Throwing Distance of True Is False

A snarky, pointed retort to the monumentally idiotic notion of arming teachers was that Philandro Castile was a black teacher with a gun, and look what happened to him. And look how the NRA didn’t give a damn. Except Castile worked in a school kitchen and wasn’t a teacher, not that this detail mattered to the 140,000 people who “liked” it.

There was an argument to be made that there are black teachers who could very well find themselves in Philandro Castile’s situation, with the same result. But there is no argument to be made that he was a “legally licensed” teacher, as George Ciccariello-Maher wrote. It was, in a word, false. It was within throwing distance of true, but it was not true.

The Intercept, which bills itself as doing “fearless, adversarial journalism,” has started posting articles by Shaun King. His latest appears under the headline The NCAA Says Student-Athletes Shouldn’t Be Paid Because the 13th Amendment Allows Unpaid Prison Labor. It’s far better written than his other writing, which is a testament to good editing at the Intercept, but otherwise, it’s pure King.

What the NCAA did in response to the lawsuit is as vile as anything going on in sports right now. I had to see it for myself before I believed it. At the root of its legal argument, the NCAA is relying on one particular case for why NCAA athletes should not be paid. That case is Vanskike v. Peters.

Only there’s an important detail: Daniel Vanskike was a prisoner at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, and Howard Peters was the Director of the state Department of Corrections. In 1992, Vanskike and his attorneys argued that as a prisoner he should be paid a federal minimum wage for his work. The court, in its decision, cited the 13th Amendment and rejected the claim.

If the NCAA was arguing that students were the same as prisoners, as slaves, it would be “vile.” Relax. It’s not. This is utter nonsense that only a blithering idiot could spew. Julian Sanchez takes King down on twitter, as that’s all it was worth.

Yet there it was, in all its glory, at The Intercept, a post that was, in a word, false. The Vanskike decision was cited in the papers, but for a different proposition, having nothing to do with students being prisoners or slaves. It was within throwing distance of true, but it was not true.

At the New York Times, Bret Stephens, the Never-Trumper conservative who is nonetheless reviled for penning any word in conflict with the orthodoxy, argues that it’s the duty of journalism to cause discomfort.

A newspaper, after all, isn’t supposed to be a form of mental comfort food. We are not an advocacy group, a support network, a cheering section, or a church affirming a particular faith — except, that is, a faith in hard and relentless questioning. Our authority derives from our willingness to challenge authority, not only the authority of those in power, but also that of commonplace assumptions and conventional wisdom.

So…yay?

In other words, if we aren’t making our readers uncomfortable every day, we aren’t doing our job. There’s an old saying that the role of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but the saying is wrong. The role of the journalist is to afflict, period. News is new — new information, new challenges, new ideas — and it is meant to unsettle us.

Oh crap, no. Your job is to report facts accurately. Whether that makes readers uncomfortable is not your concern, but it is not your job to make readers uncomfortable any more than it’s your job to do the opposite. Your job is to not concern yourself either way with reader comfort. Your job is to be fearless in your accuracy, even if it means that the forceful smack to the reviled NRA about Philandro Castile being a licensed teacher is shown as false.

Now, when I say we need to be making our readers uncomfortable, I don’t mean we should gratuitously insult them if we can avoid it. But neither should we make an effort to play to their biases, or feed this or that political narrative, or dish the dirt solely on the people we love to hate, or avoid certain topics for fear of stirring readers’ anger, even if it means a few canceled subscriptions. Especially in an age in which subscribers account for an ever-greater share of our revenue, publishers will have to be as bold in standing up to occasional, if usually empty, threats of mass cancellations for this or that article as they were in standing up to the demands of advertisers in a previous era.

And Stephens faces up to the fact that journalism is a business, one that depends on revenues coming in, generated by eyeballs. There can be no other reason for Glenn Greenwald to let the pages of The Intercept be sullied by the like of Shaun King except to gain his following, the great unwashed who appreciate King’s use of small words and easily digestible nuggets of truthiness.

Stephens urges resistance, not because the Times needs to hear it from him, but because Times readers need to be reminded of the virtue of challenging their bias. They’re not very good with that at the times. They take insult, actually outrage, at any hint they aren’t praying to the one true god. Stephens wants the readers to bask in the new virtue of tolerating alternative journalistic ideas so he isn’t burned at the stake next to his colleague, Bari Weiss.

As each side gathers round in their respective echo chambers and social media silos, the purpose of free speech has become increasingly more obscure.

It’s [sic] purpose isn’t, or isn’t merely, to allow us to hear our own voices, or the voices of those with whom we already agree. It is also to hear what other people, with other views, often anathema to ours, have to say.

Its purpose is to report facts. Report accurately. Report completely, even those facts that are contrary to the preferred outcome. It’s not about validating your views or challenging your views. If the facts don’t support the views, then it’s the views that are wrong, not the facts. Journalism that reports stories within throwing distance of true, but not true, are, in a word, false.

9 comments on “Throwing Distance of True Is False

  1. Skink

    This isn’t new, just different. I’m fixin’ to break a rule.

    At any given time, at least one of my cases is being covered by media. It’s not because of me, but the nature of the cases. I represent easy targets for the media. Early on in my career, I would answer questions, but I quickly saw that what I said was not so accurate in reports. I stopped talking, but it didn’t stop them from getting it wrong–it just didn’t include my participation. Through this minute, I’ve never seen an accurate report of my stuff. Not one.

    A few years ago, I left a trial courtroom on break and a reporter stepped up to me. She asked, “Mr. Skink, can I ask a question or should I just go fuck myself?” No dummy, I knew what she wanted in response. I may have missed my only chance for accurate reporting.

    Inaccurate and plainly false reporting has been around for a very long time. It’s just that the volume is turned up so it’s heard everywhere. The believers of the once-crappy journalist were few because the volume was lower. But now media magicians are able to spew stupidity at the volume I listen to Queen.

    1. SHG Post author

      Every lawyer who has ever had a case in the funny pages will tell the same story. But back then, was it done in good faith, stupidity or intentionally? Probably a little of each. Can that be said today when journalists perceive their duty as spreading the truth rather than reporting the facts?

      1. Jim Tyre

        He’s brilliant, and sometimes very funny, a rare combination. In response to something Comey said when Comey was still in office, his response was perfect: “Nerd harder.”

  2. wilbur

    ‘Nice to meet you Mr. Stephens. I’m told you’re a reporter or columnist.”

    “No, I’m an afflicter.”

    Last I checked, I don’t think they award the Wurlitzer Prize for Affliction.

  3. B. McLeod

    Of course, to be fair, reporting facts accurately at the New York Times probably would make its readers uncomfortable every day. Certainly those things aren’t mutually exclusive.

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