Sunday, September 18, 2005

Comment on Somerby

Bob Somerby is again deep into exposing the absurdities of todays press corps. One of his recent rants has raised a bit of notice beyond The Daily Howler. The subject of this particular rant has to do with how much news coverage was actually given to the New Orleans convention center and when was the coverage given. Bob discusses the issue here at The Daily Howler. Now a lot of folks have a recollection of the events more in keeping with the standard story line and some of that is covered by Kevin Drum here.

Now strictly speaking, Bob is correct. The coverage had only just started maybe 18 hours, not 24, prior to the Paula Zahn interview and it did not get heavy until Thursday morning, not on Wednesday night. However, even though the coverage was light Wednesday night a goodly number of people had heard of what was going on by that time. Ted Kopple's claim that "we" have been reporting it for more than just today would also seem to be false if "we" indicates ABC news. In short, in the strictest sense Bob is right. And it is good to get even minor facts correct. This is the sort of thing that should be set right and to that extent his commentary is right on target. Bob correctly calls upon all commentators to meet the highest standards of accuracy.

However, Bob also seems to raise this error to the level of the claims during the Clinton/Gore period such as Whitewater and Love Story and the like. But this is ridiculous. The error in this case is almost entirely superficial. The substance of the issue with regard to the Convention Center is that for some 12-24 hours prior to Mike Brown's interview many reporters were aware of conditions at the Convention Center. Additionally these conditions had been on national news for some 6-18 hours at least. And yet FEMA, the agency which is supposed to be on top of what is going on, is only just learning these things, long after the news media did. The implication that Mike Brown could have learned about the Convention Center just by watching the news is indeed somewhat exaggerated. However, given that the information about the Convention Center was being discovered by reporters does suggest that FEMA ought to have been learning of it too.

I think that Bob is making a serious error in the way that he equates nearly all errors made being equally serious. He does not seem to be making any distinctions as to degree of error. This tendency to equate all errors as being the same is a fundamental failure of reasoning. To go off on what might seem a tangent, I must say that this failure of reasoning was something Galileo had to deal with to get modern science underway. Galileo needed to deal with this because if you were to actually drop two objects, one twice the weight of the other, from the top of some tower (in Pisa or elsewhere) the two objects will almost certainly not hit the ground at the same time, in spite of Galileo's claims. The reason we know now is that air resistance will affect the result and generally can be expected to slow down the smaller object more. So given that both his claims and Aristotle's are wrong, the simple conclusion is that they are both the same in being in error so the choice is between the illustrious Aristotle know for his brilliance over the ages or this upstart Italian of no known name. Galileo's argument, however, was that yes I'm wrong but the distance that I'm off by is less than the width of a man's hand. Aristotle's claim is off by more than the height of a man. Given that Aristotle is off by such a large margin, he's out to lunch. Given Galileo's claims being much closer to what actually happens, he is on to something. Thus modern physics and modern science is born. I think that this same reasoning as to who is being more inaccurate is also important in assessing these news media questions.

I also think that Bob's position is an extremely ironic one. He seems to be chastising liberal commentators for every error, however small, in exactly the same terms that he criticizes far more flagrant errors in the past. His reason for doing this is understandable, he doesn't want liberal commentators falling into the despicable behaviors so prevalent in the Clinton/Gore years. This is admirable. To explain the irony I must first say that I've never seen a compelling explanation as to why the liberal NYT and WaPo turned into the antithesis of journalism when dealing with Clinton. My recollection of the time (early '90's) makes me think that one motivation was to not let a liberal get away with the sorts of things that destroyed the conservative Nixon and that they would take a thoroughly hard nosed approach to Clinton for that reason. Not unlike what Bob is doing with liberals now. I must immediately say that I see no sigh of Bob becoming anything like the NYT and WaPo today. The transformation of those papers was also driven by an overwhelming arrogance that is absent in Bob. But I do think that the harshness of Bob's criticisms of liberals is often eerily reminiscent of the attitudes that brought about the "journalism" that his is so passionately fighting against.

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