Sunday, February 7, 2010

Stupid Question

The Public Editor at the New York Times, Clark Hoyt, is doing the public a great disservice, not only by calling for Ethan Bronner's reassignment, but for asserting a reason, apparently supported by Harvard's Alex Jones, that makes a nonsense of reason itself.

Let me be clear: Ethan Bronner is a friend, and I have followed his writing about Israel and the Middle for 20 years, that is, since before I knew him. If you think my friendship with him means that everything I am about to say is not to be trusted, then you have pretty much bought in to the standard Hoyt is proposing, and you might as well not read on.

The (sublime) problem of truth is not just for journalists, of course. Every scholar, every judge, every scientist, struggles with it. The best answer we have is something like this: Ask a good question. Then hold yourself stringently to rules of evidence. To be sure, how you get to good questions is not a predictable matter: ask, say, Thomas Kuhn. And how you hold yourself to rules of evidence is not a simple matter: ask, say, Karl Popper. But if your question is stupid or you violate the rules of evidence, then you should not be trusted.

Which brings me back to Ethan Bronner. A good journalist knows questions most readers do not and then works diligently to answer them with data, witnesses, and obvious experts. A very good journalist knows questions most journalists do not, and then works tirelessly to answer them with unimpeachable data, by becoming an eye witnesses himself or herself, and finding experts who are not obvious. I have not agreed with the thrust of everything Bronner has written over the past couple of years, but he is very good journalist.

If Bronner had been found to be ignoring compelling questions, or cooking the evidence in some sly way, you would have the right to explore his state of mind: whether some pay-off or family loyalty explains his lapses. But what if there are no obvious lapses? Why go ad hominem when there is no rationale for this? The sophomoric revelation that "we all have biases"--worse, that biases come from determined psychological states, explicable by families, or class, or tribe, etc.--is not enough to discredit arguments or the person who makes them. One son of a factory owner turns out Richard Arkwright; another turns out Fredrick Engels. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but transferring Bronner from Jerusalem for his son's decisions borrows from the same grotesque epistemology with which people were transferred to the Gulag for their son's decisions.

WHAT, IN THIS context, is Hoyt's specific claim? He writes:

[E]ven the best and most honorable journalists can find themselves in awkward circumstances that can affect their credibility — and the newspaper’s — with a public that has little trust in journalists. In this case, the guidelines stop far short of dictating what should be done. They say that if a family member’s activities create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it should be disclosed to editors, who must then decide whether the staffer should avoid certain stories or even be reassigned to a different beat.

In other words--or so we are to surmise--if Bronner's son is in the Israeli Army, most will assume his arguments are biased toward the Israeli Army, and the Times's integrity will suffer. After all, who trusts journalists to begin with? But if he took his job seriously, the Public Editor would not avoid the question of whether most should think this. He would educate, well, the public. I mean to the classical liberal assumptions about how we reasonably get at the truth, assumptions underlying the Constitution, and the freedom of newspapers, for that matter. Hell, the public might even trust journalists more if actually stood for something this important, and held themselves to this standard. (Bill Keller's answer to Hoyt comes close.)

Instead, Hoyt is valorizing crude behaviorist ideas masquerading as liberal ones, that we are, really, nothing but bundles of "socialized preferences." What we think is the product of our "demographic." Our claims of fact (about history, society, etc.) are, by extension, an expression of our material "interests," or if we are deeply socialized, "values." The only truth, as Chuck Todd would say, is "the perception out there." The only game is "shaping the narrative." Perceptions, presumably, can be polled. How scientific of him.

I have written about this problem with the press before. It makes you weep with missing William Shirer and Edward R. Murrow and Alexander Kendrick and the generation of reporters who covered the war of liberal societies over European tyrannies and could smell totalitarian ideas a mile away. Bronner can. Anyway, just because this behaviorism is false doesn't mean it can't win. Moving Bronner would be a small victory. Sarah Palin's demographic--abetted not by a sympathetic press, but a hopelessly cynical one--is waiting in the wings.