Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Preparing for life in the twenty-first century. Uh, and a half.

Confirmation journalism and the death penalty—Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
Fourth Estate Restaurant

The Fourth Estate Restaurant, truths on the menu for every taste.

Researching a project I’ve been working on for over a year now, I’m currently reading Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. It’s a facially reasonable guide for journalists and the public on how journalism should work. Facially reasonably, because it tends to use smart ideas to justify the same old biases.

For example, he talks a lot about emulating the scientific method, which in theory is a great idea for verifying facts and meaning, but in practice ends up justifying the sins of an iterative journalism, whereby journalists keep digging into the facts until they reach the level of their confirmation bias.

He describes the process on pages 43–45. Here are some representative quotes:

It is more helpful, and more realistic, to understand journalistic truth as a process—or as a continuing journey toward understanding—that begins with the first story and builds over time… Journalist Carl Bernstein has described this as reporters’ striving to provide “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

The individual reporter may not be able to move much beyond a surface level of accuracy in a first story. But the first story builds to a second, in which the sources of news have responded to initial mistakes and missing elements, and the second story to a third story, and so on. Context is added in each successive layer… This practical truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows like a stalactite in a cave, drop by drop, over time.

The truth here, in other words, was a complicated and sometimes contradictory phenomenon, but seen as a process over time, journalism can get at it. It attempts to get at the truth in a confused world by first stripping information of any attached misinformation, disinformation, or self-promoting bias and then letting the community react, with the sorting-out process to ensue. The search for truth becomes a conversation.

We will know it when we see it. That’s the problem with modern iterative journalism. At some point they need to snap that stalactite off and present it to the public. The point at which they do that is going to be the point at which their biases are confirmed. The point at which they know it without thinking about it.

A great example of the dangers of this iterative journalism is the book’s success story:, presented on page 106. David Protess, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, uses death penalty cases to teach journalism. In 1999 he used the case of death row inmate Anthony Porter. He and his students investigated until they found Alstory Simon; they decided Simon was guilty and then convinced him to confess to the murder that Porter had been convicted of. Anthony Porter was freed, Alstory Simon imprisoned, and the death penalty ended in Illinois.

Turning crime into a profit center—Tuesday, November 11th, 2014
Coley Davis Road red lights

Asset forfeiture is in the news again, showing that it is dangerous for the government to make money from crimes; when the government makes money from crimes, it will take steps to ensure that there are more crimes. In the case of asset forfeiture, only a small percentage of asset forfeiture cases are prosecuted. Why would would the government want to prosecute a source of money? The criminal in prison won’t generate assets to seize. The criminal on the street will.

Lights of Washington, DC

It’s traffic lights all the way down.

If the state benefits from crimes, it will ensure more crimes. The same dynamic applies throughout our traffic laws, but nowhere is it more obvious than with red light cameras.

As the profits build around enforcement, so does the corruption. Red-light camera companies bribe public officials to install their camera systems. Then they bribe them to shorten yellow times below safe levels.

Successful red-light camera programs invariably end up with too-short yellow times, because this increases the number of violations. No consideration is given to shorter yellow times increasing accident rates. If governments are forced to use safe yellow times, the cameras are shut down due to low profits—belying the original claim that they were put up for safety reasons.

That’s ultimately the result of laws that turn crime into a profit center for government: more crimes, less safety. Dangerous criminals go back on the street to generate more revenue, the government turns law-abiding citizens into criminals, because there is money in numbers, and safety is subordinated to budget concerns.

Charlotte Observer and WBTC 3 cover for Hagan?—Sunday, November 2nd, 2014
Deleted Hagan articles on Google Search

Charlotte Observer and WBTV articles remain on Google.

I saw the tweet from @sistahtoldjah retweeted by the Instapundit this morning:

WBTV did the original reporting on the story. Observer republished. But both stories are gone now. #ncsen #ncpol

It included a screenshot of what looks like a Google news search with the headline and text:

Memo: Grant given to company run by Sen. Hagan’s…

Kay Hagan’s husband manages one of the companies in question, who… WBTC obtained a memo written by the Department of Energy and…

Both the Charlotte Observer and WBTC in Charlotte have the same headline in the search. Before retweeting the accusation myself, I went to Google and did a search myself. Sure enough, the same headlines and text came up. But clicking through to either article resulted in a “not found” page.

There’s a third link in the Google search, to the Charlotte City and Press, but that appears to be an automated news aggregation page with only a summary and a link to the WBTV 3 page that no longer exists.1

NCDENR says they have reviewed grant records and found conflict of issue claims warranted further legal review. Kay Hagan’s husband manages one of the companies in question, who received an energy efficiency grant money in 2010.

Details on WBTV 3.

There are a couple of other aggregation sites that have bits and pieces. This is from a site called “World News”:

Memo: Grant given to company run by Sen. Hagan’s husband needs ‘legal review’

State officials say a stimulus grant given to a company run by Kay Hagan’s husband needs “further legal review.” WBTV obtained a memo written by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources which includes a letter to the state’s auditor from last month. The memo states that NCDENR is looking into potential conflict of interest claims involving Senator Kay Hagan. NCDENR says they…

Liberty enlightening the world—Tuesday, October 28th, 2014
    • Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    • With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    • Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    • A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    • Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    • Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    • Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    • The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    • “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    • With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    • Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
    • The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    • Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
    • I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Letters to a Young Journalist—Monday, October 27th, 2014

He starts his memoirish collection of advice where one should start, the beginning, with plucky young reporters, wise old sages, and the inevitably burned-out hacks.

The reporters whom I got to know over the coming weeks seemed drawn in equal parts from the past and the future. There was an old-timer named Forrest who liked to avoid being assigned obituaries by hiding under his desk. One of his contemporaries, Maggie, sometimes fell asleep at her desk, letting her wig slide off. Phil, one of the editors, chewed cigars.1 I couldn’t dismiss the whole generation, though, because it also included Jack Gill, the streetwise skeptic who covered Plainfield, and Hollis Burke, an idealist who had done a midlife turn in the Peace Corps. They had about them not only experience but wisdom.

The youngsters in the newsroom came from hip backgrounds, including disc jockeys and poets.

Sam Meddis, one of the investigative reporters, had talked his way into the paper with a bunch of poems he’d written as a Rutgers undergrad.

Freedman himself always prefers the path less traveled. If someone else is covering the same story, it’s already passé.

If you give me a choice, I will always prefer to write about someone obscure than someone famous. And, as much as I savor the company of fellow journalists at a party or in a newsroom, I feel like I’ve done something wrong if I bump into any of them reporting the same story as I am.

Ah, but journalism has gone to hell since the days before cable television, when television news was a single voice with three heads and the news media in general spoke in unison.

My own bitter joke is that I remember when the New York Post published nonfiction. By that I mean that I remember it before it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. I’m not generally a believer in the Great Man Theory of History, but in Murdoch’s case, his despotic genius has been to infect contemporary American journalism with some of its most pernicious diseases. He transformed the Post from a spunky and serious paper to a gossip-and-sensationalism rag, created the tawdry genre of tabloid television with the show A Current Affair, and bankrolled Fox News Channel, a political movement masquerading as a news organization. No individual bears more responsibility for degrading the profession I practice and adore, and I would feel no differently if Murdoch had been a demagogue of the Left rather than the Right.

Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting—Friday, October 24th, 2014

Unlike the next book I’m going to review, Inside the Beltway is a nuts-and-bolts guide to committing journalism—print journalism—in Washington, DC. Don Campbell covers the various basic kinds of beltway reporting and follows each section with a list of resources.

The number one concern of the new beltway journalist is making contacts. Campbell describes DC as “a company town”, but it’s a company with constantly shifting lines of authority. It is very important to build contacts before the contacts are needed: once they’re needed, everybody wants to talk to them.

The reporters who get their phone calls returned in even-numbered years are the ones who phone you and have lunch with you in the odd-numbered years.

By the time the primaries and caucuses begin in February, much of the fun of covering a presidential campaign is over for print journalists. With the arrival of television crews, campaigns become a blur of photo opportunities and inane press conferences, a battle of TV ads and expectations, upon all of which the voters have the audacity to intrude briefly every week or so.

Campbell gives equal treatment to records searches and archival research as he does to making contacts and knowing people, but,

…Washington is a town of networks within networks within networks, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s crack investigator Edward Pound: “People are more important here because connections—who you know, whether you know the right lawyers in town, the right investigators—that’s more important in Washington than records.”

Washington is a town of egos, and most people’s egos exceed their grasp. This is true both of reporters and of candidates. “The best political reporters are people who like politicians,” but when reporters are assigned to a candidate, it naturally gives them a vested interest in that candidate. Not only do they tend to start to like the candidate, but the candidate’s success is their own success.

Evil and religion in the modern media—Friday, October 17th, 2014

Over at the Ace of Spades HQ, Ace writes about the media’s partisanship:

I’ve been saying this for a while: The press claims to be nonpartisan and to only be interested in “good stories,” no matter which party they might damage.

They can’t really make these claims in the age of Twitter. Because their reading list—the Twitter accounts they follow daily—is public information.

You’d think these guys would at least try to “make it look good” by adding in a few of the more credible, less strident twitter accounts of right-leaning writers. But no—no one bothers even to follow University of Tennessee Law School Professor Glenn Reynolds.

They don’t follow conservative ideas because conservatives are evil. When you are part of a movement, you don’t look for balance. You look for allies and enemies. Since the media is progressive, conservatives are their enemies. They are the devil, and you don’t look to the devil for reason and truth. Any compromise between good and evil is evil. Any compromise between the truth and a lie is itself a lie.

And when you are part of a movement, any alternative views are lies.

I recently read Samuel G. Freedman’s Letters to a Young Journalist. In it, he decries the loss of alternative views in the media—and also decries the existence of alternative views on the right. Despite having somewhat conservative views himself, he must, to be accepted as a journalist, share the same views as his colleagues.

Ace continues, pointing out that while members of the press don’t follow even moderate conservatives,

On the other hand, many follow the over-the-top hard-left rantings of Jay Rosen of NYU University, a media critic who frequently declares that the media must drop even the pretense of impartiality and embrace a resolutely left-liberal advocacy position, because there is no “balance” possible between Truth and Lies.

Now, Rosen is, in fact, partially correct. There is no balance between truth and lie. Facts themselves are not a compromise. But he’s also wrong: you don’t know which is fact and which is not without putting both in the scales and measuring them. To think you can know the truth without measurement is to have a religion.

As a journalist or a scientist you only get to choose which is truth and which is false after you have sifted the evidence. Only priests get to decide truth by recourse to a higher cause. Only priests—and liars.

Most Open and Transparent Lies Ever—Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Here is something I knew but didn’t remember: last year, the exchange prices were all out on October 1. This year the administration has chosen specifically to delay listing them, over a month, until after the election.

There are multiple meanings of transparent. And open, for that matter. When we were promised the most open and transparent administration ever, what we were promised were open disregard and transparent lies.

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