Trust and the professional pundit

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

This is an example of a photo that David Frum claimed was doctored  this week. He has since apologized for making that claim. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Last week, David Frum, a senior editor at the Atlantic, tweeted a series of claims questioning whether photos of wounded Palestinians in Gaza — including the one at the top of this post — had been doctored.  In some of these tweets, he linked to blog posts by others claiming fakery.  In others, he was more direct:

This triggered an avalanche of critical responses, including from photojournalists who had been on the scene.  Earlier this week, Frum publicly apologized for making the accusation (based on some blogging by others), offering, by way of an explanation, “[the] long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda.”

I think it’s safe to say that my colleague Erik Wemple did not really accept Frum’s apology:

It’s precious that in a post about his credulity, Frum would credit himself with skepticism. That’s precisely what he didn’t exercise here. He trafficked allegations of high journalistic corruption, apparently without ever consulting the people he was accusing. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, said, “Oh God no,” when asked whether Frum had ever pre-checked his tweeting. “Based on what I understand, he did not,” she says….

At this point, it’s almost a cliche of journalism — Don’t repeat everything you read on some blog. A senior editor at The Atlantic went ahead and did so. And in his apology, he offered a history lesson to explain his “skepticism.” A better word would have been “bias.” If nothing else, Frum showed how utterly inclined he is to believe and recirculate a claim of Palestinian photo fakery. Journalists guard against their biases by checking their reporting before publishing it.

Wemple’s point dovetails with James Fallows’s commentary on this brouhaha, and why journalists did not react well to Frum’s allegations:

We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorifying the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons.

But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they’re just making things up — this could and would drive them crazy. I’m sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately mis-diagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.

As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world

I have three short reactions to all of this.  The first is that what’s interesting to me is Wemple and Fallows’s appeals to trust and craft.  Their argument, distilled to its essence, is that journalism is a profession, and, like all professions, it stresses certain norms, ethics and principles to make sure the rest of the world trusts what they are doing.  So when someone comes along and levies an accusation that cuts against a Really Important Norm, it’s not surprising that the rest of the profession reacts this way.  And this is true for all professions — which is why, say, academics care an awful lot more about plagiarism than the rest of society.

The second is that, as Chris Hayes and others have noted, appeals to trust and professionalism ain’t what they used to be.  Professions live and die by their external reputations, and the problem the media now faces is that even if 99 percent of journalists remain as professional as ever, there have still been enough scandals and screw-ups to erode trust in that profession.  Again, the parallel with academia is strong.  All it takes is a few stories about citation cartels, and it’s easy for the commentariat to start claiming that the entire peer review system for academic publication is a mockery and a sham.  The loss of that trust is tangible and serious.  We as a society are experts at how a profession can lose the trust of a public — I’m not sure we know much about how to build that trust back up again.

Third, the real problem with all of this is that while journalism still does think of itself as a profession, there is no strong set of professional codes and norms when it comes to what Frum is doing, which is punditry.  It used to be that opinion columnists and commentators were simply senior journalists, and so those norms were imported into the craft of opinion-writing.  Those days are long gone.  There are very few examples of pundits committing infractions so severe that they get drummed out of the business.  Indeed, in many cases, the infractions are forgiven.

Social media has amplified this problem.  Indeed, as I noted last month:

Blogging and tweeting encourages the airing of contingent and tentative arguments as events play out in real time. As a result, far less stigma attaches to admitting that one got it wrong in a blog post than in peer-reviewed research. Indeed, there appears to be almost no professional penalty for being wrong in the realm of political punditry. Regardless of how often pundits make mistakes in their predictions, they are invited back again to pontificate more.

One norm I’d really like to see emerge is pundits admitting error and apologizing when they get things wrong, and Frum did that.  But I’m curious what other norms, if any, should be strengthened among the pontificating class.

And I ask this out of self-interest.  When I’m writing an academic article, I know the rules of the game.  I’ve been blogging for well over a decade now, and the rules for this kind of writing are far more amorphous.  So this is something to think about for the weekend.

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Michael R. Strain · August 1, 2014