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Saturday, June 07, 2003

Glenn Reynolds points out an interesting article by Mandy Grunwald in the Washington Post on why the media fails so badly in covering itself. He describes it as being used to judging without being judged. There is something to that, I think, but that's not all it is.

I think the Washington Post is probably the best newspaper in America - let me start with that. So if they're doing a poor job, I wonder about the rest of the print media. I've been quoted by the Post on a few occasions - three or four times, I guess. The only two times that a reporter got my exact words correct, I was quoted so far out of context as to completely destroy - in fact, almost exactly invert - what I was trying to say. One of those particular instances caused me no small embarassment, since I was still in high school and came off sounding like something of a dork. Admittedly, that's probably an accurate impression, but it didn't help that it was in the Washington Post, and it certainly shouldn't have been drawn from what I was trying to say there. It never occurred to me in any of those instances to write in and ask for a correction, because when I was misquoted it wasn't a very big deal, and when I was taken out of context I didn't even realize that there was something I could do about it.

In thinking about those instances recently, though, it occurs to me that in both instances something pretty specific was happening. Both articles were by reporters who had an interesting idea that might, or might not, have been true, and they were looking for evidence to support it. The first time was about the recentering of SAT scoring, and the second was on the perception that students from magnet programs had a more difficult time getting into elite universities. I was a fairly peripheral quote in the first article. In the second, though, the reporter contacted me fairly early in the process and asked me to recommend other students to whom he could talk. I was a senior in high school by that time and realized that a major Washington Post article saying that it was hard for magnet students to get into top universities would be pretty bad for my high school, so I'm not ashamed to say that I did everything I could to spin him. I gave him a list of students - but I didn't mention to him that all of them had gotten into their first-choice school. I also contacted all of them first to make sure that they knew what angle he was taking. It mostly worked - as I recall, he only got one damning comment from someone from my high school, a student who didn't get into Princeton and thought that going to Blair might have had something to do with it. Most of his stuff came from our rival magnet program, Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, where people were apparently a little more forthcoming with their grievances.

He also got a quote from me, however. I spent quite a long time on the phone with this reporter - almost an hour, as I recall, and most of that time was spent telling him that yes, it was true that I worried about the possibility, but that I was wrong to worry. I was a senior in high school applying to Harvard - I was worried about everything. I was totally irrational. If you had told me that the fact that I was 5'9" was a disadvantage, I would have gone off to look for a rack on which I could stretch myself . I got in, and it's not as if I was the valedictorian of my high school (we didn't have one, but if we had - it wouldn't have been me). But the only quote from all of that that showed up in the article was one about how worried I was. Similarly, he didn't investigate the qualifications of the person from my high school who didn't get into Princeton. Now, maybe it's true that he would have gotten in from another school. His qualifications were, by most standards, pretty impressive. But it would have been a little more informative if he had pointed out that Princeton (as opposed to Harvard or MIT, which got a lot of students from us) legendarily took almost no one from my school, for whatever reason, as it hadn't accepted anyone in years. Additionally, he was a good student - but I don't think anyone would have named him the top one at our school. So it's at least questionable as to whether it meant anything at all that that one particular student didn't get in. But none of these things came through in the article because they would have undercut the point the reporter was trying to make - that going to a magnet program could hurt your chances.

Now, was this done out of malice? I don't think so. I think he was a good, busy reporter who was trying to do his job, and interviewing a lot of people - one of whom, although he had no way of knowing this, was pretty actively trying to make sure that his story wasn't going to come out the way he wanted it to. Psychologists have found that people are much more open to pieces of information that support their preconceived ideas. They tend to remember facts that support what they believe and forget or ignore facts that contradict what they believe. So it's fairly hard for facts alone to change someone's mind on a complex issue - people have cognitive filters, and the cognitive filters end up accepting mainly those facts that reinforce your preexisting beliefs. My guess is that the reporter, going over his notes of our conversation some time later (or even his memories - the interview was over the phone, so I don't actually know if he was taking notes), went to those quotes that reinforced his central idea - that it was harder to get into these schools. Similarly, he didn't question his case example of a student who was hurt by going to a magnet program, because that fact accorded with his biases, and was rated as more credible in his mind because of it. The platonic ideal of a reporter wouldn't have made either mistake, of course, but he was only human.

That's a general commentary on one way in which bias can enter into reportage, and I doubt that it will surprise anyone. But I think it has some relevance to media scandals as well. If you were a reporter for the New York Times assigned to cover the Jayson Blair scandal, what would your pre-existing biases have been? No matter how much you hated Howell Raines, you probably still thought of the Times as a good newspaper that made the right decisions as much as possible. So you're more likely to notice, and consider more credible, those facts which put the Times in a good light. Not out of malice, or any desire to conduct a coverup, but because that's the way your (and everyone else's) brain functions at a fairly fundamental level. That's also the advantage that blogs have in covering stories like this one over traditional media, even media critics, and even ones from other organizations. Even if you work for (say) the Washington Post and are covering a story on a New York Times scandal, you still think of yourself as a member of the media, and you probably have a fairly high image of the media in general. So your cognitive filters are working to protect the Times, whether you want them to or not. Prof. Reynolds, by contrast, surely doesn't think of himself as a member of the media. If anything, his filters surely work in the opposite direction - he is more likely to notice facts that put the Times (and other mainstream press outlets) in a bad light. Certainly, that's how I think, and I would guess that's how most bloggers think about issues like this one. The media is poor at reflexive coverage for a lot of reasons, but we need not necessarily attribute those failures to arrogance or incompetence (although I'm sure a hefty amount of both is involved). Some of it might just be an inevitable artifact of the way members of any institution think about it and themselves. Further, the very fact that we aren't members of the press helps us to cover the press more effectively. That sort of coverage can, in the long run, only be good for the media - but I doubt that they're ever going to appreciate it.
It's definitely worth looking at Robert Kagan's excellent article in today's Washington Post on the whole WMD controversy. Kagan makes a very good point but doesn't, I think, make the larger one - the very fact that everyone agreed that Saddam had WMD will provide some political insulation for the President, even if they are not found. No one of any seriousness suggested, before the war, that he didn't have them. People just disagreed on what should be done about the fact that he had them. So it's not as if Jacques Chirac is going to come out and say, "See, I told you so." Because that's exactly what he didn't do.

I'm not going to comment too much until I see if I can speak with General Reppert, since he actually knows something about this sort of thing. My friends will no doubt gasp in shock at the idea that lack of knowledge is preventing me from opining on a topic, but every once in a while the mood strikes me. I'm sure it will pass.
It's been a little harder generating content for this blog than I thought it would - and not because of time constraints, to my surprise. I think I was still picturing the days of the war, when news was happening on an almost minute-to-minute basis and the entire blogosphere was aflame. Glenn Reynolds, among others, has commented on a sort of ennui that has overtaken him now that the war is over. I feel rather the same. Obviously I wasn't posting at the time, but I was participating fairly extensively in an on-line discussion group, and now that the war is over, it's just hard to get as excited about foreign policy for a little while. That's a real danger, of course, since what's happening in Iraq now is almost as important as what was happening during the war itself, but it's part of human nature - or at least, it's part of my nature.
I've been thinking about the missing WMDs in Iraq. I have to admit, I expected that they would have been found by now - or, at least, that we would have found more than we have. I'm not really worried yet, but it would be helpful if they were found soon. Of course, a significant part of the world will believe that anything we do find will have been planted by the CIA, but what can you do?

If the CIA was half as competent as those people believe it is, would September 11th have happened? Heck, if it was a quarter as competent? The omniscience and omnipresence of the CIA is one of those bizarre collective delusions that I've never quite been able to figure out.

At any rate, it occurs to me that the best person to ask about the subject is my old boss from the Kennedy School, General Reppert. The General used to run the Arms Control Inspection Agency, so he's pretty much the expert on finding the damn things. If I get a chance next week, I'll send him an e-mail asking him if I can interview him on the topic and post the results on this blog. That should be pretty interesting.
Well, I did finally get to sleep. We've had really miserable weather in New York the last few weeks - and now more rain. It's just been atrocious, and no letup in sight. Oh well. Before I moved, I took the subway in to the office, so the weather really didn't mean much. Now that I walk to work, I find that the daily forecast is a critical part of my day.

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