#PDF10: Truth Telling and Shaming

By Marc Ambinder

I don't know why people assume that fact-checking and truth-telling are easy. I think they are hard. They involve choices -- more so than fact-checkers care to admit sometimes. But a measure of doubt should not ever prevent a journalist from noticing and recognizing the preponderance of evidence.


I suppose I began to get angry, really angry, at the destructive force of denialism, and the way in which some people in my chosen profession were donning blinders to prevent engaging with it. Denialism comes in a variety of forms. There is a segment of America that believes that gay people are degenerate and will not treat them with a basic measure of dignity. I don't feel obligated to treat that segment as if it were a serious, well-grounded and valid alternative point of view. I do not mean to say that one cannot oppose gay marriage or gay rights in some ways without harboring this malevolent view, or that one cannot fairly cover those who do as a political movement worthy of respect as a political movement. It's just that I am not going to pretend that gay people don't deserve dignity. 

I won't pretend that climate change isn't happening, and that the scientific consensus, which grows more solid by the day (and not less solid), holds that humans are responsible for much of this change. We can validly debate the solutions, but it is simply stupid to pretend, for the sake of appearing to be fair, as if there is a fundamental scientific debate that has yet to be solved. On the other side of the coin, simply acknowledging the science does not presuppose any particular solution. You CAN cover a debate about how to fix global warming, and whether the trade-offs that must be made are worth their price. These are open, contestable questions. The fact of global warming isn't.

I won't pretend that evolution by natural selection isn't a valid theory. I won't cover the "debate" between creationists (or intelligent design theorists or "teach the controversy" folks) as if there are two equally well-proportioned sumo wrestlers about to do battle in some battle of ideas. There are plenty of wonderful and fascinating and meaningful stories to be written and produced about how these theories are accepted or rejected, but we debase the profession by not pointing out that the science is settled. (We also need to be careful about what we mean by settled science. It doesn't mean that, within the fields of evolutionary biology and climate change science, there isn't enormous diversity and points of dispute. Of course there are.)

I could go on and on. We pick our battles and draw our lines, and I guess I've drawn mine. If Republicans seem to be adopting crazy, untethered beliefs more frequently than Democrats, and if it's my job to notice these things, I'm probably going to say something about it.  (I'm also going to say that liberals tend to be far more obnoxious in their criticism than conservatives. And, in the Obama era, their criticisms of administration policy are much more trenchant and effective; where were smart conservatives in the Bush era?)

I'm sure that many readers will fairly easily jump to conclusions about my political ideology, which brings me to a final point: if you assume that you know everything, nothing will satisfy you. When a journalist makes a judgment based on experience and on seeking out as many different sources of information as possible, if you are predisposed to agree with the outcome, then you will not complain of bias. If you disagree with the judgment, you will find some way to attribute it to blatant bias, or to a pack mentality, or to a savvy village, or whatever.

Woe unto journalists, right? Well, true, we tend to complain a lot about people who complain about us.  But consider, for a moment, that many of us entered the trade assuming that people trusted journalists more than they actually do. We wanted to traverse the boundary between mere journalism -- asking people questions, writing down answers -- and good journalism -- changing people's minds, holding powerful interests accountable, finding out the reason why something bizarre occurred. The edifices that held up the trade are now seen by most Americans as either poorly constructed or malevolently inspired. For every example of a journalistic misdeed I can point to examples of wondrous stories that only full-time, professional journalists with years of experience could tell. But I feel like the spokesman for the Israeli government who said just recently it doesn't really matter what we say; the truth doesn't really matter much anymore. So: I could spend my time trying to argue the case for journalism. I will probably lose. Or I could spend my time actually doing journalism to a standard that I can live with. I will survive or fail on the merits of my own work.

Rather than end my disquisition on a complaint or a tale of misery, I want to provide a constructive bit of advice as to how we can begin to revivify the honor to which we used to hold truth-tellers. Consider the narrow point that conservative criticism of President Obama is unusually and often bafflingly, even embarrassingly facile. There are plenty of conservatives who recognize this. I can name six: Ross Douthat. Matt Lewis. David Frum. David Brooks.  Conor Friedersdorf. Liz Mair. There are many more. But they have no incentive to police their own side. The moment they speak out, they're branded as apostates, and the conservative movement narrows even further. An impoverished opposition is bad for democracy. I subscribe to the Brendan Nyhan/Robert Frank notion that social shaming may well be a valid way for fact-checkers to convince more than a handful of people that the other side is simply wrong. Frum has done a serviceable job in calling out his fellow conservatives, but he does not possess the power or the infrastructure to shame people who cross a line. As Nyhan proposes, when someone like Frank Gaffney, who still gets invited to major events by reputable people, implies that President Obama a Muslim, he should be shamed into hiding by his fellow conservatives. (Shaming by liberals, or mere corrections, won't work, and will often promote the myth).

Shaming requires not merely a recitation of the facts. It requires a passion for the truth, and it necessitate risk-taking by elites who could lose their status by stepping up and deciding that enough is enough.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/06/-pdf10-truth-telling-and-shaming/57608/