The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, February 01, 2004

A worthwhile piece from the NYT's Daniel Okrent - and the Hutton/BBC connection

Having castigated more than once the performance of the US news ombduds. it's only right to signal an article of genuine value from one of the breed.

Okrent's piece canvasses the problem faced by (supposed) newspapers of record who find stories that cry out to be in the record have been broken by other sources.

It's a problem that, for one thing, highlights a functional difference between online and dead-tree news. Working online, I rarely go to the Times front page, or that of any other rag: I get links via the Poor Man's Nexis, blogs or other sources.

I go where the link takes me. Wire pieces, I would tend to take from members' pages (Reuters make their stuff relatively easily available on their own sites; UPI perhaps less so; AP not at all, I think). Pieces originated in one paper may be syndicated or reprinted.

So, online, the problem doesn't really arise. Like the bomber [1], the story will always get through.

Dead-tree is obviously a different matter. And dead-tree, we online kibbitzers must acknowledge, is where the rags make the money that finances online.

Okrent gets somewhere near the nub here: former Times managing editor Gene Roberts once said by way of explaining the difficulty of handling other papers' big stories, "You can't steal an elephant.'' The necessary checking and re-reporting The Times had to go through to run its own version of The [Toledo] Blade's Vietnam story required several weeks. Tracking down Gellman's Iraqi sources might have taken years.

But, Okrent goes on,
it's not as if The Times, and every other newspaper on the planet, doesn't consistently publish material it hasn't gathered on its own. When a district attorney announces an indictment, The Times doesn't assume it needs weeks to interview witnesses, check allegations or otherwise vet the prosecutor's charges. When a politician makes a speech, there's often so much taken at face value a critic could argue (and in my e-mail, many, many do) that the paper is shilling for the politician.

The point is that most of what a paper prints is originated elsewhere, and taken more or less on trust.

(You might take it as Okrent's answer to the fact that the New York Times has no fact-checking department: too many facts to check. I'd reply that just because you can't check every fact doesn't mean you can't check some. And obviously, the professional journalist's nose helps determine which.)

And Hutton? During the oral evidence given to the Hutton Inquiry, I was pretty much concentrating on the vagaries of the 45 minute intelligence. But a key element to emerge from the Report - which was certainly flagged by comments made by Hutton in the course of the examination of witnesses - was his, rather impractical, notion that there was no difference between an allegation made by a media outlet, and an allegation by a source broadcast by that outlet.

Okrent's you can't check every fact argument applies equally to Hutton's idea (to which I'll be returning shortly).

  1. It's a Stanley Baldwin quote: I'm feeling lazy - Google it yourself!

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