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, June 28, 2004

The New York Times ombud goes further - on anonymice

On June 13, I had promising news from Daniel Okrent on the subject of anonymous sourcing.

In this week's piece, he throws down the gauntlet to the cream of his profession:
will the chief editors of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The A.P. jointly agree not to cover group briefings conducted by government officials and other political figures who refuse to allow their names to be used?

Now, you know, I know and he knows that absolutely nothing will come of this. The fact that this is truly (and not ironically) a modest proposal will make its being comprehensively ignored all the more telling. One might as well forbid a child to eat the slice of chocolate cake it finds on its plate.

One might condemn such a futile gesture on Okrent's part as conspicuous hang-wringing, wanting only a Hearts and Flowers accompaniment. But, given the recent history of the Times and the Post on anonymous sources, futility would come under the heading of fair comment.

The same piece has Okrent querying the Times' decision to run on A1 a review of the Clinton doorstep by chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, who Zeros in to give the tome the Pearl Harbor treatment.

Okrent has drunk too deep of the objective journalism Kool Aid not to be affronted by the fronting (ha!) of what is by definition an opinion piece.

But he can't help admitting the absurdity of the duality:
The front page is the home for news, and arguably for analysis, but if it's also the home for unbuckled opinion about figures on the public stage, then you could argue that editorials belong there, too.


The one thing which is fatal to all systems of dualistic thought is a tertium quid - and true believer Okrent supplies the fatal entity: analysis. For what is an analysis piece than the opinion of a specialist [1] on the implications of the news of the day? There will be some primary facts in such a piece (usually, some pols' bloviations), but the essence is the application of expertise to those facts to come up with an opinion on the likely course of events (or whatever the purpose of the piece might be). There is no duality, but, at the very least, a range. And even that two-dimensional analogy is probably inadequate for many pieces of the genre.

(And, I dare say, analysing what purport to be straight news pieces would come up with a good deal of material which is inferential, and thus involves an element of opinion.)

  1. The ratio of whose number to that of generalist political hacks I suspect approaches that between Falstaff's bread and liquor bills (Henry IV Part I Act II Sc 4 (First Folio)):

    1503: Item, a Capon. ii.s.ii.d.
    1504: Item, Sawce iiii.d.
    1505: Item, Sacke, two Gallons. v.s.viii.d.
    1506: Item, Anchoues and Sacke after Supper.
    1507: Item, Bread. ob.


    1508: O monstrous, but one halfe penny-worth of
    1509: Bread to this intollerable deale of Sacke?

    The ratio of 5/8 to ½d is 136 to 1 (12 pence in each shilling). And how much in today's money was 5/8 in 1402 money? A useful listing Current Value of Old Money points me to this page which has a gizmo. According to this, the 2002 equivalent of the sum is £137.78, or around 486 times the 1402 amount.

    Two gallons - weights and measures conversion gizmo - comes to around 20 75cl bottles (standard bottle size for all EU wines - sack is anachonistic for 1402; for the 1590s, it would be a non-fortified wine, from memory). The implied price per bottle is £6.90, rather less than one might normally expect to pay by the bottle in a London pub or wine-bar - but then, Falstaff was an exceptionably good customer!

    (I'm amazed that the number is even in the right ballpark, given what's passed under London Bridge in six centuries...)

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