In the last week there have been two controversies involving social media and academics. Since they involved different ends of the political spectrum, though, they seemed to get considered independently of each other. First, Duke professor Jerry Hough used his Facebook account to share some thoughts on a New York Times editorial titled How Racism Doomed Baltimore (sample: “Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.”)
Meanwhile, Boston University professor Saida Grundy sent out some Tweets with her own unique take on things (“why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” etc). Both were condemned for their statements, which was followed by support and defiance, then to reflections on how universities deal (poorly) with social media use by professors, along with more general pieces on free speech in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
While it’s good to take a step back and consider the broader implications of virtual firestorms like those caused by Hough and Grundy, it seems like in many cases people’s position depends on whether they agree with the statements in the first place. If they do, then it’s “provocatively fierce freedom of expression;” if not, then not so much. And that usually leads to trying to explain why the one you like is acceptable, if explosive, while the other is hate speech - a tough needle to thread.
The push to make such incidents fireable offenses or cause for institutional censure strikes me as a bad idea considering colleges are among the few remaining workplaces where freedom of expression hasn’t already gone down the drain. Having lots of people criticize a Tweet or Facebook comment is one thing. Barring threats of violence or other attacks, having lots of people say “you’re an idiot” can pretty much be filed under More Free Speech. Calling it monstering or a mob or or the like is silly. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to get that kind of blowback, but it you’re dishing it out you have to be prepared to take it - perhaps in unexpectedly large quantities. There are all kinds of potential consequences for broadcasting your opinions for the world to hear, one of which is having a certain portion of the world respond negatively. (I write this knowing full well that I too am broadcasting my opinions for the world to hear.)
It’s possible to make very sharp points, and write with a polemical style, without generating the kind of massive, spontaneous backlash that those two did. Even if you fancy yourself a bold teller of uncomfortable truths, or a besieged lonely voice in a wilderness of political correctness, or whatever other kind of self-mythologizing works for you, there’s no affirmative requirement to piss people off. And should that happen, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to go into a defensive crouch either. You like tossing grenades? Great, good for you - but don’t act surprised if shrapnel starts flying your way.
As for wading into these issues, more often than not I think it’s a waste of time. Some people seem to relish getting a rise out of others and with inflammatory rhetoric. Hough and Grundy have both showed a willingness to do that elsewhere. Even if you agree with their points, how much do you want to bother with someone whose primary goal seems to be ginning up controversy? Is no one else addressing those issues in a way that doesn’t generate so much heat? If not, maybe that should tell you something. If so, why not weigh in over there instead?
For those who thrive on reaction, the worst thing you can do is help them become the outrage du jour. It only encourages them. In Hough’s case, for instance, it’s worthwhile (if dreary) to take on his “blacks won’t assimilate” argument: so what exactly are the approved names (besides Jerry) for real Americans? How does the lack of such a name indicate an unwillingness to integrate? And if patriotism can be measured by one’s name, why not take the next logical step and insist citizens only have names popular at the founding of the nation - such as Eleazar, Thaddeus or Zachariah? Why does Hough insist on using his strange new name instead of adopting an authentically integrated one?
If one has the patience, rebutting tired and discredited talking points seems much more useful. Ignoring someone who is just trying to be outrageous is also a nice option, and well-done mockery never goes out of style. But pushing for some kind of sanction only creates a First Amendment martyr. Better to just give ‘em enough rope, I say.
I’ll admit my first reaction to Seymour Hersh’s piece on the killing of Osama bin Laden was, why are we interested in this exactly? It doesn’t start out too well either. The first paragraph claims the raid was “a major factor in [Obama’s] re-election.” I must have been reading different news in the fall of 2012. I seem to recall it being mentioned a few times but it was hardly a central plank of the campaign. Moments like Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment or the “please proceed, Governor” debate fiasco are individual moments that stand out. As for messaging, it seems like economic issues dominated. By far the most memorable commercial was the “It Was Like Building My Own Coffin” ad. So no, calling it a major factor just seems like empty hype for what follows.
Then the very next sentence, the third of the story, the thing that’s supposed to grab you and compel you to read on, is: it was not true that “senior generals of Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) were not told of the raid in advance.” That may be front page stuff in Pakistan, or not, who knows, but the ISI being in the loop is not the kind of thing I’ll spend much time worrying about.
The narrative didn’t exactly propel me forward - there’s a lot of inside baseball. A few items are fascinating though. For instance, Hersh claims bin Laden was no longer in command of anything of consequence. If true, that changes the story we’ve told ourselves about bin Laden’s death. As it currently stands, it was something like an act of self defence. Public enemy number one was still in operational control of a vast and implacably hostile terror network, so killing him kept him from murdering any other Americans. The trove of material found in the compound would help prevent additional deaths.
If Hersh’s reporting is correct, though, there were considerably less noble intentions at work. It wasn’t protecting the citizenry but simple revenge. He killed 3,000 of us, fuck him, we want him dead. I suspect that would still have been accepted, too. I doubt too many of his countrymen would have recoiled if Obama had said something like: “We don’t know if he’s in control of al Qaida or not, and we don’t care. This is retribution for 9/11. While it won’t bring back any of the dead, it satisfies a desire for a grim kind of justice.”
That is a very different story, though. It may be justifiable, maybe no one would blame us for wanting him dead on those grounds - but it’s hardly virtuous. And I don’t think many of us would easily give up the tone of righteousness we’ve used concerning the Global War On Terror.
So even if you have problems with the overall arc of the story, Hersh’s piece has some worthwhile bits to chew over. And typically when a big investigative piece drops, the initial reaction is collective shock as it sinks in. Then people start to digest it, poke at it, and look to either discredit or confirm it. But this piece is getting attacked right away, and in very personal terms.
Max Fisher, for example, says “[Hersh’s] reports have become less and less credible.” Among these “newer and more conspiratorial stories” is one about a military strike on Iran which never happened. Considering that imminent war with Iran is a go-to subject from Atlantic cover stories down to the neocon fever swamps, it seems a bit strange to single out Hersh for his entry in the genre.
When he finally does turn to the piece, Fisher muddies the water. Hersh claims there was no trove of intelligence material taken from the Abbottabad compound, and writes: 1. A Washington Post story purportedly summarizing some of the trove was vague and contradictory. 2. A government-contracted private research group provided translations of some of the material, and it was underwhelming and contradictory. 3. An anonymous retired official insisted the CIA did not contribute to the private research group’s effort.
Hersh doesn’t say nothing came out of Abbottabad, just nothing with the kind of relevance officials claimed. Here is Fisher’s characterization: “The intelligence ‘treasure trove’ was thus a fabrication, cooked up by the CIA after the raid to back up the American-Pakistani conspiracy” - which strongly implies Hersh reported nothing at all came from the compound. He did, though. He just questioned its relevance, as well as the provenance of some of what was claimed to come from there. That hardly strikes me as tin foil hat territory.
Overall, Fisher writes as someone who presumptively believes the government’s story. Contradictions, thin sourcing, overly generous grants of anonymity - these aren’t problems for those who pass along the official line from Washington, but for those who question it. I’m not saying Hersh should get a pass. His work absolutely should be scrutinized, and should be challenged on many of the points Fisher highlights. But that approach is used with a curious inconsistency.
It’s revealing that Fisher links to a story by another Hersh critic - one that puts the word rendition in scare quotes and notes Hersh is “writing a book on what he called the ‘Cheney-Bush years’ and saw little difference between that period and the Obama administration.” Because God forbid anyone detect institutional rot at the heart of our homeland security strategy. Whatever you do, don’t question the existing power structure. To succeed in DC you need to play the game, and stories like Hersh’s, if nothing else, make it very clear who’s on the team and who isn’t.
This week there’s been a lot of conservatives speaking out against the rioting in Baltimore; Susan of Texas picked apart Megan McArdle’s entry for just one example. They all say basically the same thing though, and in any event they aren’t as interesting for their text as their subtext.
Rioting like that in Baltimore - in minority neighborhoods, typically sparked by some kind of injustice - inspires the right to denounce it without qualification. It’s always wrong and never achieves anything - or does so at too high a cost. Of course, rioting isn’t always wrong in their eyes. When it’s done in response to, say, a sporting event then the rioters are described euphemistically as fans or some such thing. (Cf. how white suspects get yearbook photos and are called wrestlers, black suspects get mug shots and are called, well, suspects.)
In certain special circumstances - such as when America launches a war of aggression, annihilates a country’s political infrastructure, and stands by as a state of nature emerges - rioting can even be a totally, completely understandable reaction by people who have suffered decades of injustice. Given the right situation conservatives will start talking like the worst kind of equivocating, lily-livered bleeding heart liberals. So it’s good to keep the right’s moral relativism in mind when reading their absolutist tone. What we’ve had this week has just been the wrong kind of rioting.
Even more interesting, their claim that rioting doesn’t accomplish anything is contradicted by the very fact that the commentary has been written. The right covered neither the Freddie Gray story nor the initial protests. It wasn’t until rioting broke out that they began to pay attention. It’s as though a black man having his spine mostly severed for looking at the police wrong was not sufficiently unjust for them to write about.
Nor did it prompt them to connect it to anything that might be traced back a few years, or, you know, a century or more. To be fair, they aren’t alone in this. National media tends to ignore festering but urgent issues, shine a spotlight when things start catching on fire, then go back to more, um, important issues when it’s over. The fact that CNN was more interested in the Village’s annual circle jerk than in the rapidly escalating situation in Baltimore is proof of the former. That more Pulitzers were awarded for Politifact’s 2014 lie of the year than for the unrest in Ferguson is proof of the latter.
Still, it’s very striking that the right doesn’t pay any attention to the brutal oppression many cities live under unless there is a riot, because that is a great illustration of why rioting is a considered, rational response in Baltimore. If conservative media was consistent either way - ignoring those communities all the time, even during riots; or focusing on them during both calm and turbulence - then they could credibly say rioting wouldn’t help anything at least as far as they themselves were concerned. If they could say: we’re ignoring you either way or paying attention either way, then it makes sense to say rioting won’t produce any good result.
But to do what they’re doing now sends the opposite message. We won’t pay attention unless you riot. Sure, it will be critical coverage, but readers will need context. Freddie Gray’s name is now very well known across the political spectrum. He’s been mentioned by pundits that would not have done so otherwise. Sure, it’s in the context of condemning the violence that followed or, in Brooks’ case, the service of a threadbare narrative about the breakdown of norms (for God’s sake David, just stuff all those insights into a diary and make it a book when it hits 300 pages). But people now know what happened to Freddie Gray. They didn’t until there were riots in Baltimore.
Functionally, that means rioting works. It causes political and media elites that otherwise ignore the issue of community policing to pay attention, if briefly. Would you like to know how these elites will make their own little contribution to the next riot? By ceasing to pay attention once the trial ends, by treating it like a Law and Order episode that runs credits once the verdict is read, by reporting on it in a vacuum, each new story an isolated event that somehow never forms a pattern. That’s part of what sets the stage for the next riot. It’s why the current one worked and was effective, it’s why it made a relevant political point, and it’s why the next one will too.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. But the alternative - sustained attention and confronting the systemic evil that causes these conditions to persist generation after generation - is too hateful for us to collectively contemplate. So riots it is then, now and going forward.
There’s one aspect of the surveillance state that I expect Congress to fix soon. Namely, putting the expiration of provisions like those in the Patriot Act - temporarily protecting America for fourteen years and counting - in lame duck “news dump” sessions at the end of the year. Because as it stands now even seemingly innocuous dates can come at inconvenient political moments.
Barack Obama found that out in 2008 when he was in the midst of the tightest Democratic nomination contest in memory. While it was in doubt he opposed surveillance so resolutely that he threatened to filibuster over it. Then once he had the nomination he decided it wasn’t so bad after all as long as he kept a close eye on it. After he became president he realized it was actually kind of awesome.
The action is on the Republican side this time around, though party dynamics need to be taken into account. State snooping wasn’t a big issue for the GOP in 2008 because a Republican was president, which as we all know means issues like domestic spying, deficits, foreign policy and so on are politely ignored by conservatives - or at most subject to astringent harrumphing. Now that a Democrat is president it’s all a Constitutional crisis. Of course, since domestic surveillance has historically been used more systematically against the left than the right (via, “according to a report the Congressional Black Caucus” etc), much of this is just for form’s sake. But at least it’s more than nothing.
The converse is somewhat true as well: some progressives who voiced principled opposition to the surveillance state have softened that stance - and sometimes even rationalized support for it - once a Democrat won the White House. Similarly, in contrast to ostentatiously loud conservatives, progressives might seem abnormally quiet. I suspect, though, that 2008 taught a lot of progressives that senior Democrats aren’t stalwart defenders of civil liberties. Some pay lip service, but ultimately the fix is in. The whip counts get done, everything is set in place for passage, and then there will be an ineffectual show of opposition. One would have to be kind of foolish to witness all that and still trust in party leadership, no?
The heavier use of surveillance against the left means liberals have more of a stake on the issue; they just aren’t (or don’t know how to be) up in arms about it. Recent history has produced real uncertainty over how exactly they can effectively express their discontent.
Anyway, the current beneficiary of surveillance expiration dates is Rand Paul. He’s now a declared presidential candidate, so he’s saying all the right things. Earlier this month he not only thundered “the president [which one, Senator?] created this vast dragnet” but promised to unilaterally end the practice if you’ll just elect him president. (Bonus fun quote: “Your phone records are yours.” This must have been news to AT&T.)
He still has to cast votes in his day job, though, and that’s kind of a problem. Last November he pretty much singlehandedly assured the passage of the USA Freedom Act - Sam Spade had these guys pegged - on the grounds that killing reform would allow him to fight for even MOAR AND BETTER FREEDOMSES in 2015.1 OK great, so 2015 is here and the latest expiration date is now on the radar. According to the National Journal article “Paul has said he will fight to block the reauthorization,” so get ready for the charades to begin.
Here’s your basic road map for the near future. Much like Chris Dodd in 2008, Rand Paul will say all kinds of dramatic things about self-government and freedom and so on. He may even, like Dodd, threaten a filibuster because he feels so gosh darn strongly about it. Then the expiration date will loom, we will all hear about how the terrorist killers are going to murder our children in their sleep, super patriot Rand Paul will suddenly find himself unable to muster enough votes to do anything, he will dramatically introduce amendments that get voted down, and just prior to passage he will stride to the Senate floor and quote some Thomas Paine or Ben Franklin, or perhaps Neil Peart.
This isn’t leadership, it’s “leadership” - doing enough to appear active but not enough to risk success. That’s how surveillance reauthorizations happen. Those who are in an awkward position will be permitted to do just enough to fail. The wheels for passage turn quietly in the background, there’s token resistance, and in the end the thing gets done. On the plus side we’ll get to see some mild irritation from the base, watch the Cato Institute play act its disappointment, and there will be a certain amount of discomfort (to be determined by Ted Cruz). Enjoy the show, just please don’t be under any illusions in the coming weeks when you hear Rand Paul yelp about liberty.
Stay tuned for future episodes, soon to be scheduled for 3 PM on Christmas Eve.
1. It seems to have been largely forgotten that Hillary Clinton ended up voting against the FISA Amendments Act. While it came across as little more than a jab at a political rival (when has she shown up on the issue before or since?), it actually makes her a more credible civil libertarian than Paul. At least she’s cast one vote in the right direction. It probably won’t be a campaign issue, and if it is, it might put her on defense depending on how much fearmongering is happening. But as it stands right now she’s got a more substantive record on the issue, even if by accident.
The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on “A Rape on Campus” covers a lot of ground, but the part that jumped out at me the most dealt with confirmation bias. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig put it, “Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the investigative journalist and true-crime writer who penned the essay, set out with an answer in search of a question, a conclusion about systematic indifference to rape which she needed the right story to backfill.” That desire seemed to short-circuit both the writing and the editing process.
Since the report only focused on the one story, it’s probably tempting to read it as a tale of a singular, albeit massive, failure. Rolling Stone certainly seems to want to treat it that way. According to Managing Editor Will Dana, “It’s not like I think we need to overhaul our process, and I don’t think we need to necessarily institute a lot of new ways of doing things.” He offers a false choice between doing nothing at all and razing the whole thing to the ground - but there is some territory between those two extremes. For just two examples, they could re-examine the work of those who failed most spectacularly, and they could look at weaknesses in their fact checking process.
As the author, Erdely bears primary responsibility for the failures of the piece. Since RS will continue to employ her, perhaps some scrutiny of her earlier stories is in order. Last December Mollie Hemingway flagged one that, as she accurately describes it, reads like a bad Lifetime movie. Since it wasn’t an RS piece the magazine might not be able to fact check it as easily, but given the magnitude of the errors here it might be worthwhile to take a closer look. Has Erdley relied heavily on single source reporting in the past, or sacrificed accuracy for sensationalism in any other articles? If nothing else it might spare the publication further bad publicity.
That said, the dramatic calls on the right for her ouster are a bit much. As commenter VikingLS put it (emphasis added):
How does this work, exactly? How does Rolling Stone gain its credibility back when its response to this disaster is basically, “Hey, mistakes were made”?The same way that The Weekly Standard didn’t suffer from its part in advocating for the Iraq War. They give their readers the stories they want to believe. Whether those stories turn out to be true is beside the point.
(It’s striking that just days before the RS retraction, Judy Miller was writing in the Wall Street Journal - deceptively, of course - about how her prewar Iraq reporting was totally fine. Yet Miller fails up to Fox News and the WSJ for the far more consequential act of helping to grease the skids for a war of aggression. You can prosper with specious journalism as long as you do so in a politically appropriate manner.)
Sean Woods, the principal editor on the story, said “Sabrina’s a writer I’ve worked with for so long, have so much faith in, that I really trusted her judgment in finding Jackie credible…I asked her a lot about that, and she always said she found her completely credible.” I understand the importance of having a decent work environment, part of which entails good feelings among employees. But isn’t it possible to respect reporters’ work, to think highly of their quality after having observed it over years, even to have warm feelings toward them - can’t all that exist without relying on faith and trust for quality control?
To the extent that Woods and Dana were reluctant to take what Erdley could have perceived as an adversarial approach, their editing may have suffered. Perhaps their previous work could use a little more scrutiny as well, then. It wouldn’t have to be some kind of public mortification of the flesh, just an in-house study of how that reluctance might have crept into other stories. It would be a little surprising if this were the absolutely very first time such a thing had happened.
Like confirmation bias, this is an issue at every publication - not just those that have a reputation for leaning one way or the other. How do you make a newsroom work when you need to reconcile two seemingly contradictory needs - the need for the team to have at least ostensibly friendly feelings towards each other and the need for a rigorous editing process that can sometimes be contentious? RS could use this as an opportunity to lead the way on new approaches.
The same is true for fact checking. Consider these quotes from the report:
- Magazine fact-checking departments typically employ younger reporters or college graduates.
- In this case, the fact-checker assigned to “A Rape on Campus” had been checking stories as a freelancer for about three years, and had been on staff for one and a half years.
- [From the fact checker of the piece:] I pushed…They came to the conclusion that they were comfortable
- The checking department should have been more assertive about questioning editorial decisions that the story’s checker justifiably doubted.
Which led to this: “several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.” Fact checking is an unglamorous job usually delegated to younger, less experienced employees. Yet they are the ones in charge of assertively questioning the work of more established journalists? With that kind of power differential how much latitude do they have?
Verbiage about colleagues notwithstanding, these people are not peers. Fact checkers are much farther down the food chain than superstar reporters and long-serving editors. While they might not have any trouble correcting simple and trivial factual errors (X graduated with a BS and not a BA), anything that questions a narrative - especially one, like here, that has confirmation bias - is much more likely to be brushed aside.
It isn’t hard to imagine a recently-hired freelancer pushing back and hearing, who are you to question our decades of blah blah blah? There certainly isn’t much incentive to do so from a job security perspective, either. In that situation I’d have done exactly what the fact-checker did: raise the issue, then let it go if the powers that be didn’t think they needed to pursue it. And I don’t know what the answer to that is, either. I don’t know how you elevate fact checkers’ position or make them better able to pursue troublesome issues without being labeled a malcontent or having someone pull rank.
The point, though, is that these are questions that could be profitably discussed. If Dana and the rest of the editorial staff at RS thinks there is no reason to even consider them - if doing so is called a complete overhaul and therefore not subject to debate - then what will emerge from this is the status quo. Probably a more vigilant status quo in Rolling Stone’s case since they won’t be eager to repeat this experience any time soon, but still one that will leave underlying flaws in place.
It’s good that the magazine was willing to have a thorough and independent report of its failures. That shouldn’t put the whole episode to rest, though. The magazine’s leaders need to not just take their lumps but answer some hard questions. It might be the only chance they have to salvage some kind of silver lining out of the whole mess.