on your recommendations. When you make a mistake, you get reviewed--the very least that happens is that your employer, your peers and/or your customers expect you to explain how and where you went wrong, and how you propose to avoid the same mistake in the future.

Hospitals-- who have lives at stake-- go through the roughest process. They have periodic "Morbidity and Mortality" conferences. Any case where a patient suffered unexpected consequences gets reviewed. The doctors review every step of the treatment, discussing whether the decisions were proper, given the facts that were known at the time. Every judgement call has to be justified, based on currently-accepted practices.

At the best places, the findings are written up and distributed, so everyone knows what decisions are acceptable and what isn't.

Only in journalism is this considered unheard-of or unacceptable. It's the only place where the newspapers of record can get away with a 'correction' that says "The unemployment statistics for last quarter were 5.7%, rather than 5.2% as reported", without explaining how an error of that magnitude was presented. In the shadier circles, it's even acceptable to excuse gross errors with the words "My bad."

Kevin's contention-- "They are excellent candidates to become opinion leaders who will help persuade other people to see things our way"--is true, if the writer sincerely regrets the error, has considered how they came to make it, and discusses some ways that they intend to avoid it in the future.

Writers who say "I was mistaken"-- in the same way that a six-year-old says he's sorry he ate all the cookies-- becase they just want a free pass to move ahead with the same mindset deserve to be critiqued. And since nothing stings quite like ridicule, why not use it?

2:40 PM

Wednesday, June 30, 2004  
How to Succeed in Big Media Without Really Thinking

Brad DeLong's analysis of why reporters do such a dreadful job nails about 40% of the reason. His first two job skills-- can write in a hurry; can snow sources into talking to you--are correct. (The third one applies to TV people, but not to print.) He misses several other items:

3. A desperate need to be noticed and admired. Calling this trait 'ambition' is oversimplifying. Money, power, TV gigs and awards aren't the goals-- they're the rewards that being widely-read brings. A top reporter lives to be read and quoted. Filing a brilliant, insightful, well-written piece that nobody notices is a waste of energy.

4. Confidence in your ability to explain subjects without fully understanding them. Brad does a fine job of describing what reporters are up against:

"You find yourself, day after day... running up against people who know much much more than you do about... topics. Moreover, many of [them] are trying to snow you: either that is what their corporate or ideological masters pay them for, or they are themselves driven toward some political goal and regard fooling you as not a cost worth considering."

And in his areas of interest--economics and policy-- his solution (schooling yourself in the facts) does work. That's why the good examples he cites (The Wall Strret Journal, the Economist and Financial Times) can do a good job.

That doesn't work for most topics. Schools don't teach "How to spot misrepresentations of meetings that you didn't witness" or "Assessing the degree to which someone else's motivations flavor their accuracy" or "Differentiating pragmatic analysts from true believers or polemicists".

To work in daily journalism, you must believe that you can spot the people who are telling the truth just by listening to them. You must convince yourself that you have the knowledge and reasoning skills needed to reduce a complex issue to simple ideas.

People who aren't fairly good at guessing right pretty often wash out before they get to top-tier newspapers. People who aren't comfortable with that process quit writing for newspapers. Writers of magazine articles or books are the ones who aren't willing to make judgments without more time to research or think.

The ones who really want to spend the time required to acquire expertise before they speak typically go into academia or work at think tanks, which don't have daily deadlines. (Those institutions do have people willing to go off half-cocked, but it isn't a job requirement, like it is on the New York Times.)

Some reporters actually are educated enough--or shrewd enough observers of human behavior-- to pull this gig off. And some are able to stay in a job long enough to develop extraordinary knowledge of the beat.

Most are just out there, as Arthur Miller once said about Willy Loman, on a smile and a shoeshine. And that's why we get the kind of reporting we do.

11:31 PM

Wendy, I'm Home...

Well, those were two months I'd just as soon forget. Started with laptop problems... then there was the "How are you spending your time?" issue at work. That ended when I went down with a respiratory infection that didn't respond to the first three prescriptions. During all this, I got named in a lawsuit.

And no matter how many times I said "Go fuck yourself", I didn't feel any better.

Didn't have as bad a time as W. but I'll hit fast-forward when this segment of my life passes before my eyes.

8:57 PM

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