The earth shape controversy revived (earlier posted at CT)

Just about everyone has already piled on to the latest development in the George Will saga – the Washington Post’s belated publication of an opinion piece by Chris Mooney and a letter from the World Meteorological Association pointing out (very politely) that Will was lying in every paragraph of his notorious piece on global warming. And just about everyone has the same take: in the absence of a retraction or correction, the Post is taking the view that Will is entitled to his own facts. (Here’s Matthew Yglesias, for example, and Mooney has a huge list of links at his site).

The absolute refusal of the Post to take a position on the truth or falsity of what it publishes (along with the continued scandal of anonymous sourcing Can't Buy Me Love move

) leads me to a steadily more negative view of the question of whether we actually need newspapers and whether we should regret their seemingly inexorable decline. The standard claim is that without reporters, we in the blogosphere would have no material to work on. But Will’s recycling of long-refuted Internet factoids (something very common among rightwing pundits in particular) shows that, in important respects, the opposite is true.

More importantly as far as political and business news goes, there is almost always someone with an interest in having any given story published. If newspapers are unwilling to take a stand on which stories are true or false, their only function is that of gatekeeper – determining which stories see the light of day and which do not. The potential for corruption in this role is clear, and the reality was obvious particularly in relation to the Iraq war.

Update Lots of readers have inferred that I welcome/wish for the demise of newspapers or opinion columnists. Actually, having written (and been paid for) an opinion column in a national newspaper for the past fifteen years, I am deeply ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, the deplorable handling of issues like climate change (particularly in opinion pages, but to a significant extent in news as well) the early years of the Iraq war (if anything worse in the news pages than the opinion section), and the ‘inside baseball’ approach to political news in general leads me to think we would be better off without them. On the other hand, there’s obviously a lot to lose here, and it’s not clear how, if at all, some of it can be replaced.

Of course, what will happen will happen, regardless of what I think about it. But maybe if those making decisions about how newspapers are run think more closely about episodes like this one, they might see the need for change, and that change might enhance their chances of survival.

30 thoughts on “The earth shape controversy revived (earlier posted at CT)

  1. Somewhere along the way the papers’ owners decided that shaping public opinion was more important than informing the public. Propaganda masquerades as opinion, and opinion replaces factual analysis. We are so far along that path now that I doubt there is any easy way for the newspapers to reverse course – their marketing depts won’t allow it!

    BTW, anyone see how Bryan Pape, a Law lecturer at UNE, is challenging the constitutional powers of Federal Government to pay out the $900 bonus? A quick check on Mr Pape reveals that he is a Nationals member (chairman in NSW, at least as recently as late last year). Should the challenge succeed it would be very interesting to see if a whole swaggle of “bonuses”, such as a baby bonus, are perhaps suffering from a similar defect. Of course, Pape’s action is in no way a politically contrived one, is it 😉

  2. Were newspapers always this bad? Not rhetorical, I’m wondering. I hardly read them and when I do I’m amazed by what they are willing to print. They seem to have followed the news-is-entertainment dictum down a dirty hole.

    When newspapers began they were revolutionary but they now look like dinosaur technology one step along from clay tablets – apparently staffed by Neanderthals. As they disappear there are issues that should really concern us, but it’s probably to that bad. When you think about it, better sources of serious informed investigation have appeared elsewhere already and Piers Akerman could probably run a pizza shop.

  3. I don’t think they were always this bad.

    I think the decline of (many) newspapers has been some time in the making, and is due to more than just the loss of advertising revenue and rise of the internet. First they became parts of business empires, comodified and motivated by profit and nothing else, causing them to lose their integrity. They have always been used as political tools by unscrupulous owners, but the potential for that was exacerbated by the media empire era. At that point they lost any hint of impartiality, with many former “journalists” now moving straight into politics for the party they have reported in a partisan fashion for years.

    So they have lost integrity, objectivity, income, and in future writing talent. What is left?

    Of course its unfair to generalise too much because there are still some good ones out there. But these days, I suspect that young writers wanting to write about the world as it is don’t head for newspaper jobs first.

  4. Pr Q says:

    whether we should regret their seemingly inexorable decline. The standard claim is that without reporters, we in the blogosphere would have no material to work on.

    But Will’s recycling of long-refuted Internet factoids (something very common among rightwing pundits in particular) shows that, in important respects, the opposite is true.

    The impending demise of print media is most grievous in the local papers which really provide an institutional basis for local communities. I dont really blame them for wrong-headed thinking on climate change.

    Its also a little bit unfair to judge the whole media by the standards of one long-past-his-use-by-date pundit. The WaPo and NYT mostly publish comment which is reality-based, including a fair swag of Left-wingers who got it right eg Krugman.

    The lies and delusions of the Right in the Iraq War and Climate War were largely the product of the Murdoch Press. It will be adversely selected if there are repeat offences.

    And lets not forget the lies and delusions of the Left-liberals in the Culture War. The Fairfax press politically correct coverage of the identity of crime gangs is an open scandal. It would be no great loss if their cultural commentary op-ed rolls were drastically thinned.

    Although I have detected an increase in the reality-based coverage creeping in over the past. It seems the impact of tertiary fees on Arts enrolments has gradually hit home.

  5. The problem is that there is no longer an unified audience. Another manifestation of globalisation and seems to be the death of the broadsheet press, in particular. Economies of scale and the drying up of advertising revenue seem to have what’s left of free to air tabloid commercial press and mass media competing in scavenging for remnants of the once mass audience.
    The other components have headed to computers for the information denied them, or Foxtel for sport and intertainment, or just got out and “got a life” by other means.
    But since the internet is now the home of independent “broad sheet “commentary, the commercial media has adopted a strategy of hanging on to the remnant of its audience, presumably the less flexible element unable to adapt to new times and filled its pages with wall to wall Righties, in the hope also, that the internet buffs who still glance thru newspapers or watch a bit of TV occasionally, can be influenced away from an internet commentariat now outside of Rightist control.
    It can’t accept that its audience migrated because it abandoned its proper role of civil society forum for opinion creation, as JQ said. It can’t accept it because those who finance it are against social change that comes from informed thinking and a consciousness-based approach to concepts of “civilisation”, involving rational use of economy and environment to a purpose, rather than a capitulation to socio cultural production for the purposes of market creation.
    Unfortunately, this is also why Conroy is media minister rather than someone like Duncan Kerr- new Labor, like the Democrats in America, has been successfully “got at” by big money.
    At the one time when more than ever, a more flexible approachis needed from people in high places, their seige mentality is at its worst through their lack of imagination and fear driven of ignorance. You are either a technocrat, specialist or capitalist, OR a Renaissance person, in these specialised times, because of the way society is currently configured. We’ve just not advanced far enough historically, to have grasped the sense of possibility inherent in REAL ( not neoliberal ) change.

  6. Newspapers have had a long history, and I’d suggest that the golden era JQ may have in mind was short-lived and confined to a select few papers. (Care to name and date them, John?)

    Look at who has owned them in the past (eg Beaverbrook). Whenever there is war or a crisis, how well have newspapers reported it and analysed it in their history? I doubt that the Boer War was well covered (but that’s pure assertion as I don’t know). And during WW1 there was the beastly hun.

    The main difference “recently” is that there is less factual reportage and more commercially sponsored infotainment and faux-celebrity journalism. And as papers are trying to project a sense of comfort and relaxation, I think that they are somewhat less shrill on issues that have intellectual content. Headline rants tend to target moral panics rather than issues of substance. The commentators and editorials will say that carbon trading won’t work, but it’s not framed in a patently hysterical way (ala Julius Streicher in Nazi Germany) Oops: Godwin

  7. I see that one of Washington State’s best-known newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has abandoned its print version altogether to become online-only:

    Perhaps a few of Australia’s newspapers will go the same way. Hope springs eternal.

    Nevertheless it isn’t the largely self-inflicted wounding of newspapers that worries me. It’s the seemingly inexorable decline – intellectual and moral at least as much as financial – of serious generalist magazines, at least outside the USA.

    Face it: a decade ago, let alone two decades ago, Keith Windschuttle’s susceptibility to hoaxing and insistence on the venial nature of plagiarism would’ve got him kicked out from the editorship of Quadrant. In fact it would’ve got him kicked out from the editorship of any non-academic Australian magazine sufficiently upmarket not to have Britney and Brangelina on its cover.

    Where in hades’ name do aspiring young Australian non-fiction writers learn to acquire some literary chops these days? OK, they can always blog, but unless they have other income sources, that’s a one-way ticket to penury. Also it’s a wholly inadequate substitute for the experience of a hands-on copy-editor nagging, encouraging, and cajoling them into producing better work.

  8. As someone who spent most of his working life in the MSM, I can tell you this downgrading of truth as a prequisite for publication has been coming for years.

    Editors started years ago to subliminate news values for business imperatives. By 2000, Fred Hilmer at Fairfax was describing journalists as ‘content providers for advertising platforms’.

    These days that culture of ‘news is what sells’ is ingrained in newsrooms. We always valued a good story mind you – except we also valued accuracy.

    Looked at another way, this is one further extension of the corralling of all aspects of our lives to the market economy.

    Journalists just sold out later than anyone else.

  9. Speaking of Fairfax, did many folk read the Sen. John Faulkner op-ed, “Democracy should be the freedom to know”, in todays SMH?
    Do others similarly informed confess to a sense of bafflement as to the relationship of this essay and its sentiments to the actions and words of another member of this selfsame government; Sen. Stephen Conroy ( or some of the state ALP government responses as to FOI and commercial in confidence, over recent times )?

  10. I can see how Will’s article could be attacked for lacking content and not making a specific argument but I can’t see any lies. If opinion pieces were judged on the basis of lacking content or being facile I doubt there would be much content at all. That would be sad for me since I read mostly for the entertainment value.

  11. John, one of the biggest bull artists that ever lived was the five times Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Kelley who fabricated numerous stories over his 21-year career as a reporter for USA TODAY. Drongo.

    Michael, I checked Wikipedia and the link to USA today to be on the safe side. Kelley was indeed exposed as a fraud, but he never won the Pulitzer prize, though he was nominated five times and was once a finalist – JQ

  12. I don’t see anything there in Will’s piece to get excited about. It is clearly a high school debate style gossip piece. There is nothing scientific about a mishmash of comment snippets cut and pasted to form some sort of path to a conclusion about the environment. JQ’s “inside baseball” comment is an astute assessment of Will’s style, here. Schmoozing the public with that kind of banter, I believe, will have a five minute effect, because there is more than enough seriously disturbing environmental news getting through, disturbing to the effect that a loud bang in a flying aircraft causes amoungst the passengers, to pull peoples attention into clarity, however briefly.

    As for news papers. It is a cyclical thing. First there was word of mouth, then there was the town cryer, then there was the news paper, then there was the television, now there is the word of blog. Next (I expect) will be the google cryer….and who knows what after that? Some clever guy will figure out how to claim carbon credits by storing old news papers in the garage, and it will be back to print again.

  13. .
    truth deficit

    if i could get the UK guardian or independent everyday i would have it delivered and read it whilst partaking in my breakfast,

    as it is i have the west australia (toilet paper),
    the australian (shameless twisted propaganda)
    the financial review (business orientated)

    so i dont buy a paper

    as long as we live in a world where the entire foundations of society, governance and the market, are based on lies our papers will reflect this

  14. Smiths,
    I can recommend the Age or SMH for all your authoritarian-socialist needs!

  15. Assuming that information that is truth maximised is good for society, how can we encourage its dominance of information content? I think there are two ways.

    First, through the competition of ideas. This assumes there is a competitive market (no monopolies or oligopolies) and truth maximises who will be more in demand than their opposite. This leads to truth maximisation through there being substantially more truth producers than falsifiers. As to a competitive market, there is now the internet, but not so with newspapers or other forms of traditional media. It is tricky though to see how information providers can make a profit from the internet given that barriers to entry are low, revenue is small since internet users are not used to paying for internet sourced information, and the business model for internet advertising seems problematic. And there is a cost in creating truth: assertions need to be checked for accuracy and veracity and that takes time which is a cost. It may also be a heroic assumption that those who want truth will out demand those that don’t. I wonder if fundamentally we are prisoners of our prejudices and seek out information that confirms our beliefs. In that case its unlikely that the deluded will seek alternative views and if they are in the majority they will win the demand war.

    Second, regulation of information. Examples are Press Councils and other forms of review bodies that can arbitrate on the accuracy of oligopolistic information providers. But these bodies are captured by the information providers so are not independent from them. There is also the self regulation of producer standards through professional requirements such as journalist ethics. These of course do not prevent the peddling of falsity. An alternative to industry regulation would be a government agency to receive complaints and force the writing of truth maximising information. But that of course would be both ineffective and inappropriate, given the need for information sources separate from government control: no one wants an authoritarian state.

  16. Mr Denmore notes;

    “Editors started years ago to subliminate news values for business imperatives. By 2000, Fred Hilmer at Fairfax was describing journalists as ‘content providers for advertising platforms’.”

    Come into work, turn on the fax, take the most controversial of faxes from anyone, turn it into a “news” article (journos – do not leave office – too expensive, fuel is money and time on road is money. Do not investigate except a couple of calls (phone) for a different opinion. Thats it. Publish hashed together article as “news”. The more sensational the better. The more divisive the better. Keep Miranda employed. Even shock value makes people buy the paper tomorrow. Sell ratings to advertisers.”)

    What do we expect. The paper is thinner. The news is barely there. The advertisments are larger and now cheaper seeing as Newscorp has dropped its share price.

    Efiiciencies – here there and everywhere…”content processors for advertisers”.

  17. Solution – paper getting less appealing all round (Timed myself this morning to read it – under 5mins).

  18. I remember reading the Age as a teenager in a previous century and everyday would have a special section dedicated to different aspects of life eg Science (Thursdays if memory serves me right), Arts, etc. Many of these articles were informative essays several thousand words long. These days of course blogging peforms a similar function although not to the same extent. Additionally the prose formed a significant part of the content. Sadly, there are few if any bloggers that can match the prose of those writers.

    One thing that bloggers cannot do, and what arguably print media is meant to do, is to inform of events (car accidents, fires, murders, etc) and long investigative pieces. Bloggers are by and large opinion piece writers. how these activities would be replaced by the internet twitters or bloggers remains to be seen. Thankfully the ABC does a fair job on their website for event based reporting.

    One other thing that will be missed is that the media would connect people from all walks of life by dint of scarcity. That is, Melbourne had three dailies and five TV channels (and then six when SBS came into existence, then seven with Channel 31). Since the media suppliers were few and had the need to collect the largest possible audience the range of programs/articles was larger. This meant that people at work, who came from all areas of a large sprawling city and from different income groups had a common connection.
    I note that a few years ago when Channel 9 was celebrating fifty years of TV they were censored so that the more salacious bits of Number 96 and other TV programs could not be shown during prime time although back in the 70s there were no qualms about showing these programs. Whether the censorship was imposed by management or by law I don’t know but one possible reason why the media has narrowed its scope may well be because the internet provides a wider access to material therefore the media is under no obligation to cater for a wider range audience. This means that people are no longer exposed to alternative points of view and therefore become intolerant or more easily susceptible to propaganda.

    The problem with the internet as a media source is that people will select sites that confirm their prejudices and participate in a dialog with people of the same mindset. It takes real dedication to continually visit sites that are opposed to one’s own biases.

    Should we mourn the death of old media – certainly there will be parts that are not worth shedding a tear over but I wonder what will replace communal linking (other than cheap emotional stunts like having every politician visiting a disaster area), event based reporting and investigative journalism. Furthermore, will the internet increase the number of angry trolls that continually get self-reinforcement from the same sites and will it lead to an increase in violent discourse?

  19. Joseph Clark Says:

    I can recommend the Age or SMH for all your authoritarian-socialist needs!

    As a Sydneysider I don’t read the Age, instead I read the SMH. Daily lead opinion columnists:

    Monday: Paul Sheehan. Conservative, Peter Costello booster
    Tuesday: Gerard Henderson. Conservative, Liberal Party chronicler, Howard hagiographer
    Wednesday: Ross Gittens. Economics editor.
    Thursday: Miranda Devine. Right-wing, batshit insane movement conservative water carrier and fabricator.
    Friday: Richard Ackland. Legal reporter.
    Saturday: Michael Duffy. Right-wing, movement conservative foot soldier.
    Saturday: Miranda Devine. Again!

    Angling for a gig at The Australian or Quadrant Mr Clark?

  20. Bloggers to Make History at G20 Summit

    A coalition of NGOs – the G20Voice – and the UK government are breaking with convention and, for the first time, allow 50 bloggers to report live and direct from the G20 summit, on 2 April 2009 in London.

    This unprecedented event, backed by the Government, gives the bloggers and their audience the chance to engage with and influence world leaders on issues including development, climate change and women’s rights. The bloggers were nominated by the public, with more than 700 nominations received in 12 days.

  21. In terms of ‘event’ reporting, what many people don’t realise is that these days the vast majority of these ‘events’ are preconstructed and staged setpieces with inbuilt template narratives.

    The driver of this is the increasing sophistication of the public relations and media management industry, much of which is populated by jaded former jounalists who got fed up with playing the game on the other side for less money.
    This is analogous, by the way, with the capture of the securities regulators in the US by powerful Wall St players who tempted regulators to cross the river for big bucks.

    Anyway, knowing the increasing time and workload pressures on working reporters, their now Armani-clad former bretheren made it easy for them by creating ready-made and pre-scripted news events that can slot into the newspaper/bulletin with minimum processing. This includes prepared quotes, background, references, case studies, on-air talent, visuals and stock vision.

    This staging was initially very clunky. But spindoctors gradually made it look more and more spontaneous to the point that even a discerning consumer couldn’t see the strings or work out that they were being sold to.

    The media, while feeling slightly guilty about being complicit in this game, found it too hard not to play along. Such were commercial, staffing and deadline pressures.

    Take politicians’ doorstop interviews as an example. Initially, these.were mostly spontaneous – a way for the media to catch an unscripted comment from a public figure. Then, minders started making doorstops a part of their media management strategies.

    The doorstop LOOKS unpremeditated. In practice, it is anything but. The flak phones through the time and place of the doorstop. The politician turns up with a rehearsed line. The media looks pesky. He looks helpful and open. He even obliges with a silly walk so the TV crews have something to cut to.

    These techniques and others like them are now evident in every area – crime, sports, finance etc.Even in natural disasters, like the recent bushfires, the media is managed to within an inch of its life. So it falls back on lazy slow-mo montages set against an adagio.

    The upshot is about 90 pct of the ‘news’ is pre-fabricated. Journalists are like shoppers at Ikea, assembling already manuctured bits according to somebody else’s design.

  22. sad but true Mr Denmore. But it does lead to amusing instances. A few elections ago (the Latham one?) I seem to remember a newbie politician was hauled over the coals for going off-message and acting spontaneously human. The next interview he stayed on message, repeating the ‘message’ over and over again, regardless of the question asked. Unfortunately for him the temptation was too great for the station and his endless parroting of the message was shown, even where it made no sense at all.
    Everyone had a good laugh, because everyone was in on the joke. That’s the problem – everyone knows the news is fake but it still works.

  23. John, yesterday I made a goose of myself without checking the facts on Kelly. Sorry.

  24. Mr Denmore, perhaps I should have used the word incidents and if you take a look at the sample list I specifically did not mention political events. It is a bit difficult to stage car accidents and to my knowledge no Australian politician has done so as yet. Ditto murder.
    However I do agree with you regarding the staging of political events.

  25. El Poppin, even the reporting of crime stories is heavily managed – by police media units staffed by ex-journos.

  26. 20# Gianni

    Sorry – there is no vacant journo nodding dog gig at the Australian anymore. Fridays – they gave it to Costa who was, until recently, out of a job. I understand he is Piers Ackerman’s understudy.

  27. I read the original George Will piece and while agreeing he made some seriously unsubstantiated points about the supposed non-existence of climate change, he did make one interesting point – the curiously retrospective optimism of environmentalists. Isn’t it indeed curious that many people nowadays regard the past as having been better than the present or the future, and even more curious that this view should extend to the suitability of the climate? After all there’s no real empirical evidence either way, is there? “On the whole things are better (or worse)” is necessarily a very subjective opinion. Let’s take an alternative position to the environmentalists (of whom in real life I am one) for a second and, playing devil’s advocate, see where it leads. Suppose we say: in the past, the climate was terrible but now, thanks to CO2 emissions, or just dumb luck, the climate, like everything else, is getting better and better. In fact it’s getting so much better that even the rate of improvement is improving. What kind of evidence would we need for a view like that? In my personal experience it is indeed true that the climate has got better. It’s much less rainy and grim than it used to be and I won’t allow anyone to contradict me. Of course, moving from the UK to Australia may have had something to do with it – but that’s not the point. In this little thought experiment I’m going to use every piece of evidence I can to support my view that things are just getting better, that contrary to environmentalist dogma it is the past which is worse, not the future. And am I going to find any such evidence? You bet I am. The point of this is to note that our principles determine what ‘facts’ are admissible, and that no amount of contrary evidence will sway us if principle is at stake. Furthermore, many people live their lives in a social context in which it is basically inadmissible that the future could be worse than the past in any way, including climatically. The only way to change the mind of climate change deniers like Wills, then, would be to offer them a way of changing slightly their views about emissions without having to change their views about human progress, the past, the future and so on at all.
    So on that note, here goes: the thing about climate change is that it’s the greatest opportunity for innovation and profit the world has ever known! Risk makes for profit, and more risks make for even more profit! When it comes to truly creative destruction, Schumpeter ain’t seen nothing yet! By the time the climate has done changing so many new markets will have opened up that anyone who’s not a billionaire will have just been lazy!
    Sounds good doesn’t it? Much better than all that doom-laden greenspeak. I predict that this is the new discourse of climate change, coming soon to a fact-checking newspaper near you.

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