The Island of Doubt

I’m dwelling on George F. Will’s latest violation of journalistic ethics because it seems to have hit a nerve. Journalists ordinarily too polite to attack another journalist for fear of appearing biased and unprofessional have broken with their habits to call Will on his misrepresentation of the mythical “global cooling” consensus of the 1970s.


It’s not surprising to come across sarcastic and caustic reviews in places like the Think Progress Wonk Room or TPM Muckraker. And I would have been shocked if Joe Romm hadn’t blown another in his infinite supply of gaskets. But the opprobrium has spread to more civil circles.

Author and scienceblogger Chris Mooney uses uncharacteristically harsh language such as “the stunning, boneheaded, egregious errors” in an effort “to dismantle the idea that he deserves to be considered a top conservative intellectual.”

Author, former Scienceblogger and Discover columnist Carl Zimmer focuses on the responsibility of the Washington Post to ensure its columnists don’t make “glaring errors.” It’s clear from the headline of his blog post, however, that he’s primarily frustrated with the columnist: “George Will: Liberated From the Burden of Fact-Checking.”

And then there’s John Fleck, blogger and columnist with the Albuquerque Journal, writing disparaging about how “Will engages in an egregious case of cherry-picking…”

These are all journalists for whom I great respect, in part because they are usually able to do a much better job than I of keeping their criticisms of fellow journalists free of unecessary invective. Will, it seemed, has crossed the line once too often.

When I was what they used to call a cub reporter a couple of decades ago in Canada, George F. Will was frequently invoked as an example of the smartest of American columnists. Many newspapers ran his syndicated columns in the slot reserved for conservative opinion, the implication being Canada had no comparable intellectual writers on that side of the political spectrum. But Will’s recent record has breathed new life into the question: “If this is the best thinking conservatism can muster, then what does that say about the intellectual foundations of conservatism?”

I’d also like to second Carl’s questions for the Washington Post. As Will has made the same mistakes over and over, after they had been drawn to his attention, why is he being allowed to repeat them? Surely there comes a time when the editors should wonder why they’re paying the guy to write anything. As I’ve written before, climate change is far more important than most of the subjects that get space in a typical paper, and yet how long would a sports columnist who makes up statistics last?

I suspect that the failure of so-called “responsible” new outlets to police their own columnists is a major reason why so few Americans and Canadians have any confidence in journalists to tell them what’s really going on in the world. At some point, the Washington Post‘s reputation won’t be worth anything more than that of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. And that would be a shame.

Will is giving journalism a bad name. And it’s time to do something about it.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    February 19, 2009

    Apparently, this isn’t exactly the first time he’s blatantly made stuff up – see So Much Nicer To Be George Will Before The Internet, in which Jon Schwartz relates a story told by Noam Chomksy of a time in 1982 when he refuted the one and only statement of fact in one of Wills’ Newsweek articles by citing Newsweek itself. The upshot?

    So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    February 19, 2009

    As I’ve written before, climate change is far more important than most of the subjects that get space in a typical paper, and yet how long would a sports columnist who makes up statistics last?

    The only importance that matters is the importance assigned by the people who foot the bills: the readership. They care a lot more about sports statistics than they do about AGW. If they care about AGW at all, most of them just want a rationale for continuing to ignore the whole business.

  3. #3 oku
    February 19, 2009

    I added a note on Will’s wikipedia page.

  4. #4 Carl Zimmer
    February 19, 2009

    I don’t think the real problem is George Will in particular, actually. The real problem is that newspaper op-eds make lots of assertions of fact, and yet are never fact-checked the way the same assertions would be in a magazine article. Sometimes the authors are right, and sometimes they’re wrong. But there’s no way to control the accuracy. And, judging from the fact that no correction is forthcoming, accuracy does not appear to be even particularly important.

  5. #5 Hume's Ghost
    February 19, 2009

    Fact-checking is “liberal bias.” Maybe the constant attacks on the major papers as being biased against conservatives has conditioned the editors to a sort of relativism, where they let stuff like this pass from Will as being a “point of view.” How else can the Post or the NYTimes justify hiring William Kristol as a pundit despite his history of being disastrously wrong about the most important issues that he talks about.

    http://glenngreenwald.blogspot.com/2007/01/bill-kristol-pundit-superstar.html

    Of course, I think that the quality of fact based news, in general, has declined in colloration to the increase in media consolidation.

  6. #6 a lurker
    February 20, 2009

    Re: Dunc’s link to Noam Chomksy’s 1982 frisking of Will on the late President Sadat.

    Wow. Looking at what the Newsweek said Sadat offered in 1971 sounds quite a lot like the terms of the Camp David accord that ended the state of war between Israel and Egypt. (I am sure some historian will find some difference, but it sure sounds like the gist of it to me.)

  7. #7 Dunc
    February 20, 2009

    And, judging from the fact that no correction is forthcoming, accuracy does not appear to be even particularly important.

    Accuracy is completely irrelevant – the only thing that matters is profitability.

  8. #8 yogi-one
    February 20, 2009

    Come on.

    Anyone who was paying attention could see 25 years ago that Will was an idiot pretty much right out of the gate.

    He is nothing more than a pampered prep-schooler with a big mouth, paid to help preserve the northeastern intellectual conservative status quo. The decision to sell your soul comes early in life to people like Will. The tantrum episode described by Dunc sounds entirely in character for such people.

    Sorry, but I can’t understand why it has taken almost 30 years for other journalists to figure that out. Unless of course they were just going along to get along so they could get paid too.

    I suspect that the failure of so-called “responsible” new outlets to police their own columnists is a major reason why so few Americans and Canadians have any confidence in journalists to tell them what’s really going on in the world.

    “Fact-checking” costs money and takes time. Apparently this is why a lot of papers eliminated the practice. Why make a good product when the masses can be marketed junk food for the brain easier and with a higher profit margin?

    And it is agreed that most people care more about who wins the next round of American Idol than AGW.

    It is said that in a democracy, people get the government they deserve. I’d add that they get the news service they deserve as well. Or maybe they are just two aspects of the same thing.

  9. #9 RJ
    February 20, 2009

    @D.C. Sessions

    Very little of the newspaper’s revenue comes from readers. The great majority comes from advertisers. Ergo, the contents of major newspapers are baised in favor of the interests of large advertisers.

    The ‘public doesn’t care’ meme is getting old. They might care more if there were any reason to think newspapers report what really is happening.

  10. #10 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    February 21, 2009

    I have a confession to make. I don’t read newspapers anymore, unless someone links to an article on one of their websites.

    Will on baseball is pretty good, but as for anything else…

  11. #11 James Randerson
    February 21, 2009
  12. #12 Marc
    March 1, 2009

    Dear James, thanks a lot for this fine piece of work. I am happy to refer to you on my German blog which also covers this issue about “Good Will hunting” the climate thing…

  13. #13 Sohpet
    July 24, 2009

    Thanks

  14. #14 sohbet sitesi
    August 16, 2009

    Thnk you my admin

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