Wednesday, January 12, 2005

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Regarding Dan Rather and Armstrong Williams

I've been remiss in not posting about the Rathergate Commission report as well as the Armstrong Williams scandal. Fortunately, Kathleen Parker's syndicated column sums up my thoughts on both matters pretty well -- so go check out her argument (Jeff Jarvis too -- though that's always a good recommendation).

Oh, except for this part of Parker's essay:

What happened with Williams affects all of us in the business, as we share the same precious real estate and public trust. To readers seeing columnists clustered together on a page, we appear to be members of the same club. Increasingly, however, commentators are products of think tanks or politics--or renegade blond prosecutors--which can be problematic, but not always bad.

Many of these people, including Williams, can bring unique insights and experiences to the debate. The same is true of the new media genre known as blogs, in which citizen journalists post news links and commentary on the Web, often shadowing the mainstream media, challenging and fact-checking, as well as influencing outcomes in politics and government.

They are a formidable and welcome force, but as non-journalists in the institutional sense, they're accountable to no one. Therein shines the little light we can find among these dark tales of the fallen.

For all their flaws, mainstream (institutional) journalists are accountable where others are not. When they mess up, consequences are real and ruthless, as Williams and the CBS folks can attest. That much consumers can rely upon. (emphasis added)

In one sense Parker is correct -- if a blogger just screws up, nothing prevents that blogger from continuing to post. However, without acknowledging mistakes, that blogger is suddenly going to have a lot fewer readers than before -- and that is a formidable constraint. The mainstream media can experience this problem as well, but not as powerfully. In part that's because a blogger is the sole content provider for his or her blog, whereas a columnist -- or even an anchorman -- is only a cog in a larger media machine.

The key is that bolded part about "acknowledging mistakes" -- and this is one area where the blogosphere has an advantage. Ironically, because bloggers tend to screw up on a regular basis, it is far easier for us to admit error. Journalists are probably more diligent at fact-checking, and probably make fewer mistakes overall. But they do make them. Because these mistakes are more infrequent, and because accuracy is a slightly more precious currency in the mediasphere than the blogosphere, they will resist admissions of error -- compounding the original problem.

This dynamic is reflected in RatherGate. The telling section in the CBS report is how producer Mary Mapes, Rather, et al reacted after their report was challenged. They dug in their heels and engaged in even more distorted reporting in an attempt to defend the veracity of their documentation (check out p. 183 of the report, for example).

posted by Dan on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM


Public ridicule is a powerful and effective self-regulating mechanism in the blogosphere. But that is only the case because almost anyone can point out and publish comments or corrections anywhere on the internet. The most you can do with the MSM is write a letter or email-- but they are still the gatekeepers regarding publication or even acknowledgment of the correction. How many corrections received by big dailies ever make it to the corrections page? Who knows except the MSM?

What is amazing is the resistance of the MSM even when the blogosphere is all over them like a cheap suit. It's almost as if they don't understand that they can't stonewall us anymore and that continuing to try only destroys more of their credibility and diminishes their stature even further.

posted by: PM on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Well, yes and no. CBS surely was resistant to the idea that its story had problems, despite widespread criticism in the blogosphere it should have examined carefully.

On the other hand any individual or organization that publishes anything anyone reads is going to be seen by some of its critics as slow to respond to criticism. How often does Dan respond to corrections and criticism here? How often, for that matter, do I? Most media organizations have much larger audiences (and publish more to criticize) than he or I do.

The fact is that most criticism of the media is shallow or misinformed. It doesn't merit response. Even when it does, the expedient thing to do may be to respond indirectly -- if I write something that gives an impression later found to be misleading, say, I just don't repeat the mistake in the next story. And often as not accurate, responsible criticism takes much effort to separate from the much larger body of dopey comments and tendentious rants that flood into the same in-boxes and sometimes flood out of the same blogs.

posted by: Zathras on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

I'm still waiting for FOX to apologize for all the support they gave to the Swift Boat nutties. A great deal of the "facts" they were promoting regarding Kerry were proven false on the internet and elsewhere, yet FOXcasters pushed the stories as if they were fact.

posted by: millie on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

This puzzles me. What is it that makes you think that bloggers acknowledge mistakes more often than anyone else, or that they lose readership if they don't? I haven't especially noticed that either of those things is true.

posted by: Kevin Drum on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Seconded, Kevin.

However, without acknowledging mistakes, that blogger is suddenly going to have a lot fewer readers than before -- and that is a formidable constraint.

Hasn't stopped Instapundit yet.

posted by: Catsy on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

"However, without acknowledging mistakes, that blogger is suddenly going to have a lot fewer readers than before -- and that is a formidable constraint."
It depends on the readership, ideological/partisan readerships will not care for acknowledgement, it makes you look weak (except of course for token acknowledgement, that makes you look principled(!)).
But for the reasonable readership it prolly would turn them off, but unfortionately the reasonable readership is small.

OTOH someone else is bound to say that you are full of it, which is a notable thing about the blogosphere.

posted by: Factory on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

I have to fifth this:

However, without acknowledging mistakes, that blogger is suddenly going to have a lot fewer readers than before -- and that is a formidable constraint.

Is there any empirical evidence to support this? I think enough people would contend this claim to make it non-obvious.

A while ago, Delong had a post wondering why political reporting is so bad. And the jist of it (as far as I remeber) was that political news really has no economic value for its consumers. People read the NYT for social value, to discuss interesting articles / events. I don't think blogs are much different than that. Truth really doesn't ocme in to it.

posted by: Jor on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

The issue here is the difference between a journalist and a commentator. Rather was expected to play journalist whereas as Williams noted, he is(was) a commentator. A journalist presents all (or as much as can be found) the facts to the story. A commentator will present facts that make his supposition. When other facts are presented to the debate, the commentator may either dispute them, ignore them or modify his stance to the topic.

Many blogs present the commentator role on the Internet.

posted by: EG on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Wow, I was going to comment on the 'losing readers' statement, but looks like that would be piling on at this point. Surely Dr. Drezner should know to say things like:

If a blogger's opinions are consistently contradicted by events, over time, said blogger may experience a loss of readership, with, of course, other factors held constant; this effect may be counteracted, however, by the psychological gratification that his readership derives from seeing their own beliefs confirmed by a high-status individual coupled with the lessening of discomfort due to cognitive dissonance provided by the blogger's rationalization of seemingly unsuccessful policies which have in the past been supported by himself and his readership.

posted by: stari_momak on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Kevin et al: Click here -- I still think there's a correlation between increased error and declining readership (yeah, I know everyone's traffic has declined since the election, but look closely at when this decline started).

posted by: Fake Dan Drezner on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

IN case anyone's not noticed.. Williams never claimed to be delivering the news... merely his opinion.

posted by: Bithead on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

One of the things that bugs me about the Williams case is that so many people (like Kathleen Parker) give him credit for acknowledging his "bad judgment."

Acknowledging a mistake after everyone knows you made it doesn't take a whole lot of courage (although Dan Rather apparently doesn't even have that small amount of courage). And anyway, how could Williams ever have thought the deal with the DOE was ethically sound?

posted by: Andrew Steele on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

i>Kevin et al: Click here -- I still think there's a correlation between increased error and declining readership (yeah, I know everyone's traffic has declined since the election, but look closely at when this decline started).

What happened in October? What are all these vague references refering to?

posted by: James B. on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Isn't it much more likely that readership declines on blogs when the blogger tells his audience something they do not want to hear?

Suggesting that, in fact, those blogs which are most regularly wrong might do just fine, if they are consistently wrong in a manner which appeals to their particular audience.

posted by: Patrick on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

There was a case last winter of a Cleveland Indians blog posted a fake news story about the Indians singing Vladimir Guerrero as a free agent. He put a hidden message in the first letters of the paragraphs (Just Kidding or some such), but no one caught it and the story was talked about on baseball blogs for hours before the blogger admitted it was a fake. He was very harshly criticized, and a lot of his readers said they would not trust him any more. I didn't read his blog myself and I've forgotten the name, so I don't know if the blog was basically wrecked or not, but the opinion at the time was that it would be.

As far as Instapundit goes, he was pushing the Swift Boat story as hard as anyone, and I know that was about the time I stopped reading him, mostly because I got tired of his hitting the same points again and again, and, in my opinion, not always fairly representing what he was picking out. I would say I haven't directly checked his site in a couple of months.

posted by: Devin McCullen on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]


Did you really just call Glenn Reynolds an error-prone hack? Or is someone spoofing your name here in the comments?

posted by: Matthew Cromer on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Hmm, I doubt that viewership or readership is affected very much by whether journalistic mistakes are made, admitted to, whatever. I've seen major screw ups at every liberal blog I read, in every major paper I read, on every news broadcast I've watched. Maybe 5% of those screw ups have been apologized for...

The sheer definition of "mistake" has changed. Everything's opinion now, everything is "somewhere in the middle". If this idea that mistakes make you less competetive were correct - FoxNews, CNN, LGF, NRO etc would all have imploded before they even came into existence. No my friend, there is a very large market out there for totally mistaken commentary. Its big business these days. Actually, being very detail oriented and meticulous seems to bore people overall...

Look, it still hasn't even been proven that the CBS memos were fake, they just can't be substantiated. That's it, this whole "scandal" is about that. It's just total BS. All it should require is one simple retraction. But NOOOO, everyone has to kiss GWB's ass and make a big show of it. Silly.

posted by: Onceler on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

also, check out Paul Lukasiak's refutation of the CBS "report". He pretty much tears it apart. The report itself is more flawed than the docs that got CBS in trouble in the first place!

posted by: Onceler on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

Well, before I send everyone else into a tizzy, I would first note that the phenomenon of people tuning out unreliable sources is to some degree a market mechanism, which is probably whay a journalist wouldn't recognize it.

The second point would be that in the niche of political reporting or blogging, partisans are going to have different perceptions of error. Since the example that has come up here is the Swift Vets, I could point out that they debunked the "Christmas in Cambodia" story and that the one in-depth look by the Washington Post (Aug. 22nd) at the conflicts in story between the Swift Vets' account and the official record (which was created in part by Kerry) of how Kerry got the Bronze Star concluded that "although Kerry's accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar." Is that a refutation of the Swift Vets or of Kerry? The answer probably rests on one's own politics, in much the same way that Dan Rather still believes his National Guard story.

The example is used merely to point out that the market mechanism for media works, but differently in the niche of politics, where the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them are both hotly debated.

posted by: Karl on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]


Same argument Royalists gave against the American experiment in self-government.

posted by: Stephen on 01.12.05 at 05:14 PM [permalink]

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