Objectivity and expertise in journalistic practice

David Shipley, op-ed editor at the NYT, on why the hilariously wrong “Obama-is-a-Muslim-apostate” story was run without checking with anyone who actually knew anything about Shari’a: “We do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors.” Precisely. That’s the problem.

I’m glad the NYT public editor called out the NYT op-ed editor on the Luttwak “Obama is a Muslim apostate” nonsense. Not only was the piece a transparent exercise in religious bigotry, it was wrong. And there’s no excuse for the Times’ refusal to run a rebuttal by people who actually know something about Shari’a.

But there’s a deeper pathology here, one that extends well beyond the opinion pages: the stubborn refusal of journalists to submit their product to expert vetting before it runs.

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

The notion of a bunch of editors at the Times, none of whom can read Arabic, “consulting the Koran” is either funny or sad, according to your temperament. But the horrible truth is that they were just acting according to the practices of their guild. In this context, Shipley’s “customarily” is exactly the right word: it is not the custom among journalists to check with experts to make sure that what they publish isn’t appallingly wrong.

According to the conventions of “objective” journalism, the journalist is the impartial judge among competing opinions, and experts are merely purveyors of some of those competing opinions, with no special standing. For every expert opinion saying X, an “objective” reporter will find another expert opinion saying not-X; that’s why outfits such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute exist. Sometimes a bold reporter will decide to privilege an expert opinion above a non-expert opinion, usually to do a “gotcha” on some hapless politician; that’s what happened to Hillary Clinton on the “gas tax holiday.” But the authority always rests with the journalist, never with the expert. Therefore the journalist’s work must not be subjected to any sort of outside scrutiny.

It wouldn’t be hard, or expensive, or time-consuming, for newspapers to get academics to look over news and opinion pieces for howlers. They don’t do it because it challenges the idea that any journalist is competent to report, and any editor to “vet,” any story, regardless of its technical complexity.

This is not the same sort of post-modernism as that practiced by the Bush Administration, but it expresses the same post-modernist contempt for the idea that someone, somewhere actually knows something in a way not merely the result of a contest among social forces.

Here at the Reality-Based Community, we were of course pleased to see Clark Hoyt alluding to our favorite quotation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But it’s slightly scary how controversial that idea remains in practice.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com