Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nothing But the Facts

There's been a huge brouhaha about the cover story of the latest Newsweek by Niall Ferguson. The title of the piece will give you a hint as to why: "Hit the Road, Barack. Why we need a new president." I first read about the controversy in the scathing response Paul Krugman had to it, terming it "unethical journalism" because of its "multiple errors and misrepresentations."
Ferguson then responded to Krugman, saying that he had been telling the truth and nothing but. His response was followed by a whole phalanx of fact-checkers, economists and bloggers who trashed the story and Ferguson's rebuttal, saying that both were filled with distortions and falsehoods about Obama's record. (Source)
You can read reams about this controversy, and frankly, if you're honest about it, there's no way Ferguson looks good after investigation. Krugman is correct. The piece is rife with errors of fact and distortions of fact. And it's obvious why, aside from the undoubted fact that Ferguson is a careless researcher. (Why would anyone concerned with his scholarly reputation would be so slipshod with the facts? It beats me.) Newsweek ftat out admits it did not fact-check the piece. What?? I thought this was absolutely sine qua non with mass-circulation magazines. Sort of like tying your shoes before walking in them. You check the facts, verify them, before putting them out before the world.

Indeed, it's comforting to read this ringing affirmation in Mother Jones that this is indeed standard practice in places that care about the truth.
Newsweek might not bother with fact checking these days, but Ta-Nehisi Coates says it's still alive and well where he works:
When I arrived at The Atlantic in 2008, I was subjected to arguably the most thorough fact-checking procedure in all of popular publishing. That meant submitting an annotated version of the story with all sources cited, turning over all my notes, transcripts or audio, and the names and numbers of each of my sources, all of whom were called to confirm the veracity of my quotes.
In case you're curious, Mother Jones works the same way for its print pieces. And yes, it's every bit the pain in the ass you'd expect. Also every bit as necessary as you'd think.
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