Monday, February 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Editors

In the previous entry, we noted that the University of Illinois' Polar Research Group (misidentified as the Arctic Climate Research Center) said this in regard to its data being abused by George Will in his latest mondo-bizarro "global cooling" column:
It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
It sure is. And this has not passed without notice.

Post ombudsman Andy Alexander and Washington Post Writers Group editorial director Alan Shearer have reportedly responded, sort of, by saying that the Post has a "multi-layered" editing process and arguing, incredibly, that maybe Will wasn't all that wrong. Or that it's possible with a little digging and some creative thinking to come up with a scenario under which Will's statements aren't blatantly false. Or that somebody, somewhere, agrees with him. Or something.

Here's Shearer:
We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn't have enough to send in a correction.

I can find "plenty of references" supporting the hoaxed Moon landing theory, too. Can Will write a "Moon Landings: Fake!" column for the Post and get it printed? What about a column that gets its support from the good folks at the Flat Earth Society?. Exactly how false does a "fact" have to be before the Post op-ed staff will refuse to print it? (Of course, the hollow Earth people hotly dispute the claims of the Flat Earth Society, but that's another story--maybe Will could use both of them in one column.)

No, the Post's responses are excuses, pure and simple. Any objective, halfway-competent fact checker would have seen massive problems with Will's column in a few minutes. And it wouldn't matter what the checker's take on global warming is, because everything in the column fell into one of three categories: irrelevant, misleading, or, in our most popular category, just plain wrong.

Now, I've been a Post subscriber for three decades. It has always been a good paper; at times it has been a great paper. But, multi-layered editing or no, this is a sorry excuse for journalism. If this kind of blatant dishonesty is permitted, how can we take anything in the Post op-ed pages seriously?

A little comparison is instructive. Back in January, a newspaper printed a column in which the author wrote about a dilemma: the husband of a friend had been jailed for molesting a young girl. The man professed his innocence, and the columnist seemed sympathetic.

The problem is, the column was both misleading and factually inaccurate, with the result that the ambiguity of the man's guilt was greatly overstated. So the following subsequently appeared in the pages of the same paper:
The author [of the column] was writing about the dilemma she felt when a friend's husband was sent to jail for molesting a young girl, despite his protestations of innocence. In the end, she discovered that even though she wanted to believe her friend's husband, she couldn't quite do it.

The column had factual errors, and editors in the Magazine, including me, failed to catch them. The author wrote that the man had been talked into accepting a plea agreement, and implied that there had been only one accuser. In fact, the man had turned down the plea offer, and had been tried and convicted. Also, more than one girl made accusations. The inescapable conclusion is that the man's guilt was not as ambiguous as presented. .... Today, I want to apologize for our errors ....
Now that is a correction. That is an editor who takes responsibility for what he prints. And who is this? Why, it's Tom Shroder, editor of the Washington Posts's Sunday magazine. (Read the full correction here--it even includes a letter from the victim's grandmother, reprinted in full.)

Good for you, Tom. It's a shame that the op-ed editors don't have the same kind of guts.

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