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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Monday, March 29, 2004

Okrent on op-ed corrections... the usual curate's egg [1] from the New York Times ombud.

I've mentioned before (on March 5, for instance) that Okrent can be expected to play a long game over the 14 months left on his contract. He needs to pick his targets, and husband his credibility.

So - as witness his Landesman comments, which I discussed on February 29 - he is not inclined to find exclusively for one side or the other in a controversy.

Thus, his lede is a tease:
It sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at The Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow.

He is deliberately trying our patience: the Oracle cannot be rushed!

After pointing out that the seven (I hadn't realised the precise number) op-eds were not as other journos on the Times [2], he brings in a memo from
editorial page editor Gail Collins
which he put on his 'blog' [3].

She makes the astonishing assertion that
It's not possible to be an independent voice and also be edited for content...
which simply cannot be right. All book authors, fiction and non-fiction, have editors, whose role (as I understand it) includes both guiding their charges as to subject-matter and treatment, and, once the book is delivered, judiciously pruning and rearranging. And these are works at the antipode of the Just the facts, ma'am reporting that regular Times journos paradigmatically [4] produce.

The idea that any writer in any genre can dispense with firm but sympathetic editing without detriment to his work is truly risible [5].

However, Collins does say of the Magnificent Seven, that
while their opinions are their own, the columnists are obviously required to be factually accurate.

She seems to view factual accuracy with a good deal of condescension [6]. At any rate, the rule is that
If one of them makes an error, he or she is expected to promptly correct it in the column. After some experimentation at different ways of making corrections, we now encourage a uniform approach, with the correction made at the bottom of the piece.

She justifies this differential rule on the grounds that
  1. columnists are frequently syndicated, and self-correction promotes uniformity across outlets: and

  2. readers usually communicate with columnists direct.

[The memo [7] ends in an editing snafu:
These are some of the top writers in American journalism. They take their reputation for accuracy very, very serio

Is that more drollery from Brer Okrent? Or a genuine lack of editing...]

Okrent - with a Mel Gibson Passion allusion, perhaps [8]? - asks
But who is to say what is factually accurate?

He says that many op-eds
use their material in ways that veer sharply from conventional journalistic practice. The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold.

He's kidding, surely? It's just the
opinion writer
chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold.

And not the hard news guys who are subject, as he quotes earlier, to the rigorous regime of corporate corrections as laid down in the Style Book: they never choose which facts to present!

Does Okrent really think that?

After some prose so purple that even I might have blue-pencilled it, he concludes that
Opinion is inherently unfair.

And he then spends some time on the rowdy crowd of partisans, pro and con, that op-eds attract, who are interested in circus rather than enlightenment.

Okrent admits that
there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west.
But seems to agree with William Safire's comment that
An opinion may be wrongheaded but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.

And that is right, up to a point. An opinion whether God exists, or the Yankees will win the World Series this year, is not necessarily falsifiable, though the reasoning supporting such opinions is susceptible to logical analysis; an opinion that the sun moves around the Earth eminently is falsifiable.

Those in professions such as law and medicine daily give their opinions as to existing or proposed states of affairs. And those opinions are certainly to a substantial extent susceptible to review and criticism based on objective criteria. Pace Safire, such opinions may well be wrong.

But there is no dichotomy, not even a gamut, between fact and opinion - that is the Big Lie underlying the false notion of objective journalism. The relationship between the two is much more complex, and usually inextricably entangled. Even in the hardest of news pieces, selection and omission - and expressions of opinion - are essential parts of the final product. As are the skills of at least one, hopefully several, editors.

The practical outcome of all of this at the Times is more op-ed corrections. About which I am the opposite of churlish.

But the issue of op-ed corrections has once more focussed on the illusory distinction between fact and opinion which American journalism is striving to defend with the same desperation and grip on reality as old George Wallace hoping to bar the way to desegregation by placing himself at the schoolhouse door.

  1. In the popular sense. Which is not the sense in which the expression was used in the Punch cartoon by George du Maurier (grandfather of novelist Daphne, I think) of November 9 1895:
    This showed a timid curate (that is, a junior clergyman) having breakfast in his Bishop's home. The Bishop says: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg there, Mr Jones", to which the curate replies, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"
    The 'joke' is (a cruel class satire, as so often from Punch) that the curate is the lowest form of clerical life, and is bound to toady indefinitely to the Bish in the hope of preferment. An egg can be partly good only as a woman can be partly pregnant.

    The common herd being morons, the expression has passed into the language in a literal meaning it was never intended to bear.

    Much the same fate befell the expression Up to a point, Lord Copper from Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Another toady, another euphemism. In context, it means That's complete bollocks, but it's more than my job's worth to say as much.

  2. Any chance for the general media phobia of italics might end some time soon?

  3. He doesn't seem to have mastered the concept of the permalink. Not that Blogger PLs work to give me any standing to talk. I'm only saying...

    And last night, the memo did not have the intro it now does, to distinguish it as not Okrent's own work. The unadorned version is probably cached somewhere. But not something to make a Federal case of.

  4. Not my paradigm, of course, but that which seems to be generally accepted in the American journalistic profession.

  5. As I've said before on the point, Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

  6. British readers may have in mind the attitude towards tradesmen of the character played by Penelope Keith in the oft-repeated 1970s sitcom The Good Life.

  7. I daresay it'll be fixed by the time you read it.

  8. Francis Bacon's jesting Pilate, who would not stay for an answer.

    As I'm sure I've mentioned before, it's a line used in Mr Smith Goes To Washington by the main hack (played by Thomas Mitchell) who's teasing Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) for being a Christmas tiger as Senate appointee.

    His line is that journos, unlike pols, aren't corrupt because they don't need to be re-elected. The flick spends as much time on corruption in newspapers as on the political variety.

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