September 22, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another New York TImes Edition)

Matthew Yglesias criticizes David Sanger for having a faulty epistemology:

TAPPED: September 2004 Archives: EPISTEMOLOGY AT THE TIMES. The New York Times' David Sanger demonstrates the blinkered perspective afflicting all-too-many of our nation's political reporters as he writes that the "diametrically opposed images [of Iraq] reflect diametrically opposed strategies for the final six weeks of the presidential campaign." The implication here is that the truth about Iraq is some unknowable quantity and each campaign is simply making up its own account of what's going on there in order to further their electoral plans. But let's look a little more closely at these "opposed images" of Iraq.

On the side of pessimism, you have John Kerry, of course, but also Senators John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, and Lindsey Graham, the Bush administration's own CIA, a bevy of conservative writers, the top analysts from leading American and British national security think tanks, and "assessments of diplomats and world leaders." On the other side you have George W. Bush and some people directly employed by Bush. On one side you've got plenty of chastened hawks, whether or not they now regret their decision to support the war in the first place, while if there are any chastened doves out there I haven't heard about it.

You've got, in other words, one "vision of Iraq" that reflects "strateg[y] for the final six weeks of the presidential campaign" and then you've got a strategy for the final six weeks of the presidential campaign that's based on the realities in Iraq. Unfortunately, the person whose vision is based on his campaign strategy rather than the other way around is currently sitting in the White House. That means that strategy on the ground in Iraq is based not on what needs to be done to make progress, but on what needs to be done in order to maintain the pretense of progress. The resulting strategy will get soldiers needlessly killed but, hey, it's campaign season and everyone's got to make sacrifices.

--Matthew Yglesias

I wish it were that simple. If it were just teaching David Sanger that there are true claims about the world and that there are false claims, and that one rule of thumb for distinguishing between them is that true claims are advanced by people with broad ranges of interests and ideologies, while false claims are advanced only by a narrow sect whose interest is to deceive in one way or another, then solving David Sanger's (and the New York Times's problem would be easy. But it isn't.

Posted by DeLong at September 22, 2004 09:09 AM | TrackBack

i'm honestly no longer sure the problem can be solved (maybe it never was?). Whatever the combination of circumstances that has brought us to this pass, most daily news sources appear to have given up on the notion that reporters have any independent obligation beyond transcribing spin points....

Posted by: howard at September 22, 2004 09:16 AM

"...if there are any chastened doves out there I haven't heard about it."

Now that he mentions it, this is IMO a good way to think about the war. Does ANYONE know of someone who was against the war before, but who now, seeing what a wonderful success it is and what great progress the Iraqis are making toward democracy (fortunately I can type with my tongue in my cheek), has changed their mind and now supports the war & Bush? After all, if the success of the war is really an arguable proposition, knowing what we know now about the situation in Iraq, then you'd expect that at least SOME people would have changed their minds in each direction. As it is, the mind-changing appears to be all in one direction. Even if someone is not persuaded by their own knowledge of the situation (or lacks confidence in what knowledge they do have) this seems like a pretty powerful argument, that a significant number of people who are in a position to have good information have changed from for to against, and no one (who is in a position etc) has changed from against to for.

Posted by: John Stein at September 22, 2004 10:00 AM

Although I think the absence of chastened doves speaks volumes, I still don't think prevailing opinion among any group is a good epistemology in principle and am surprised that yglesias would promote it as such. Prevailing opinion can easily be wrong and proves nothing. I think yglesias is just making a horsesensical argument and trying to perfume the horse with the aura of philosophical language.

Posted by: Martin Bento at September 22, 2004 10:09 AM

Howard, if Kerry wins my guess is the press will rediscover its skepticism and will go back to the Clinton rules of regarding all administration claims as false until proven true, and all proofs of truth as excuses to air the counterarguments of the most dishonest possible partisans.

Posted by: jimBOB at September 22, 2004 10:29 AM

From the Sanger article:

And now Mr. Kerry may have given him new ammunition, with his argument - different from the one he offered at the canyon's rim - that no president in his right mind should have sought that authorization.

"Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq?" Mr. Kerry asked in his speech on Monday.


Voting for authorization was to provide Bush with leverage in negotiations; it is *not* the same as voting for the immediate initiation of conflict.

Kerry has never said Bush was at fault for merely seeking the authorization; since writers are carefully groomed in the nuances of language, Mr. Sanger knows that's a straight-up lie; if he doesn't, he should be fired for incompetence.

Posted by: djs at September 22, 2004 11:09 AM

This points to what seems to me a fundamental flaw of media reporting (besides being a sign of media laziness) -- that we can elicit "the truth" by balancing an argument from the left with an argument from the right. That paradigm falls apart when one side or the other is blatantly dishonest.

Posted by: David Jacobson at September 22, 2004 11:21 AM

Please don't advocate that rule of thumb. One of the biggest arguments that flat earthers have always used is that "everyone" believes the earth is flat so this new information must be wrong.

Posted by: Steve at September 22, 2004 11:51 AM

This reminds me of a quote I read recently, I think it was from the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. He said something to the effect of "Fair and balanced reporting has come to mean that if you have one guest on the program to tell the truth for five minutes, you also have to have somebody on to lie for five minutes".

Shameless self-promotion, but on topic: have you guys read my book THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: THE ADVENTURES OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND? Clearly relevant to the political debates of today.

Posted by: Lewis Carroll at September 22, 2004 12:00 PM

RP answered this a year ago:

"A year from now, I'll be very surprised if there is not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush."

Richard Perle
AEI Keynote speech
September 22, 2003

Posted by: ogmb at September 22, 2004 12:27 PM

This is very interesting (found at

"Polling conducted between July 15 and September 19 among 19,013 adults showed that on a six-item political knowledge test people who did not watch any late-night comedy programs in the past week answered 2.62 items correctly, while viewers of Letterman answered 2.91, viewers of Leno answered 2.95, and viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart answered 3.59 items correctly. That meant there was a difference of 16 percentage points between Daily Show viewers and people who did not watch any late-night programming.
The campaign knowledge test covered such topics as which candidate favors allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market, the income range at which John Kerry would eliminate the Bush tax cut, and which candidate is a former prosecutor.

'People who watch The Daily Show are more interested in the presidential campaign, more educated, younger, and more liberal than the average American or than Leno or Letterman viewers,' said Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a senior analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center , who conducted the research for this report. 'However, these factors do not explain the difference in levels of campaign knowledge between people who watch The Daily Show and people who do not. In fact, Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers - even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.''

Posted by: vote no on (almost) all CA propositions at September 22, 2004 01:47 PM

It's a touch more difficult still to teach epistemology to a person (yes, David Sanger, I am looking at you) who has demonstrated the inability to distinguish that "twelve" and "a dozen" are the same quantity.

Posted by: Teech at September 22, 2004 03:20 PM

"That meant there was a difference of 16 percentage points between Daily Show viewers and people who did not watch any late-night programming."

Gotta say it: Early birds run the world, but night owls rule. HOO-AH!

Posted by: Dragonchild at September 22, 2004 04:49 PM