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Mar 10 2009

The power of the internet

The internet has had one major positive effect and that is that it has reduced the power of the establishment media to control the public discourse. It used to be the case that once you had achieved a position of authority in the media, you could say pretty much what you wanted and, as long as it conformed to the desired narrative of the pro-war/pro-business one party system, you could not be challenged. This enabled the discussion on important topics to be limited to within a very narrow spectrum of views, so that whatever view prevailed within that spectrum, the underlying status quo remained untouched.

It used to be the case that those informed people who read something in the paper or heard on the news that they knew was wrong had very few options, other than (say) writing a letter to the editor, which the paper had the option of refusing and which had only a marginal effect anyway.

Take for example this anecdote from Noam Chomsky’s book Understanding Power (2002) about a column George Will wrote in 1982 (thanks to Jonathan Schwarz).

[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called “Mideast Truth and Falsehood,” about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, “Will has one statement of fact, it’s false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down.” Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek “Letters” column. She said: “We’re kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?” So I told her, “Well, they’re published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971″—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

Mind you, in 1982, Chomsky was already a very eminent and well-known figure, both as a linguist and political analyst who was, outside the United States, one of the most famous and admired intellectuals. It will probably surprise many Americans that in the rest of the world Noam Chomsky is a household name in intellectual circles whose writings are regularly published in mainstream newspapers and magazines. And yet even that was not enough clout to enable him correct a direct falsehood by Will. That was the end of that.

Now fast-forward to 2009. Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo tells the story in which the still-deceptive Will writes a column on February 15 in which he denies global warming, and as evidence says “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

The Arctic Climate Research Center immediately issued a contradiction on its website, saying:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

This denial was picked up by bloggers who gave the ACRC statement wide publicity. Many bloggers wrote to the editor of the WP asking for a retraction. Will and the editor of the WP editorial page, the awful Fred Hiatt, went into their traditional mode of operation when their narrative is contradicted, which is to either stonewall and ignore the critics, or stick to their guns and act as if they are immune from error and that no one should dare challenge their oracular wisdom. After all, that policy worked so well back in 1982 when even the efforts of people like Chomsky to point out their errors could be thwarted.

But the world has changed. The blogs kept hammering at the story, and the WP and Will got blasted with thousands of people writing to the paper and their website and to their new ombudsman demanding that the paper issue a correction. The paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander initially replied saying that he had questioned the editorial page editors about this and they had said they had checked the facts in Will’s column and were satisfied that they were valid. But this bland self-serving assertion drew an even greater negative response.

The ombudsman then investigated the matter personally and wrote a column on March 1, 2009 in which he tried to find reasons to excuse their famous columnist but had to conclude that Will and the WP editors had at best been very sloppy in their checking of the facts. He said, “Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren’t free to distort them.”

Will this new experience of prompt and widespread public reaction make people like Will more cautious about making ungrounded assertions? Unlikely. People like Will have got so used to being venerated as sages that he will find it hard to change his attitude that what he says cannot be challenged. But the editors who are responsible for vetting his writings might now exercise more diligence and that is a good thing.

Welcome to the world of the internet, George Will and Fred Hiatt. You cannot get away with distortions that easily anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Great card trick by Ricky Jay

I love magic tricks. They are the best evidence against the claims of charlatans who say they have paranormal powers. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

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