The Los Angeles Times recently declared that it was no longer going to run “factually inaccurate” letters about climate change. Anyone who follows the, uh, “debate” on that issue knows what the paper is talking about. Climate science is up there with abortion and gun control in terms of setting off an irrational, emotional explosion among a certain faction of the public … with the notable difference that there is actual science involved in the mechanics of human-caused climate shifts.
A reporter at Mother Jones then called around to nine other big mainstream papers to see what their policies are regarding … reader opinions that have no basis in fact. He got some great weasel-word quotes. The best/worst came from the Denver Post, who said:
“Most skeptics of any sophistication recognize that global warming has occurred and appreciate that some or much of it in recent decades could be caused by human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. But they tend to believe, for example, that there are more uncertainties in the science than generally conceded, that the relative dearth of warming over the past 15 or more years is a blow to the models and that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has demonstrated consistent bias in favor of alarmist interpretations. Surely readers should be free to debate such points.”
Like “skeptical’ readers, the Post, is either unaware or is ignoring the all-time record levels of heat throughout the past generation and cherry-picking a start date for calculating a “dearth”, along with implying that scientists had guaranteed a heat curve rising without interruption. But that’s how the “skeptic” game is played, which is why the LA Times said “enough is enough.”
But there’s a kind of positive-spin Pandora’s Box effect to this if the Times stands by its promise and it catches on elsewhere. Namely, if news organizations stop accepting blatantly false statements and accusations from readers, what next? Do those news organizations stop running transparently false assertions and charges from politicians, business leaders and community activists? What does this mean for the pundit class, which is heavily dependent on spinning a salable argument from what is often junk logic created out of junk “facts”? Is any news organization truly prepared to police all that? (And again, I note that The Tampa Bay Times — under-girded by the Poynter Foundation — is preparing to launch a PunditFact truth-assessing service for the so often wildly-inaccurate “expert” class.)
There is of course something quaint about applying this lofty new standard to Letters to the Editor. Though most come via e-mail, such opinions arrive with a formality (and a legitimate name) missing from the hundreds of commenting trolls who lay siege to anyone daring to spew the “libtard hoax of global warming”.
But if, at long last, the professional press accepts factual accuracy as the sine qua non of journalism, and puts a stop to letting anyone — politician or foamy-mouthed neighborhood crank — “message” away on their air-time or ink, we’re talking a quantum change in the definition of “news”. I mean, do they then stop giving a public platform to culture warriors tell us homosexuality is “a choice”? Do they say “no” to business insiders attempting to convince us that JP Morgan Chase was blind-sided and screwed by an capitalism-hating White House in this latest settlement? Do they continue to allow people to peddle the canard that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (i.e. Barney Frank and the liberal Congress) were the catalytic forces behind the 2008 sub-prime collapse? That austerity is the proven way out of financial recessions? And what about “standing down” in Benghazi? The IRS-focused-only-on-conservatives “scandal”?
The LA Times is confining its “Just the facts, mam” policy to its opinion pages. But when you open the lid on the box, strange things are likely to fly out.
The bottom line, of course, is this; “What exactly is to be gained by a ‘debate’ based in thoroughly discredited information”? Commercial papers place a high value on being community forums, where every citizen can have their say. But at some point in an era of instant, often unfiltered call-and-response, those whose job it is to curate these forums have to ask, “When does ignorance stop having value”?