March 17, 2008

Fire Bill Kristol/The Death of Credibility

The worst thing about this is not that Bill Kristol printed an outright lie in the pages of the New York Times. It's that he's using the Times as a conduit for NewsMax, a right-wing lunatic site that frequently makes things up. Kristol attributes his smear to "a journalist" rather than naming the website, so that casual readers have no way of judging its credibility. So NewsMax's nonexistent credibility is laundered through the Times's presumably high credibility; and casual readers who haven't been keeping track of Kristol's track record have no way of knowing not to trust him.

The Times should fire Kristol. Aside from his failure to check NewsMax's allegation, either he knows how unreliable they are or he doesn't. If he knows (more likely), then he's dishonest in reprinting their smears. If he doesn't, then he's too gullible to be given a platform. Either way, reading his column makes you less well informed.

But -- and this goes back to some pessimistic grumblings I had about epistemic responsibility -- they probably won't fire him over this. And this means that a normal reader of the Times just doesn't have access to the information that would allow them to judge the credibility of the things they read in it. Which is not the reader's fault, I think; it's too time-consuming to check who's right or wrong about what all the time. The newspaper should be doing the job for you, by hiring people with a track record of getting things right. But they don't.

So there's no epistemic penalty for the most brazen falsehoods; you can pass on any kind of discredited B.S. that helps your political side, and the evidence that you shouldn't be believed will remain well hidden. Most of your audience will have no more reason to doubt you than to doubt the people telling the truth. And this breeds more falsehoods, and more confusion, and in the end a government that carries out horribly misguided policies.

Don't even get me started on the Op-Ed retrospective on Iraq; they didn't solicit opinions from anyone who'd been right about Iraq,* but there was room for three separate people from the American Enterprise Institute! Who told us that the major surprise was either that those backward Iraqis weren't ready for the wonderful democracy we gave them, or that the war had turned out to be much more awesome than they'd expected.

*Slaughter may have been a sort of war opponent, I'm not sure; but this was pretty weak tea.

[UPDATE 3/23: New York Times Op-Ed Page, why are you printing Paul Berman's thoughts on radical Islam? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? You are literally killing people.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 17, 2008 07:29 AM

Has anyone remarked on the parallelism between Jeremiah Wright and Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, et al.? Prominent right-wing clerics have often said that God would or should damn America, i.e. punish it for its sinful toleration of abortion and sodomy.

And sometimes these remarks have been controversial, although I'm not sure that any Republican political candidates were ever required to apologize on their pastor's behalf.

Posted by: Richard at March 18, 2008 02:18 AM

This is quite an irrelevant tangent, but diving through your links brought me to a reminiscence of NewsMax's Deck of Weasels playing cards. "Under each photo is each Weasel’s quote revealing his anti-American, pro-Saddam ranting!"

My favorite thing about this deck is Ted Turner's card. Ted Turner's "pro-Saddam ranting" consists of broadly hinting that instead of going to war with Iraq, we should just have Saddam Hussein assassinated.

I think the NewsMax people were actually too stupid to understand what Turner was getting at. They got as far as grasping that he was opposed to major combat operations and filed it under America-Hating Peacenik Kumbayah.

Posted by: Richard at March 18, 2008 02:19 AM

Has anyone remarked on the parallelism

The more I think of it the more sure I am that this insight is unique to me and has probably escaped the notice of everyone.

Some people say you're not supposed to reply to your own comments, but that's not how I roll.

Posted by: Richard at March 18, 2008 03:08 PM

The more I think of it the more sure I am that this insight is unique to me and has probably escaped the notice of everyone.

Too true. And thanks for the hint on the Deck of Weasels, though I can't see Turner's comment.

Reading Brendan Nyhan's update, I see James Joyner is trying to defend Kessler's journalistic credentials. I agree with Nyhan that "the institutional association tarnishes any such credentials" (that is to say, once a guy starts working for NewsMax he sacrifices all credibility), but also this strikes me as another case for truth rather than anything more complex as the credibility norm. (Though perhaps you could say that his reporting was accurate in the past -- I don't know, and think that in this case the appropriate credibility unit is probably the always-wrong NewsMax.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 23, 2008 09:49 AM

Well, the Times has to print both sides: the one based on evidence and the one based on the manufacturing of evidence to conform to a neo-conservative, right wing, militaristic ideology. Otherwise they'd be biased.

Posted by: dan at March 24, 2008 05:59 PM

They've got Kristol representing one side and Berman representing the other.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 25, 2008 06:13 AM