The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard

NEW SLAUGHTERTalk about setting dangerous precedents.

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”?

10 thoughts on “The LA Times Applies a Factual Standard

  1. Jeremy Powers says:

    As a former journalist, I’m all for this. News that is “fit to print” ought to be news that is at least reasonably factual. I realize that facts are not always facts to everyone. A “fact” based on a single piece of research has led to 40 years of news stories essentially saying nothing you put in your mouth is safe to eat because a rat that ingested 1,000 times its body weight of something died a week earlier than average. But denying solid research that has been as close to proven as science allows again and again AND AGAIN, is pointless.

    When this country was formed, I don’t think our founders had any concept of the idea that people would intentionally lie for profit. And, if they did, I’m sure they didn’t think that would become the majority of “speech” and “press” in this country.

    And, yes, I do think it should be applied to politicians, businesses, school superintendents, and local lunatics. I used to. I had a US Senator spitting mad when I wouldn’t put in a news release about how his college intern proved that radiated pork was perfectly safe to eat. Maybe it was, but a senator’s intern from a Midwestern state is hardly “the best source” of that information.

    I certainly don’t think that lying should be made illegal – like some new exception to the First Amendment. But certainly a news organization should set a standard for what appears under its masthead.

    1. It’s time to take an evolutionary step. Time for the professionals to acknowledge that they have a higher duty than just offering a microphone to “all sides”.

      1. Jeremy Powers says:

        Agreed. Journalists who insist that talking to “all sides” – including the crazy sides – is the best they can do need to realize, then, there best is not good enough.

  2. Dennis Lang says:

    This is a fantastic question. However, I also wonder as you suggest the danger of opening that Pandora’s box. Who should be responsible for legislating what is factual, what is pure ignorance? Most of these issues are far from black and white, and opinion, even idiotic (by what standard?) is free to be expressed. Where does suppression of it begin–or end?

    I think I lean toward the completely open conversation. The discerning reader/observer winnowing through and distinguishing BS from evidence that supports the truth. Journalism at its best is there to oversee, inform, and comment on the debates.

    1. Well Dennis, I think the astonishing glut of blogs and partisan sites on every imaginable topic provides ample opportunity to seek out a broad range of thinking on whatever your interest. Mainstream papers don’t have to pretend they alone are providing a “welcome to all” forum. Climate skepticism is one of the easiest to rebut … because there is an enormous over-weighting in favor science, as compared to ideological ranting. But what about homosexuality? is that still an “open question” where “reasonable people can disagree”? How about seat belts saving lives? Helmets for motorcyclists … and their effect on overall insurance rates? The professional press is doing no one a favor by alerting people to “what is out there”. Everyone who cares has long been aware of “what’s out there”, and it is a pointless distraction from solving problems.

  3. Jockomo Feenanay says:

    It’s a nice first step. Not the correct fist step, but a nice one. While not publishing these letters might prevent someone from getting bad information — it does nothing to enlighten folks who already possess the bad “facts.”

    -Not- doing something is a poor substitute for doing something. I long for the days when the evening news ended with the commentator explaining to us what we’d just heard. A like Senator Bloviator may have been aired unedited in the first block of the show, but the anchor was always likely to refute it by the end of the show. Probably didn’t hurt viewership to have meaningful content where the “Somebody Saved A Kitten” stories go today.

    Modern journalism reminds me of a modern gas station — where once we got full service, we’re now expected to check our own oil and facts.

    1. Ha! I see very little local TV news anymore, but when I do I’m astonished at how much more lifestyle/entertainment/”happy community” stuff is on than when I did. Hell, I’d overlook the lack of courage in not rebutting the bullshit if any of them actually dared run some kind of consumer advocate feature. You know, going after the Deltas and Wells Fargos and UnitedHealths of the world instead of just the crooked vacuum repairman in Eagan. But that guy ain’t payin’ their bills, is he?

  4. PM says:

    Isn’t it usually the case that when a journalist is “presenting all sides” of a story that said “journalist” is trying to cover his/her ass?

    But on to a larger question. If news sources should follow your advice, Brian, and no longer publish “quack” articles on climate change (just to take one example), isn’t it more likely that those who question human caused climate change will instead turn towards a “trusted” news source that endorses their “quack” views, rather than actually starting to question those ‘quack” views?

    If the goal of journalism is to advance truth/accuracy/knowledge, then the goal of journalists should be to change minds. And it might be that the best way to do that is to examine “quack” views in depth (particularly looking at questions such as “who profits?”, etc.). I’d love to see a real life version of “Thank You For Smoking” appearing as a factual expose in one of our newspapers of record…..

    1. What I’d like to see, and would pay a cable channel premium to get, is something along the lines of “The Truth Network” — essentially a formalized version of what Stewart and Colbert do every night. ‘Politician X said this. But the reality is this. (Roll tape). Politician X has also said this and this and this, (more tape), and is heavily funded by SuperPAC Y, which gets most of its cash from Industrialist Z’. And ‘Pundit A yesterday appeared on AllRantNews saying such and such … almost none of which is true, specifically, with citations … .”

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