Not to pick on Mike Stanton, whose tweet about churches’ being dangerous I addressed yesterday, but another recent tweet of his is worth review for a related lesson. The author, UConn journalism professor, and former Providence Journal reporter took the opportunity of Sam Howard’s criticism of me to tweet:
Kudos to @SamGHoward for documenting a problem that scientists refer to as “armchair epidemiology” – idealogues using half-baked math to undermine science in pursuit of their own political agenda.
In subsequent exchanges, it seemed clear that Stanton hadn’t read my original post, Howard’s response, or my response to him. If that’s accurate, then the influential journalist had seen the progressive’s tweet, made assumptions as to the subject matter, and then made the further assumptions that I had engaged in “half-baked math” and that Howard had successfully made his case about it.
This is one of the many tentacles by which an ideologically driven insider class constricts to squeeze out competing factions and their competing ideas. Howard was able to decline to respond to my answer to him because he knows he won’t be called on it. He knows any esteemed journalist who catches wind of the exchange will side with him and never acknowledge that the conservative might have made the stronger case.
The Providence Journal provided another excellent example yesterday, with its story on the legal brief that I mentioned earlier today. Three respected lawyers, including a former state supreme court justice and a former president of the state bar association, released an analysis suggesting that the governor of the state is exceeding her powers in ways that violate the rights of Rhode Islanders, and the Providence Journal gave it this headline:
R.I. conservative group, with ex-Supreme Court justice’s memo in hand, may sue over coronavirus shutdown
Headline writing 101 suggests that you put the subject of your story first and avoid complex, convoluted sentence structures. To the writer of this headline, all other aspects of the story are subordinate to his or her belief that the real substance is a “conservative group” whining. The complex, convoluted language is an attempt to twist what he or she knows should be the actual headline to put a thumb on the scale and influence how readers will approach the details. Of course, many/most readers will take the headline as the summary and move on, believing they know something factual.
(As a side note, I had to laugh upon reading Editor & Publisher’s headline about the Providence Journal’s decision to end editorial essays: “In Rhode Island, the State’s Largest Daily No Longer Has Any Opinions of Its Own.” That’s obviously not true. The paper is just no longer accurately labeling any of its opinions as such.)
This experience carries over to other areas than news reporting. When it comes to our legal system — whether the courts themselves or the quasi-judicial rulings of bodies like the Ethics Commission or the Attorney General’s office for open meetings and access to public records — underlying assumptions apply about who is right or wrong and what the heart of the issue is. It doesn’t even have to be conscious, having more to do with how people come to understand a question and determine what seems reasonable.
From there, even people who might agree with the outside groups’ ideas, or at least find their arguments compelling, will shy away from public support or agreement. They don’t want to become subject to the same unfair bias; they want the assumption of being taken seriously.
The undulation of these tentacles is very visible on social media, where (like Howard) progressives will criticize others for even paying attention to those with whom they disagree. The governor herself has made such comments to local journalists with regard to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity.
And so we go on, with one side of the political debate having its ideas (the better ideas, in my view) discounted and brushed aside. That isn’t an auspicious way to begin a much-needed recovery from this massive economic and civic hit we’re now taking.