Monday, January 25, 2016

More thoughts on the Goffman story

Andrew Gelman set off an excellent discussion of the lingering questions about Alice Goffman's On the Run triggered by these two posts by Paul Campos. It's an interesting debate but not really in my area of focus. I do, however, want to weigh in on the way the New York Times Magazine chose to cover the controversy in this profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus.

The first thing that struck me on reading this piece was how numbing will he formulaic this type of journalism has become. The stick-to-the-template structure, the pretentious tone, the straight-out-of-central-casting character sketch, the standard narrative arc of the bright young person with vision rising rapidly to great heights then brought down by attacks only to climb back up.
But with time, my reaction has shifted somewhat with more focus on the ethics of the piece than the aesthetics.

These full-access profiles are always problematic. Everything about the arrangement tends to bias the journalist in favor of his or her subject. Of course, many journalists are able to maintain their objectivity and make the arrangement pay off in increased information and improved insight, but even with a masterpiece of the genre like Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, these concerns cannot be entirely dismissed.

Based on an interview I heard Tom Wolfe give, both he and Ken Kesey have said that there were parts where Wolfe softened his account so as not to make the Merry Pranksters look bad and that the work suffered as a consequence (“Wolfe got most of it right, except he tried to be nice.”).

Lewis-Kraus is no Wolfe and he arguably crosses the line to apologist a number of times. Here's the passage that bothers me in particular. [emphasis added]:

Goffman has declined to make public the long, point-by-point rebuttal of her anonymous attacker, but after we got to know each other well, she shared it with me. It is blunt and forceful and, in comparison with the placidity of her public deportment, almost impatient and aggrieved in tone, and it is difficult to put the document down without wondering why she has remained unwilling to publicize some of its explanations. She acknowledges a variety of errors and inconsistencies, mostly the results of a belabored anonymization process, but otherwise persuasively explains many of the lingering issues. There is, for example, a convincing defense of her presence in the supposedly closed juvenile court and a quite reasonable clarification of the mild confusion over what she witnessed firsthand and what she reconstructed from interviews — along with explanations for even the most peculiar and deranged claims of her anonymous attacker, including why Mike does his laundry at home in one scene and at a laundromat in another.

Many claims against her are also easy to rebut independently. Some critics called far-­fetched, for example, her claim that an F.B.I. agent in Philadelphia drew up a new computer surveillance system after watching a TV broadcast about the East German Stasi. If you search the Internet for ‘‘Philadelphia cop Stasi documentary,’’ a substantiating item [] from The Philadelphia Inquirer from 2007 is the second hit. When it comes to Goffman’s assertion that officers run IDs in maternity wards to arrest wanted fathers, another short Internet search produces corroborating examples in Dallas, New Orleans and Brockton, Mass., and a Philadelphia public defender and a deputy mayor told me that the practice does not at all seem beyond plausibility. The most interesting question might not be whether Goffman was telling the truth but why she has continued to let people believe that she might not be.

This is questionable in any number of ways. Goffman is allowed to present her rebuttal in a manner that completely shields her from any kind of scrutiny or fact-checking. All of the information we'd need to evaluate her claims is withheld. Instead, a highly sympathetic journalist who is in her debt (let's be blunt.  Goffman did Lewis-Kraus a huge professional favor by allowing him this level of access) assures us repeatedly that we should take her at her word.

The lack, or perhaps more accurately the level of detail here is bizarre. In Goffman's apparently long and detailed document, there is no argument or piece of evidence that can be shared with the general readers. We aren't even given metadata. We have no idea whether these claims are supported by data, documents, arguments, or something else. We aren't even told the extent to which these were or weren't checked by the reporter.

The document is not, however, so sensitive that it cannot be shared with a journalist or that the journalist can't list specific charges that are rebutted.

I don't want to weigh in on the veracity of Goffman's book or on any of the related discussions. More than enough smart people are seriously engaging in this debate. If anything, I'm concerned that the controversy over relatively details is distracting from genuinely important points about racism, class bigotry and mass incarceration. But journalistic standards and culture are also important. You can make the case that bad, grossly unethical reporting decided the 2000 election and it is difficult to discuss the run-up to the Iraq War without mentioning the name Judith Miller. More recent (and relevant for the topic of this post) are the NYT fiascoes with the Clinton emails and the San Bernadino shooters. In both those cases, the paper allowed sources to feed inaccurate information to the public while agreeing to withhold information that might have helped readers evaluate the claims.

Obviously, there are valid reasons for a journalist to agree to withhold parts of information provided by a source. but Lewis-Kraus explicitly tells us that he knows of no reason not to share Goffman's rebuttal or give us any information that might help us evaluate it.

The decision to give Goffman's side of the argument without actually stating her arguments puts Lewis on shaky ground to begin with, but he then proceeds to present her case in the most favorable possible light while only briefly mentioning her more reputable critics from publications such as the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Republic (neither Paul Campos or Steven Lubet is mentioned by name).

I can understand the temptation to let valuable sources have too much say in the editorial process, but I'm surprised that a paper as proud of its standards as the New York Times would be so consistently quick to give in. 

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