Friday, July 12, 2013

Apologist Watch

There is a danger in using small incidents to make big arguments. List enough anecdotes and you can often overwhelm by sheer weight even though, with time, someone could probably amass a comparable pile on the other side of the debate. But that doesn't mean we should ignore all information that doesn't come in big, clean, conclusive data sets. Even an old-school frequentist will acknowledge the value of a reality check, seeing how well and how often the world matches your theories.

Take, for instance, the argument that the quality of today's journalism has been damaged by the group dynamics of the profession and particularly by the tendency of media critics to adopt the role of group apologists. With that hypothesis in mind, look at these two paragraphs from Politico's Dylan Byers (expertly satirized by Esquire's Charles Pierce).
This is not the first time folks have been fooled by The Daily Currant. In February, The Washington Post picked up one of the site's stories and erroneously reported that Sarah Palin was joining Al Jazeera. In March, both the Boston Globe and ran reports that Paul Krugman had filed for personal bankruptcy, again based on a Daily Currant report. Needless to say, the real journalists bear the responsibility here: They should verify the news they report or, at the very least, know the sources from which they aggregate.
As Pierce notes, Byers would be fine if he stopped here. Unfortunately he follows with this:
But these mistakes don't reflect well on The Daily Currant, either. If their stories are plausible, it's because they aren't funny enough. No one -- almost no one -- mistakes The Onion for a real news organization. That's not just because it has greater brand recognition. It's because their stories make readers laugh. Here are some recent headlines from The Onion: "Dick Cheney Vice Presidential Library Opens In Pitch-Dark, Sulfurous Underground Cave" ... "John Kerry Lost Somewhere In Gobi Desert" ... "'F--- You,' Obama Says In Hilarious Correspondents' Dinner Speech." Here are some recent headlines from The Daily Currant: "Obama Instantly Backs Off Plan to Close Guantanamo" ... "CNN Head Suggests Covering More News for Ratings" ... "Santorum Pulls Son Out of Basketball League."
There are at least a couple of critical fallacies here. The first is, as Pierce observes, confusing title and story. The other is the assumption that the humor and effectiveness of satire depends on its obviousness (has anyone at Politico read "a Modest Proposal"?).

Those would be interesting topics for another discussion, but what's relevant here is the social dynamic. Outsiders play a joke on some insiders and trick them into doing something stupid. Byers concedes that the insiders shouldn't have been stupid but complains that the joke wasn't funny. That's pretty much the expected response of a group apologist under the circumstances, made doubly problematic by the fact that a lot of people are laughing.

p.s. Sorry about being so late to get this one out.

No comments:

Post a Comment