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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Failure of Imagination, Indeed: The "MSM" and Torture

I tend not to like posting merely to flag an interesting and important piece of journalism that is widely accessible elsewhere, on the (perhaps myopic) theory that you can find it for yourselves. Hence, for example, I avoided the temptation last week to trumpet Keith Olbermann's Murrow-esque critique of Secretary Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion (although I guess that makes this post self-defeating).

Nonetheless, Eric Umansky, a fellow at Columbia's School of Journalism and a former Slate columnist, has a very interesting and troubling story in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review about how the media has bungled the torture debate. It's a long read, to be sure, but an important and eye-opening one. As Umansky writes:

Reporters and news organizations deserve enormous credit for exposing the abuse and torture of detainees during the U.S. war on terror, more than other institutions or individuals. Without Carlotta Gall, The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, and many other reporters, we might well never have learned of the abuse and torture that have occurred in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

But just as sweeping attacks against “the media” are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

To be fair, I think Umansky focuses a bit too narrowly on both the protagonists and the antagonists in this story; the blame is more widespread, as the praise also should be. Nevertheless, a worthwhile read, if ever there was one.

Posted by Steve Vladeck on September 6, 2006 at 11:41 AM in Current Affairs, Steve Vladeck | Permalink


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Until an article explains what the countervailing evidence was, not only with respect to that particular story pitch but with respect to other pitches they were receiving on the subject, we just can't evaluate the editors' decisions with any sort of meaningful rubric.

Is skepticism is called for in the case of Umansky's reporting? After all, he seems to cite folks on only one side of the issue in discussing the Post and other papers. (With respect to the Times, the one-sided sourcing is not entirely his fault; Raines refused to comment.) Reflexive acceptance of Umansky's conclusions (and I'm not alleging that that is at work in this site, which is a good source of strong analysis, but may be the case at other sites) is no more laudable than reflexive dismissal of reporters' well-grounded stories.

Posted by: Adam | Sep 6, 2006 5:30:56 PM

Adam: I think the point is, criticism is great. But uncritical skepticism, along the lines of, "Gee, these soldiers murdered a guy in custody. And it's happened before? And it might be policy? Newsworthy? Gee, I can't imagine this is really happening. You think the administration is somehow involved? ... Come back with more evidence."

THAT is not skepticism. That kind of credulity towards one authority, and doubt of facts, is what itself merits skeptical treatment.

Posted by: Eh Nonymous | Sep 6, 2006 5:15:09 PM

Fair enough. But in that respect I'd say that the CJR piece fails, for its criticizes "skepticism" without giving much detail of what the skepticism was.

But on to your bigger point. You ask, "Why should newspapers not believe their reporters, or at least entertain the possibility that the reporters have it exactly right?"

First, I don't think we know that newspapers didn't "entertain the possibility that the reporters ha[d] it exactly right". The CJR article certainly doesn't show that editors were, in large numbers,
simply rejecting stories out of hand, without even pausing to kick the tires.

Second, the answer to your question requires consideration of sample sizes. Umansky focuses on one type of error -- mistaken rejection of true stories. But what sort of data are we working with here? How many stories were there? How many false stories? How many true stories correctly published? How many false stories correctly rejected? And how many false stories incorrectly published?

If writers were eagerly pitching stories that generally turned out to be unsupported by the amount of evidence needed to justify publication, then a handful of editorial mistakes would seem justified, in order to prevent a greater number of mistakes in the other direction.

There's really nothing new to that balancing act, right? It's the eternal question of Type I errors and Type II errors. Umansky seems focused on one type of error, but he fails to show what sort of data the editors were working with, and whether their allowance of one type of error was justified in light of the perceived threat of another type of error.

Unfortunately, we've been through this debate in another GWOT context: The question of pre-9/11 intelligence. In hindsight, errors made by overlooking data points relevant to the 9/11 hijackers seem egregious. But when one considers the number of data points out there, and the reasons that give rise to the two types of errors, government failures to "connect the dots" become eminently more understandable.

That's seems to me what we have before us now. Umansky criticizes editors' abilities to connect the dots. But he never quite explains how many "dots" (or how many "false dots") editors were dealing with.

Posted by: Adam | Sep 6, 2006 3:59:18 PM

Respectfully, Adam, I think the issue is the basis for the skepticism. Rejecting stories out of hand simply because they seem unbelievable strikes me as somewhat dangerous. Carefully examining the basis for a story, and _then_ deciding whether it should be published, is a separate issue.

And it's one thing for newspaper editors to be skeptical about stories their reporters submit; it's another thing altogether to compare that skepticism to the skepticism the MSM has shown toward the government's allegations re: WMD. Why should newspapers not believe their reporters, or at least entertain the possibility that the reporters have it exactly right?

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Sep 6, 2006 3:01:44 PM

Then again, if Umansky's in a rush to pat Sy Hersh on the back, maybe skepticism just isn't his big thing!

Posted by: Adam | Sep 6, 2006 1:30:32 PM

"but skepticism in the form of institutional resistance to a meritorious (and unquestionably newsworthy) story?"

But you're begging the question. You can't know whether a story is meritorious until you've subjected it to sketical criticism. So when it's time to employ skepticism, you don't yet know whether a story is meritorious.

So it's not "skepticism just for skepticism's sake", it's "skepticism just for merit's sake".

After all, hasn't a major criticism of the press lately been that it was not skeptical *enough* of the federal government's allegations that Iraq was reconstituting its WMD program?

Posted by: Adam | Sep 6, 2006 1:29:07 PM

Sure, but skepticism in the form of institutional resistance to a meritorious (and unquestionably newsworthy) story? That is, skepticism just for skepticism's sake?

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Sep 6, 2006 12:24:07 PM

"only to be met with skepticism by their own editors"

But aren't writers supposed to be met with skepticism by their editors?

Posted by: Adam | Sep 6, 2006 12:20:59 PM

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