This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.
This morning, I mailed the following letter to the New York Times Education section. I do not expect a reply.
From sea to shining sea, on social media pages nationwide, brave men are taking up cudgels on behalf of their brothers-in-sex-and-gender, the ones whose lives are facing ruination because of this country’s #MeToo moment, as accusation after accusation of sexual harassment and assault issue forth from women who’ve previously remained silent. In each case, their defense takes an exceedingly simple form: it is to insist on ‘due process,’ to assert that every ‘accused’ has a ‘presumption to innocence,’ that they are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ that they fear this business of identifying the men who harass and assault in impunity is all too likely to morph into that most dreaded of social epidemics: the witch hunt. Cease and desist, they say; let us wait till ‘the facts are in,’ till a ‘trial’ has taken place and ‘guilt’ has been conclusively established.
There are several–deliberate, I suspect–confusions at play here. Most prominently, this kind of response confuses the standards for a criminal conviction by the state in a court of law with the usual evidentiary standards that underwrite our usual social judgments of misbehavior. A courtroom furnishes one epistemic context; it addresses the imbalance of power that exists between the state and the accused, and puts the burden on the state to prove its point. This standard of proof is relaxed in civil cases, which only require a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and do not require guilt to be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Our day-to-day social encounters furnish yet other epistemic contexts; within them, we are, on a daily basis, subjected to ‘evidence’ of varying levels of reliability, submitted by sources whom we trust to varying degrees; we act on the basis of these sorts of claims, assessing them using our socially acquired and developed skills of evidence evaluation; we often act on the basis of incomplete or only partially verified evidentiary claims; indeed, we have to, for stasis and inaction are not options more often than not. That is, we do not sit around, waiting for the standards of a criminal court to be satisfied before we act; social ends, desirable ones, have to be met.
Critical legal studies scholars have, for a long time now, identified one dishonorable ideological function that the law and its institutions–among which is legal language–play in our society: the establishment of a kind of ‘rationality’–the legal kind, which ostensibly aspires to the value-free, fact-laden-and-dependent kind of reasoning followed in the sciences–which can then be used to discredit other kinds of reasoning. The invocation of deployment of criminal law’s standards of evidence and its methodology for determining ‘guilt’ in social contexts outside of courtrooms is a good example of this kind of ideological maneuver. This invocation is particularly problematic when it is realized that courtroom deliberations themselves are anything but value-and-bias-free; determinations of guilt in courtrooms are as socially and politically riven as those that take place elsewhere; it is just that legal decisions lay claim to a presumption of having cleansed themselves of prejudice thanks to their supposed circumscription by ‘legal method.’
This particular technique of obfuscation has a long and dishonorable history–and it looks likely to continue for the established future. After all, maintaining this confusion is necessary for the maintenance of established power relations and for the continuance of bad behavior by serial offenders.
I’ve owned Ben Bagdikian‘s The Media Monopoly for some twenty years, and have only just managed to get around to reading it. The edition I own dates back to 1987; its analysis of the growing monopolies in media ownership and their pernicious effect on political life in the US ring truer than ever before. As I noted on Facebook this morning, it’s a “depressing read.” That mood is created by our knowledge that the situation now, in 2014, is only qualitatively and quantitatively worse.
Bagdikian’s analysis is comprehensive and his critiques plentiful. Today, I’m going to point you to just one component of his analysis of the worrying reflection of corporate values in American news:
Despite raised standards in journalism, American mainstream news is still heavily weighted in favor of corporate values, sometimes blatantly, but more often subtly in routine conventions widely accepted as “objective.” One is overdependence on official sources of news….[O]veremphasis on news from titled sources of power has occurred at the expense of of reporting “unofficial facts” and circumstances. In a dynamic and changing society, the voices of authority are seldom the first to acknowledge or even to know of new and disturbing developments. Officials can be wrong.
Overreliance on the official view of the world can contribute to social turbulence. Unable to attract serious media attention by conventional methods, unestablished groups have had to adopt melodramatic demonstrations that meet the other media standards of acceptable news–visible drama, conflict, and novelty. If they are sufficiently graphic, the news will report protests, demonstrations, marches, boycotts, and self-starvation in public places (though not always their underlying causes). But in the end, even that fails. Repeated melodrama ceases to be novel and goes unreported. Social malaise or injustice often are not known, by officialdom. Unreported or unpursued, these realities have periodically led to turbulent surprises–such as the social explosions that came after years of officially unacknowledged structural poverty, continuation of racial oppression [race riots in the 1960s], or damage from failed foreign policies [the revolution in Iran].
Over the years, the exaggerated demand for official credentials in the news has given the main body of American news a strong conservative cast….Where there are not genuinely diverse voices in the media the result inevitably is an overemphasis on a picture of the world as seen by the authorities or as the authorities wish it to be.
Bagdikian’s critique certainly puts modern critiques of the blogger into perspective; they remain part of the trend alluded to above.
As I noted in my mini-review of David Coady‘s What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues, (Blackwell, 2012) his work, which offers a spirited defense of bloggers, rumors, and conspiracy theories in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), is:
[U]nified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.
Coady thus points out how our politics is impoverished by an epistemic virtue gone wrong: we seek to be conscientious believers but end up believing too little. Bagdikian’s prescient analysis finds adequate philosophical support here.
Caitlin Kelly from the New York Times writes in my comments space in response to my blog post from a few days ago and I respond. I want to expand on that response because I think her comment and mine bring to light some interesting issues. (The comments space also features some very good remarks by Satadru Sen, David Coady and Anna Gotlib; please do check it out.)
First off, it is entirely unclear to me why Kelly thinks a blogger needs to contact a journalist for clarification, when the blogger’s point is to note a piece has gone to press that doesn’t show the care required of a journalist. The point is to criticize the article, to call it out, to show to readers a journalist does not seem to have done the legwork required in order to produce a good piece of journalism. Critics of journalists cannot be expected to check in with them for vetting as it were; this seems like an unnecessary constraint. Since when has this requirement become de rigeur?
My friend Julie Rivchin Ulmet made the following perspicuous comment on my Facebook page:
That’s incredible on so many levels. First, you didn’t refer to any conduct by the author of the piece, you referred, appropriately, to the “New York Times” and the “article”. Its a bit ridiculous for her to take it personally, let alone to do so publically. And because you are referring to a published article and not behind the scenes actions, it is preposterous that you should ask for comment. It’s basically textual analysis. The text speaks for itself.
‘The text speaks for itself’ indeed.
Second, Kelly seems to ignore the tremendous power differential that exists between journalists like her who find a platform in media outlets like the New York Times and bloggers like myself. My blog posts have very limited visibility; if Kelly is worried her professional reputation will be hurt then she can perhaps rest easy. But her pieces have thousands of readers and are backed up by the authority of the New York Times; they have the power to influence opinion significantly. It is Kelly’s responsibility to do the checking, and to make sure her piece is not vulnerable to the kind of criticisms mounted in the Techdirt piece I was quoting. Like some dude once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
Third, Kelly wants to rely on a notion of writerly solidarity: that I should not attack another writer. But this is to invoke a solidarity or a fraternity that does not exist. More to the point, it is a dangerous invocation. Writers write, critics critique, journalists expose; once they put their ideas out there they should expect to be critiqued. I have now published three books, and am working on my fourth. None of my reviewers have bothered to contact me for clarifications; rather, they write first and then expect me to write defenses. I have a pen (or keyboard); I can defend myself very well with those. That’s what I do; I meet critique with more critique. I have written over 150 blog posts over at ESPN-Cricinfo so perhaps you could call me a sports journalist; I do not expect those who respond to me to ask me for clarification first. I have written almost 300 posts here. I don’t expect people who criticize me here to contact me first for clarification either. (In my response to Kelly I seem to have conceded too much in this regard). If someone critiques me, I will respond here (as I am doing at this very moment to Kelly’s critical comments).
Lastly, as I have noted, I look forward to Kelly’s response to the original criticisms mounted in the TechDirt piece. I have linked to her blog and will be monitoring it to see if that happens. Perhaps Kelly can post the original version of her piece so that we can see if editing by NYT editors above her resulted in the omissions we are all worried about.
Yesterday I posted the following on my Facebook status:
The New York Times gives us ‘news’ on the CTU strike and includes this:
‘Mayor Rahm Emanuel has focused on trying to improve the quality of public education, with a longer school day and more meaningful teacher evaluations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union, meanwhile, has been intent on reinstating a 4 percent pay increase, and protecting those who are laid off when failing schools are closed.’
Yup, this is ‘news’ reporting all right. Just the news.
From: (‘Next School Crisis for Chicago: Pension Fund is Running Dry‘, NYT, September 16, 2012)
I hope it is clear what the problem is with the ‘reporting’ above.
And over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece on the too-cool-for-school endeavors of Mr. Peter Thiel. Today, the good folks at Techdirt have a response, which captures most of my central reactions to it. ( I have a visceral reaction to showboats like Thiel that I will set aside for now.) To wit, it reads like:
[A] retweet of corporate PR.
In short, the New York Times article–by Caitlin Kelly–flirts with reading like a poorly edited press release. And the piece I linked to above–by Mary Williams Walsh–provides evidence too, of having been copied from Rahm Emanuel‘s manifestos.
We are, folks, seemingly confronted with creatures all too common in today’s journalistic world: the faithful stenographer and the eager megaphone.
A little story before I go any further. Some sixteen or so years ago, a good friend’s cousin came visiting to New York City. I met him a few times at parties and dinners and struck up some light conversation about his work at a pharmaceutical company’s press and public relations department. His job was to write up press releases based on material provided to him by company scientists, and then send them on to media outlets like magazines and newspapers. This being 1996, he did most of his work the old-fashioned way, faxing one-pagers to a list of numbers every day. Crib a little, write a little, fax a lot. He was good at his work, very prolific in the releases he put out, and he was paid well. All seemed hunky-dory.
But all was not well. For as my new acquaintance confessed to me, he was alarmed at the rate at which his press releases appeared in print. Note, I did not say ‘material from his press releases’; rather, quite simply, all too many ‘journalists’ at the receiving end of his fax blasts were simply taking the press release, removing his name, making some minor cosmetic alterations and then simply the running the release as their article. Job done. On to the next ‘story’.
The New York Times has been honest enough to admit that in the past it was part of the cheerleading crew that failed to flag the Bush administration’s ghastly, criminal, war on Iraq. But the lack of critical appraisal shown then seemingly still afflicts the Grey Lady. And they aren’t alone in this abdication of journalistic responsibility either: as responses to the US administration’s ‘lede’ on the Benghazi attacks show, all too many journalists today are simply uncritical purveyors of whatever nonsense is sent their way from corporate and political sources. The next time you read a debate about the indispensability of the journalist in the context of today’s blog-happy world, keep that in mind. (These ramblings remind me I need to get back to reviewing David Coady‘s excellent What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012), which provides a spirited and philosophically rigorous defense of the independent blogger.)
David Coady‘s new book What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012)–by making vividly clear the importance and the significance of epistemology to politics and political life–may well be the most important and interesting book on epistemology in recent years; anyone interested in the control of the flows of information, their influence on our politics, and the role of normative models of reasoning and knowledge acquisition in enforcing political ideology should read it. In particular, Coady’s analysis and writing–tightly argued, clear, and rigorous–reaches a fine rhetorical and polemical pitch in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), which are described as ‘unified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.’ That description should provide you with a hint of Coady’s unconventional take on the topics covered in these chapters; even if you aren’t an academic philosopher, you owe it to yourself to read them to have well-established preconceptions shaken up. (And to enjoy a rather entertaining take-down of Cass Sunstein.)
Today, I’d like to provide a brief introduction to Coady’s book, and then, in the next few days and weeks, follow-up with some extended analysis of the chapters mentioned above.
In the preface, Coady says that while the study of ethics has been transformed in recent years ‘by addressing contemporary social and technological issues, the study of espistemology remains quite abstract and ahistorical.’ Such an underdevelopment and narrowing divorces the study of knowledge from the practical conduct of our lives. In particular, for us, situated at this point in time:
The information revolution and the knowledge economy have radically changed the way that we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs. These changes have altered our epistemic landscape as surely as the sexual revolution and breakthroughs in reproductive technology have changed our moral landscape. The latter changes provided a good deal of the impetus for the applied turn in ethics, but the former changes have so far failed to result in a comparable turn in epistemology.
As Coady notes, to do applied epistemology will be to return to the ways in which epistemology was done in that period of philosophical history–the time of ‘modern philosophy‘–which established it as a primary philosophical concern: David Hume‘s argument against belief in miracles was a blow struck against the idea of the Bible as a source of knowledge, a political move if there ever was one; John Locke‘s argument for religious tolerance was based ‘partly on the grounds that no government can be sure that the official religion is correct, which means that no government can be sure it is not persecuting the true religion;’ and John Stuart Mill argued, in particular relevance to our modern times, that ‘since no person has infallible access to the truth, we are most likely to converge on the truth in the course of debate sustained by laws protecting free speech.’
Belief and action are inseparably bound; politics is a form of action (most simplistically, putting political beliefs into motion). Citizens and philosophers alike have known and acted on these connections for as long as man has been a political animal. In recent times, political philosophy seems to have forgotten these considerations when it has come to providing critical analyses of the epistemological issues arising from developments such as the Iraq war. (Did we ever have good evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction?) Coady’s book should help set political philosophy back on track by making it pay closer attention to what should be a central aspect of its question-asking and answering.
Note: Examples and quotes drawn from ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-3.