NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

 

From: at
Date: Mon Apr 5, 2004 8:13 pm
Subject: NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

I find this an interesting piece on the relationship of fact to opinion in the practice of journalism. It should have some relationship to our discussions of how historians operate, and the difference between historians and polemicists. I see the historian much like the journalist, and the polemicist like the opinion columnist. Some of the salient points:

"But who is to say what is factually accurate? Or whether a quotation is misrepresented? Or whether facts are used or misused in such a fashion as to render a columnist's opinion unfair? Or even whether fairness has anything to do with opinion in the first place?"

"The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold. He can paint individuals he likes as paragons, and those he disdains as scoundrels. The more scurrilous practitioners rely on indirection and innuendo, nestling together in a bed of lush sophistry. I sometimes think opinion columns ought to carry a warning: "The following is solely the opinion of the author, supported by data I alone have chosen to include. Live with it." Opinion is inherently unfair."

I particularly like the disclaimer, and feel our friend Mr. Staudenmaier might consider it for his writing: "The following is solely the opinion of the author, supported by data I alone have chosen to include."

Daniel Hindes

PS
Sorry's I've been away for so long. I had a number of things come up. I don't know how much I'll be able to catch up - I'm a couple hundred posts behind right now. I'll do my best.

The article below from NYTimes.com

The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

March 28, 2004
By DANIEL OKRENT

IT sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at The Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow.

For the news pages, the rule is succinct. "Because its voice is loud and far-reaching," the paper's stylebook says, "The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper." But on the page where The Times's seven Op-Ed columnists roam, there has long been no rule at all, or at least not one clearly elucidated and publicly promulgated. When I began in this job last fall, I was told The Times considered the space granted Op-Ed columnists theirs to use as they wish, subject only to the limits of legality, decency and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.'s patience. Columnists decided when to run corrections, and where in their columns to run them.

But several days ago, editorial page editor Gail Collins handed me a memo in response to my inquiries. (You can read it in its entirety at www.nytimes.com/danielokrent; look for posting No. 22.) Less a formal statute than an explanation and justification of practice, the document lays out the position of both Collins and her boss, Sulzberger, who bears ultimate responsibility for hiring and firing columnists. Collins explains why columnists must be allowed the freedom of their opinions, but insists that they "are obviously required to be factually accurate. If one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column." Corrections, under this new rule, are to be placed at the end of a subsequent column, "to maximize the chance that they will be seen by all their readers, everywhere," a reference to the wide syndication many of the columnists enjoy.

But who is to say what is factually accurate? Or whether a quotation is misrepresented? Or whether facts are used or misused in such a fashion as to render a columnist's opinion unfair? Or even whether fairness has anything to do with opinion in the first place? Can you imagine one of the Sunday morning television screamfests instituting a corrections policy?

In the consciously cynical words of a retired Times editor, speaking for all the hard-news types who find most commentary to be frippery, "How can you expect fairness from columnists when they make up all that stuff anyway?"

Of course they don't make the stuff up (at least the good ones don't). But many do use their material in ways that veer sharply from conventional journalistic practice. The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold. He can paint individuals he likes as paragons, and those he disdains as scoundrels. The more scurrilous practitioners rely on indirection and innuendo, nestling together in a bed of lush sophistry. I sometimes think opinion columns ought to carry a warning: "The following is solely the opinion of the author, supported by data I alone have chosen to include. Live with it." Opinion is inherently unfair.

Columnists also attract a crowd radically unlike the audience that sticks to the news pages. Judging by my mail, the more partisan of The Times's columnists draw two distinct sets of fanatical loyalists: those who wish to have their own views reinforced, and those who enjoy the hot thrill of a blood-pressure spike. Paul Krugman, writes Nadia Koutzen of Toms River, N.J., "makes more sense (along with Bob Herbert) than anyone. He states irrefutable facts." Paul Krugman, writes Donald Luskin of Palo Alto, Calif., has committed "dozens of substantive factual errors, distortions, misquotations and false quotations - all pronounced in a voice of authoritativeness that most columnists would not presume to permit themselves."

For a wider audience, Luskin serves as Javert to Krugman's Jean Valjean. From a perch on National Review Online, he regularly assaults Krugman's logic, his politics, his economic theories, his character and his accuracy. (If you want to see what kind of a rumble can evolve from a columnist's use of a quotation, go to posting No. 23 of my Web journal to find a series of links relating to a recent charge against Krugman: can you figure out who's right?) Similarly, David Corn of The Nation has taken aim at William Safire, charging in one recent piece that "under the cover of opinion journalism," Safire is "dishing out disinformation." And Maureen Dowd is followed faithfully around the Web by an avenging army of passionate detractors who would probably be devastated if she ever stopped writing.

Anyone who calls the Internet's bustling trade in columnist-attack a cottage industry might more accurately liken it to the arms bazaar in Peshawar. Peace and calm were not enhanced a few weeks ago when Times lawyers took a legal sledgehammer to an imaginary Op-Ed corrections column published by Robert Cox of the Web site The National Debate - but peace and calm rarely accompany arguments about political opinion in a polarized age.

This sort of contentiousness makes a clear, publicly stated corrections policy necessary, and finding a bright line in such murky precincts isn't easy. At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record. But if Safire asserts that there is a "smoking gun" linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn's best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren't going to prove it isn't so. "An opinion may be wrongheaded," Safire told me by e-mail last week, "but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction."

Safire good-humoredly (I think) asked me to whom he could complain if I quoted him out of context. I had a ready answer: "No one - I'm a columnist."

I generally don't like to engage in comparative newspapering, but I thought it was worth knowing what other papers do with (or to) their columnists. At The Boston Globe (owned by The New York Times Company), editorial page editor Renee Loth's practice is almost identical to the one now in place here; so is the policy of Paul Gigot, who presides over the opinion pages at The Wall Street Journal (definitely not owned by The Times). The Los Angeles Times actually allows its readers' representative to participate in decisions on columnist corrections. (No thanks, I'd rather not.) At The Washington Post, if a columnist doesn't want to write a correction recommended by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, Hiatt will put one on the op-ed page himself. At every one of these papers, the final arbiter is the editorial page editor.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would have made an excellent editorial page editor if he could have put up with the meetings, once said that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Gail Collins's determination that corrections will appear on their own at the end of a succeeding column, and not disappear into an unrelated digression, is on its own a significant piece of progress. But it's her assertion of responsibility that matters most. Critics might say her statement of policy is very gently phrased, but when I asked her if there was wiggle room, she was unequivocal: "It is my obligation to make sure no misstatements of fact on the editorial pages go uncorrected."

In the coming months I expect columnist corrections to become a little more frequent and a lot more forthright than they've been in the past. Yet the final measure of Collins's success, and of the individual columnists, will be not in the corrections but in the absence of the need for them. Wayne Wren of Houston, a self-described conservative and "avid reader" of National Review Online, expressed it with great equanimity in a recent e-mail message to my office: "If Mr. Krugman is making egregious errors in his Op-Ed column, they will catch up with him." Same goes for Brooks, Dowd, Friedman, Herbert, Kristof and Safire - and, most important, for The New York Times.

...................................................................................................................................

From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 9:44 am
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Daniel, welcome back. You wrote:

I see the historian much like the journalist, and the polemicist like the opinion columnist.

That is precisely why your views on this topic are so naive. You have completely misunderstood what historians do. Historians do not simply report supposedly straightforward facts. We question supposedly straightforward facts, and we quite often refute what contemporary media may have reported about these facts. What historians do is analyze complex facts and offer hypotheses and explanations for these complex facts. Our role is much more similar to the "Analysis" pieces in the NYTimes, which I suppose you could say are sort of halfway between regular news articles and op-ed pieces. This is why journalism and history are distinct disciplines.

Peter

...................................................................................................................................

From: Tarjei Straume
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 1:26 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

At 18:44 06.04.2004, Peter S wrote to Daniel:

You have completely misunderstood what historians do. Historians do not simply report supposedly straightforward facts. We question supposedly straightforward facts, and we quite often refute what contemporary media may have reported about these facts.

You say "we." Are you a historian then?

Tarjei

...................................................................................................................................

From: Myaso
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 1:37 pm
Subject: Re[2]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hello Peter,

Tuesday, April 6, 2004, 7:44:14 PM, you wrote:

I see the historian much like the journalist, and the polemicist like the opinion columnist.

That is precisely why your views on this topic are so naive. You have completely misunderstood what historians do. Historians do not simply report supposedly straightforward facts. We question supposedly straightforward facts, and we quite often refute what contemporary media may have reported about these facts. What historians do is analyze complex facts and offer hypotheses and explanations for these complex facts. Our role is much more similar to the "Analysis" pieces in the NYTimes, which I suppose you could say are sort of halfway between regular news articles and op-ed pieces. This is why journalism and history are distinct disciplines.

Ah, that's why there is saying that history is invented by historians to be very busy. I think it is wrong way if historians add their personal thoughts, which they call "explanations", to the science, like so called "analytics" do in NYTimes. What you think are explanations, can be something really different if we come to the history facts.

Best regards,
Myaso

...................................................................................................................................

From: Deborah
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 2:56 pm
Subject: NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligatio

Ah, the role and responsibility of the historian. Interesting topic.

Historians don't work with facts. They work with evidence.

Written evidence: letters, diaries, contemporary history, contemporary articles, and so forth.

Archaeological evidence: physical artifacts whether recovered or preserved.

Created evidence: interviews with the actors who participated in an event. Especially common in military history, but turns up in other fields.

Once historians have the evidence, what do they do with it? A lot of the time they simply carefully compile and organize the evidence and then offer a small and narrow thesis. I was recently looking at medieval watermills as an example of a research topic. The available data has kindly been organized and analyzed by historians and archaeologists. This makes it possible for the bigger thinking historians, Braudel being a good example, to write three large volumes on aspects of economic life in the world between 1400 and 1800. The only way people can write "big history" is if lots of other hardworking and largely unnoticed people write small history.

Now, let us say that I want to write a big book about cultural change in Elizabethan England. I'm going to depend on many other historians work compiling and organizing the fundamental data. I need to accurately cite every single one of these other historians, indicate exactly what I got from each of them and make it possible for anyone who questions any piece of my thesis to track down the source and see if it supports my argument.

I've only seen one piece by PS on any topic. It wasn't good history writing. Does anyone have any example that meets the basic criteria described above? As a serious reader of history, I will not treat any work seriously that doesn't have a full set of end notes and a complete bibliography.

Deborah

...................................................................................................................................

From: holderlin66
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 3:28 pm
Subject: Re: NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Peter wrote:

We question supposedly straightforward facts, and we quite often refute what contemporary media may have reported about these facts.

Sorry, that is Journalism and Journalism has fallen below Truth seekers to sensational, rip shit, N.Y. times forgery. Oh, is that a bad word, Forgery and fudging facts? But dear Peter, Bradfordianism is correct when he names Steiner as the Greatest Historican of the I AM that has yet presented research. Now, that, that is the ideal of great history.

...................................................................................................................................

From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 7:11 pm
Subject: Re: Re[2]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Myaso, you wrote:

I think it is wrong way if historians add their personal thoughts, which they call "explanations", to the science, like so called "analytics" do in NYTimes.

That seems to be Daniel's position as well. This is very, very naive. Anyone who opens up a history book looking for analysis-free facts, devoid of explanations and personal thoughts, is being extraordinarily foolish.

Peter

...................................................................................................................................

From: at
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 7:43 pm
Subject: Re: Re[2]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Myaso, you wrote:

I think it is wrong way if historians add their personal thoughts, which they call "explanations", to the science, like so called "analytics" do in NYTimes.

Peter Staudenmaier:

That seems to be Daniel's position as well. This is very, very naive. Anyone who opens up a history book looking for analysis-free facts, devoid of explanations and personal thoughts, is being extraordinarily foolish.

Daniel:

Peter, you are polarizing the issue to create a false dichotomy. The issue in history, as in journalism is not simply whether or not there is any interpretation or opinion mixed in the presentation of facts. Both history and journalism have some interpretation and opinion mixed in. Several authors have demonstrated that this is in fact an inevitability in all writing. Rather than viewing the question in a polarizing either-or light, I suggest that philosophy of history (and of journalism) can see the prejudices of the author as falling on a continuum between the poles of the admittedly impossible "objectivity" and what I would term "absolute bias". All authors are more or less objective, and more or less biased, in their work, and all to varying degrees. It is not an either-or proposition. I suggest that fundamentally, efforts towards objectivity tend to land closer to truth than efforts to "prove" a point (like that Steiner was a racist, for example). What did Steiner really think about the relationship of the individual to society?

Peter, I must say, I find you incredibly weak-minded for someone as apparently clever as you are. I have written at great length on philosophy of history, and all you can get from it is that I "apparently" stand for antiquarianism, a position I have already addressed at length. If you can't grasp my rather simple presentation on philosophy of history, I am not at all surprised that you fall flat on your face when you open a Steiner book.

The naive view is the one that paints a false polarity over a complex phenomenon.

Daniel Hindes

...................................................................................................................................

From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Tue Apr 6, 2004 8:27 pm
Subject: Re: Re[2]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Daniel, you wrote:

All authors are more or less objective, and more or less biased, in their work, and all to varying degrees. It is not an either-or proposition.

I agree.

I suggest that fundamentally, efforts towards objectivity tend to land closer to truth than efforts to "prove" a point

I disagree.

Peter

...................................................................................................................................

From: Myaso
Date: Wed Apr 7, 2004 7:03 am
Subject: Re[4]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hello Peter,

Wednesday, April 7, 2004, 5:11:05 AM, you wrote:

Hi Myaso, you wrote:

I think it is wrong way if historians add their personal thoughts, which they call "explanations", to the science, like so called "analytics" do in NYTimes.

That seems to be Daniel's position as well. This is very, very naive. Anyone who opens up a history book looking for analysis-free facts, devoid of explanations and personal thoughts, is being extraordinarily foolish.

I apply to the psychotherapy process here. If you know Carl Rogers client-centric therapy process, when therapist is completely NOT giving any analysis, and just letting the patient be in his process and he percept his patient as the holistic, able to self-heal system, you will understand what I mean. It is other than analytic approach in the science. I would call it synthetic in therms not reverse engineer some processes using some arguable methods, but see the process as its wholeness and try to describe it without any evaluative point of view. And I suppose you account your readers as naive (being the historical person in terms you provided), if you try to "chew out" facts with analytical instruments. You do not let your readers think. They are reading not history, but your perception of the history, which, I hope, you see are different things. Sorry for my English being not native.

Best regards,
Myaso

...................................................................................................................................

From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Wed Apr 7, 2004 10:50 am
Subject: Re: Re[4]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Myaso, you wrote:

I apply to the psychotherapy process here. If you know Carl Rogers client-centric therapy process, when therapist is completely NOT giving any analysis, and just letting the patient be in his process and he percept his patient as the holistic, able to self-heal system, you will understand what I mean.

That's downright stupid, in my view. Transference takes place in any therapy process.

It is other than analytic approach in the science.

Agreed. Psychotherapy is a different realm from the natural sciences. So is history.

I would call it synthetic in therms not reverse engineer some processes using some arguable methods, but see the process as its wholeness and try to describe it without any evaluative point of view.

If you try that in history, historians will have trouble taking you seriously.

And I suppose you account your readers as naive

No, quite the contrary. I think many readers are quite capable of handling analysis and evaluation in historical writing.

You do not let your readers think.

That's goofy. The way to get readers to think is to tell them what you think.

They are reading not history, but your perception of the history

Every single account of history, without exception, is a particular perception of history.

Sorry for my English being not native.

No worries. If you think I have misunderstood anything due to language barriers, please say so.

Peter

...................................................................................................................................

From: Myaso
Date: Wed Apr 7, 2004 12:43 pm
Subject: Re[6]: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hello Peter,

Wednesday, April 7, 2004, 8:50:49 PM, you wrote:

I apply to the psychotherapy process here. If you know Carl Rogers client-centric therapy process, when therapist is completely NOT giving any analysis, and just letting the patient be in his process and he percept his patient as the holistic, able to self-heal system, you will understand what I mean.

That's downright stupid, in my view. Transference takes place in any therapy process.

Ah, most English psychotherapy is based on stupid ideas. ;) Also there is transference and contrtransference, which are minimized in client-centric approach.

It is other than analytic approach in the science.

Agreed. Psychotherapy is a different realm from the natural sciences. So is history.

So, psychotherapy is based on some other issues than human nature and behavior which history uses as its basis?

I would call it synthetic in therms not reverse engineer some processes using some arguable methods, but see the process as its wholeness and try to describe it without any evaluative point of view.

If you try that in history, historians will have trouble taking you seriously.

No. Evaluation means you add your personal into the facts. There IS another approach. I am sorry if you have not heard about it. But you still have time. :)

And I suppose you account your readers as naive

No, quite the contrary. I think many readers are quite capable of handling analysis and evaluation in historical writing.

You do not let your readers think.

That's goofy. The way to get readers to think is to tell them what you think.

Do you think you can feed hungry people not with food but with the stories what food do you like (or even with your digested food)? But you can cook them food. Do you see the difference?

They are reading not history, but your perception of the history

Every single account of history, without exception, is a particular perception of history.

So, noone's perception can be called only right perception. Agree?

Sorry for my English being not native.

No worries. If you think I have misunderstood anything due to language barriers, please say so.

It is ok for now. Thanks.

Best regards,
Myaso

...................................................................................................................................

From: at
Date: Wed Apr 7, 2004 6:10 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Hi Daniel, welcome back. You wrote:

I see the historian much like the journalist, and the polemicist like the opinion columnist.

Peter Staudenmaier:

That is precisely why your views on this topic are so naive. You have completely misunderstood what historians do. Historians do not simply report supposedly straightforward facts. We question supposedly straightforward facts, and we quite often refute what contemporary media may have reported about these facts. What historians do is analyze complex facts and offer hypotheses and explanations for these complex facts. Our role is much more similar to the "Analysis" pieces in the NYTimes, which I suppose you could say are sort of halfway between regular news articles and op-ed pieces. This is why journalism and history are distinct disciplines.

Daniel:

My dear and learned Historian,

Please give me an example of a historical fact.

Thank you.

Daniel Hindes

...................................................................................................................................

From: winters_diana
Date: Thu Apr 8, 2004 4:39 am
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] NYTimes.com Article: The Public Editor: The Privileges of Opinion, the Obligations of Fact

Daniel states:

What did Steiner really think about the relationship of the individual to society?

Daniel, it's hard to believe you think that's the question to solve to figure out whether there is racism in Rudolf Steiner.

It's not much better than Tarjei's comparison to McCarthy. Racists, like other people, could think of a hundred ways to organize individuals' relationship to society, and it wouldn't necessarily have anything to do with whether they were racist.

What, in your mind, did that question have to do with Steiner's racism or proving the lack thereof? I could suspect (though I'd just be guessing) it has to do with the fond notion espoused by some here that a racist would not want people of inferior races "integrated" or "assimilated" into society (the way Tarjei and Bradford, for instance, seem to believe that lusting after Jewish women means they can't be anti-Semitic). Or perhap, it is another vague reference to the idea that the "I Am" rises above race? In each society, you "incarnate" there for awhile, but of course your spiritual self "rises above" all that.

In a later post from Daniel:

[from the thread "Steiner on Racial Evolution"]

If you actually read the entire lecture where this idea is presented, you might notice that the defining characteristic - the identifier - that places individuals into one race or the other is their behavior! Those who DO good, become good. Those who DO evil, become evil.

Oh God, Daniel, this is so disgusting. Those who do good become good – and get a nice skin color to show it, right?

In Steiner's view, at this future point many thousands of years in the future, behavior will actually determine racial affiliation. Race is not the marker, behavior is.

And you guys talk about reading comprehension! If behavior determines racial affiliation, then race is the marker for behavior. That's what a "marker" means. (It seems almost unbelievable to have to point this out, but this "dividing into good and evil races" is rather childlike thinking, even aside from whether race, or something else, is the marker.)

Can you really not grasp that to be nonracist, it would need to toss out the correlations to race, anyway? You can still have your silly apocalyptic division of humanity into good versus evil. To be tied in some essentialist, spiritualized manner to your race is a racist concept, whether the tie is your behavior or who your daddy was in the old days "when race mattered." Think real hard! Your "philosophy of history" pretensions are so helpful in allowing you to avoid ever discussing this!

Maybe we could forget, just for a minute, about how juvenile it is to picture dividing humanity into good vs. evil. Let's say we could really do this. Line up, boys and girls. Now. I'm going to hand out face paint, so we will know who is on which team. The good ones must paint themselves, say, purple, and the evil ones, how about green. (Anything but gray, or Tarjei will have nightmares!) It will be very colorful and then we will always be certain who is good and who is evil.

Remember Dr. Seuss's The Sneetches? "The Star-Belly Sneetches / Had bellies with stars. / The Plain-Belly Sneetches / Had none upon thars." And after that, things got ugly?

Diana

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Click to subscribe to anthroposophy_tomorrow
 

April/May 2004

The Uncle Taz "Anthroposophy Tomorrow" Files

Anthroposophy & Anarchism

Anthroposophy & Scientology

Anthroposophical Morsels

Anthroposophy, Critics, and Controversy

Search this site powered by FreeFind