The Corner

Re: CNN & Palin

Before Byron’s post closes the issue for all time, I’d just like to make a quick point. Some people want to blame CNN’s bias, others its incompetence. I think in many respects this is a false choice. Every institution has its biases. Every instutution is prone to groupthink. Drew Griffin might have made the same mistake no matter what, but generally the more ideologically diverse an organization the more likely it is that mistakes will be caught. Take the Dan Rather memogate story. It would not have required a rocket scientist to catch the myriad problems with that story. Indeed, all it would have taken is someone in the room who was not only skeptical, but who actually did not want the story to be true and so was keen to find flaws with it. 60 Minutes in general, and Dan Rather in particular, had no such person on its payroll. So egregious errors made it through the system without anyone saying, “Wait a minute, maybe we shouldn’t rely on a blind orthodontist with an ax to grind be our document expert.” (I exaggerate for dramatic effect). If Drew Griffin had a conservative associate producer who could spend 2 minutes discussing what Byron’s story was about, odds are that Griffin wouldn’t have made his outrageous mistake.

What about the ideological consensus at places like NR or the New Republic for that matter? Well, first of all, it requires extra special vigilance and care (attributes Byron has in spades, by the way). But opinion magazines generally aren’t as reportorial as places like CNN. And it is in the news gathering area where the mistakes I’m discussing are usually made. Indeed, The New Republic’s biggest scandals were the direct result — I would argue — from its editors simply wanting the (false) news they were getting to be true. Hence Stephen Glass’s and Pvt. Beauchamp’s fictions.

It seems to me that scientists understand this problem very well, which is why they have such stringent rules to confirm their findings. Everybody wants to find a cure for cancer. Everybody wants their theory to be proven right. So, scientists send their work out to other scientists who may be just as eager to find a cure for cancer, but not nearly so eager that their competition finds it first. So those peers work very hard to find the weak spots in the theory. Mistakes still make it through, but the error rate in scientific studies (which is remarkably high, I’m told) is still much, much, lower than what we find in New York Times, CBS or CNN as a matter of course.

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