Program Notes: Take a look at this excellent video — which gives me an excuse to pile on George Will and the once-proud Post.
For starters, and for yet another reason that you should never trust George Will, take a look at this excellent video.
It’s not just a good piece of reporting, it’s a really smart use of the medium.
A digression, born of my days as a science documentarian: This short emerged out of some basic production decisions. To my eye, moving images appear to have been shot on a decent cheap camera — a few thousand bucks worth, not more.
The other production resources were even more modest: stills, acceptable quality sound and nothing else — no lights, no fancy grip gear, nothing. From the credits, it appears to have been the work of a one-man band: shot, directed, cut, audio recording all by the same multi-headed person.
And that’s the key: this video is pleasing as well as useful to watch because the shooter/director did not try to finesse the fact of his production constraints. Instead, he chose to use what he had to make the best simple film he could. The most ostensibly “produced” moment in the entire piece is the graphic swoosh of the LA Times logo at the head of the work.
In the body of the video, what you get are well composed shots; clean, sometimes beautiful images within those frames; a careful, clear interview that produced enough clear narrative to voice the entire piece; and an editing sensibility that emphasized rhythm and dynamic variation. Nothing fancy, just solid work in the service of clearly understood production and narrative ideas. This is a glimpse of at least part of the future for science documentary (or documentary full stop).
Meanwhile, its content provides just one more instance among zillions to suggest that George Will is something more or rather less than an idiot: he’s either deluded or deceitful.
I’m referring of course to sea-icegate. I know, I know: I’m way late to the game with the latest Will/Post follies. It’s partly because I still can’t believe that all it takes for you to get viewed as a serious thinker is the willingness to wear bow ties in public under the age of 75. Will has never seemed to me to be someone to bother with.
More generally, his eminence as an example of a conservative public intellectual has always had the same kind of emperor’s clothes problem that beltway respect for obviously wrong right wing arguments has always enjoyed. It’s particularly acute when ideology confronts science, as Will’s does here. A gift for glib phrase making and a capacity to turn out clean prose on deadline is not much help if the actual data are against you. In such circumstances, it is necessary to have the capacity not to grasp that which is inconvenient to know. But the problem there is that willed ignorance is another way of saying dumb. Dim-by-choice is still a few bricks shy of a load.
Think of it another way: there is probably something like a normal distribution, a bell curve, that describes the quality of thought and expression of the punditocracy — MSM or new variant — on either side of the political spectrum. But one in which someone like Jonah Goldberg (or Rick Lowry) makes as far to the right of the curve as they do, implied by the status of the publications that carry their “work” (sic) suggests to this observer that the entire curve is shifted left. (Sorry guys. Convention, you know.)
In that context, it doesn’t matter if Will shines in comparison to, say Jonathan Wells when it comes to a discussion of science as it touches public concerns. Being on the right tail of a bell curve crammed painfully off towards the origin (sorry Jonathan; convention, you know), is not much of an encomium.
So when George Will made a nonsense of the history of climate research, and gave in to the kind of crazed conspiracy theorizing last validated by that noted holder-of-liquor and friend-to-Jesus’ countrymen, Mel Gibson, I couldn’t get much roused.
But as a former fact checker at Discover, some decade or more before the esteemed Carl Zimmer played the same role, I have to say that I have never read anything this pitiful from a media organization that used to have some pride:
George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.
(Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, desperately wondering what happened to his youthful faith in the transcendent virtue of journalism in a democracy)
Let me translate:
Will’s employees ask, “Mr. Will: are you sure about this stuff?”
Will answers: “I’m George Will. Of course I know this stuff.”
Employees: “Ok then.”
Will’s editors say, “George. Anyone going to sue us over anything in here?”
Will: “Nope. Ice floes the size of Texas got no standing.”
Op. Ed. Editor: “George, this is great! Real man bites dog stuff. Anything I should pull for the blow-up quote?”
Will: “Whatever you like; that’s why they pay you the big bucks.” (Chuckles.)
Copy Editors: “Mr. Will. This looks very clean as usual. You might want to think about this comma splice, though.”
Will: “Good catch, my bravos. We keep you alive to serve the machine.” (Chuckles. Louder as he realizes no one laughs with him.)
This is to say: Alexander’s is not the description of anything approximating real fact checking. You need someone institutionally empowered with independent authority to go back to the original sources for each and every claim in a work. And then that person has to be able to confer with the writer about how to accomodate what they have learned in the mutual knowledge that nothing gets published until the checker is satisfied.
Carl Zimmer has written to this point already. Check out what he has to say, it’s a damn good piece. (Bonus points if you get the joke embedded in the last sentence.)
I’ll just add here an anecdote to illustrate Carl’s point and mine. Back in the dawn of time, when my computer still had a chisel-and-slate input device, I fact checked the occasional Lewis Thomas column written for Discover. I did what you did: call everyone, go to the library (chisels/slates, remember) look up the papers. Once — my first go-round on a Thomas piece — I found he had got the description of one of his source’s important arguments wrong. Not horribly so — but as written it was off, a paragraph that misread one of Robert Axelrod’s claims. I don’t actually remember the details (this was literally a quarter of a century ago.)
Nervously, I called Dr. Thomas — then as or more famous than, say, Stephen Jay Gould — to tell him what Axelrod had told me. I waited for the pushback, and got ready to haul in editors as necessary, but I wasn’t looking forward to the exchange.
And then Thomas got on the line. He was perfectly unfazed, calm, kind and interested in what Axelrod had actually said. We talked the point through until he was sure he got what the problem was, and then we worked through the changes that would correct the text in ways that would allow Thomas to make his larger argument. As I recall, the emphasis in the piece shifted a little to accommodate his altered understanding of the work he was trying to bring to light, and after about a half an hour or so we were done.
Over the few months that I did my share of fact checking, I had to look over a Carl Sagan piece, one by Gould, and a bunch by some of the writers who had got to the magazine ahead of me. Carl could be a job to track down,* and Gould really didn’t like being corrected on the little stuff (but my bosses said I had to; if there were 43 widgets in some corner of Victoriana and not 42, that had to be right and the author informed of the change), but they both understood the process, and each was polite to the very junior person, me or another, nit-picking a path through their prose month after month.
In the years since then, I’ve been fact checked plenty myself, and have been saved from public embarassment more than once by some dogged 20-something who wouldn’t let a sloppy description of, say, adaptive optics, slip into print.
The critical thing to understand here is that neither Gould nor Sagan, (nor, more quietly, Thomas) lacked self confidence.
Will clearly does, and I would say with reason. What you see in this episode is a kind of cowardice none of those other writers ever displayed. The only reason you don’t take fact checking seriously is because you do not dare to subject what you think you know to any kind of test. That’s ok, if suboptimal in private life. It’s not acceptable when you shout from one of the bully-est pulpits in American media.
Which, of course, brings the matter back to rest with those actually to blame for this: the people and the corporate culture that allowed Will’s tripe to reach print. I still romanticize the Post for Watergate; watching the Nixon presidency unravel was the formative political event of my high school years. The Post has glided for decades on that triumph, and what this episode makes clear is that there’s nothing left of that Institution but the name across the top of the front page.
Sad. I actually feel for ombudsman Alexander. It must suck to the dregs to have to stand up on one’s hind legs and utter what one knows to be pure weaselry.
*Carl Sagan was the inspiration for my image of certain people as embodiments of Schroedinger wave functions. Unless you perform some kind of physical impounding, they remain oddly distributed over all possible locations. Y’all know who you are.
Image: Jame Gillray, “The impeachment, or “The father of the gang turned Kings evidence,” May 1791. Those with sharp eyes will enjoy the fact that the image shows Edmund Burke indicting his former co-conspirators (as the cartoonist would have it). Let the patron saint of conservatism, more cited than read (it was ever thus) chastise one of those many who have for decades taken his name in vain.