"[M]y job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal." - Judith Miller
"I not only tell you the news; I tell you what to think." - Rush Limbaugh
"We have a saying: 'If your mother tells you she loves you, fact-check her.' I bust my ass trying to get the facts right, but I don't have time to tell you what they mean." - Springoff the Second
Stenographer, Sage, and Seeker: three very different approaches to story-telling.
More below the fold....
Stenographers, Sages, and Seekers (The Information Fairy)
The mainstream media are often criticized for not telling The Truth, but I think that's a mistaken criticism. As we explored yesterday, The Truth is slippery. Different reporters can have essentially the same facts and tell very different stories, depending on what they think is important. That's when they can get the facts, the gathering of which remains a time-consuming, labor-intensive process even in the Internet age.
To me, the problem is less that the mainstream media don't try to tell the truth, but that too many do try to tell The Truth ... or what they believe is The Truth. They become Stenographers or Sages, when what we need are Seekers.
Judith Miller is perhaps the easiest to recognize in this category, but she's hardly alone. The Stenographer's job, as she noted, is not to conduct an independent investigation, but to fairly and accurately report what sources say. Don't misquote or misattribute, slice quotes out of context, or splice quotes together to imply something the sources didn't say. Don't sit in judgment. If the story fairly and accurately reports what the sources said, then you've told The Truth.
Well sure, it's true those sources said that. But what if the sources are mistaken, or lying? Ms. Miller fairly and accurately reported what the Bush administration told her about WMDs in Iraq, and they then cited her stories as corroborating their claims. Ms. Miller and others choose an easy form of truth-telling - repeat what your sources say - over the more difficult, expensive, and risky job of fact-finding.
While many 'news analysts' might publicly cringe at Rush Limbaugh's description of his job - "I not only tell you the news; I tell you what to think" - in fact that's exactly what most of them try to do. Many of us may think it absurd to cast Mr. Limbaugh as a Sage, but his believers disagree. And when it comes to Sages, the key word is believe. The Sage begins with a belief about The Truth - shaped by ideology and/or affiliation - and culls facts to support that belief. And if there are no facts readily available, invent some. After all, it's The Truth....
There are two problems here, one obvious and one more subtle. The obvious problem is that once you start inventing facts to support what you believe is The Truth, you can convince yourself and others (if you have a talent for argument) of anything, no matter how patently absurd. The more subtle problem is that even if you don't invent facts, you may still be spreading fiction. As we discussed in the comments yesterday, it's often difficult to assess The Truth, even when in acting on it you seem to get a good outcome. It may be that you were right, or it may simply be that you weren't wrong enough to run into trouble ... yet.
Last year's economic meltdown was driven by Sages who were convinced their risk analyses were right because events seemed to prove them out. It turned out they simply hadn't been wrong enough to run into trouble ... until it all came crashing down. One could make the same argument about the collapse of some claims of conservatism. To many Americans events had seemed to be proving those claims - they could seem like The Truth - until they failed catastrophically.
Springoff the Second gets defensive when I talk about "the mainstream media." She's a reporter at a fairly large city newspaper, and when she's visiting and I start on a rant, she'll listen for awhile, jaw clenching, eyes narrowing, until she explodes, "Who is this Mainstream Media? That's not me, or any of the people I work with." And she's right.
She's not a Stenographer. She doesn't take sources at their word; she looks for other sources, including public records and other documents. She'll call a source back - even an expert - and say "You're wrong." Sometimes the source will hear what she's gathered and agree. Sometimes the source already knew what she found and will explain why she's mistaken. Sometimes neither of them can convince the other and she'll write what the source said, fairly and accurately, and then write the other facts she uncovered.
She's also not a Sage. "I don't have time for that," she says. "I barely have time to dig out and write up the facts." It's not that she has no opinions, or that her stories don't inevitably reflect her biases and experiences. She'll even put facts in context - in the sense of "the last time three times this happened" - if she has time. But she's rarely certain of anything, even her own reporting. She often wishes she could find that one conclusive document, or that a source would go one step further and "just spill it." Or that she had a time machine, "so I could go back and watch what they did."
What she wishes for most often is more time. When she began as a reporter, she was expected to file 3-5 major stories a week. With staff cutbacks, she now has to file 3-5 a day. "How am I supposed to get to the bottom of anything in two hours?" she asks. "That's how long I have for a story, on average, and that includes writing. Unless it's a huge story, I have maybe an hour and a half to research."
That's enough time to be a Stenographer or a Sage. But it's nowhere near enough time to be a Seeker, and that's what she wants to be.
Speaking of Seekers, the
Janitor Professor of Astrology took a peek at the stars. Oh well....
Libra - Your weekend reading is a bit vague. We should know more by Monday.
Scorpio - Your weekend reading, by contrast, could not be clearer: Don't.
Sagittarius - Your stars said mistakes were made. We report, you decide.
Capricorn - Your stars wouldn't go on the record, but on background they're not happy.
Aquarius - Think of deadlines as the factual basis for procrastination.
Pisces - The Truth is often arguable, but that doesn't mean you have to argue so often.
Aries - At least make sure you get The Story straight this weekend. Facts are optional.
Taurus - A full investigation of your stars revealed a mass of turbulent gas.
Gemini - After further investigation, we've corrected last week's Kossascope.
Cancer - Your stars said to think for yourself. You should believe them.
Leo - In looking into your future, we saw your past. Please move that mirror.
Virgo - Your stars will have predictions at the top of each hour ... for the previous hour.