Sunday, October 10, 2010

Opinion: Skepticism 101

from Business Review 12-23-04

You’re well into the movie, Shattered Glass — about how writer Stephen Glass fooled The New Republic, Harper’s and a bunch of other magazines that should’ve known better with a number of fabricated stories and then got fired for it in 1998 — before any of Glass’s co-workers asks what should be one of the tenets of journalism. That important question is: Say what?
I watched that movie on DVD again just this past weekend and I came to the same conclusion I always reach. You know that old expression, Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper? I think it should be part of every basic journalism course. Right after who, what, when, where, why and how but sometime before headline composition and how to avoid semicolons.

Not all that many years ago when I was working in Ohio, there was a string of years when every autumn, after all the tickets had been counted for the Ohio State Fair, official attendance figures would be released. And every year, another banner event would be declared, whopping great numbers would be publicized and, yet again, the Ohio State Fair would be proclaimed the largest in the United States.
And every year I would wonder the same thing: The largest? Bigger than, say, the Texas State Fair or whatever they have in Iowa?
I’d like to think I wasn’t the only one unsurprised when it eventually was determined figures for all those years had been, well, embellished, let’s say. A lot.
Healthy incredulity was not part of my first formal journalism training in high school. Under Maryann Baker, classes resembled something more like chaos. A few of the older students spent class time working on the school newspaper, The Bugle, while the rest of us just … hung out.
Needless to say, we adored Maryann Baker. Anti-authoritarian figures were groovy in those days. Peace and love, man.
The principal, however, had other ideas and toward the end of the first grading period insisted a little more structure was required. So Mrs. Baker figured we all should take a stab at writing a news story. She supplied some made-up facts on the chalkboard and, for homework, we were to compose our story, following the rules of a tightly written piece.
Not that we’d ever been taught any of those rules.
So I went home and opened up our daily newspaper. I studied a story about a car wreck the night before to see how the sentences themselves were constructed, what details were included and what wasn’t. How short the sentences were and what came first.
The next day, that homework assignment gained me a position on The Bugle staff. (I’m not contending my story was better written than everyone else’s. But quite a few of my classmates never actually got around to writing the thing in the first place. Maybe they thought Mrs. Baker had been kidding ….)
To this day, and particularly in this time of year for New Year’s resolutions, I try to keep that process in mind — that taking things apart to see how they’re built — and how it applies to this business. The finished piece has to make sense, not merely structurally but as a whole.
Dan Rather and CBS — and all of the news-gathering industry by reputation — are paying the price for not first taking a step back, closing one eye and seeing if the documents looked credible. Judith Miller at The New York Times — and where is she these days? — apparently never paused to ask that vital question: Mr. President, and how do you know there really are WMDs in Iraq …?
Stephen Glass got found out with a story he wrote that in part took place a computer hackers’ convention. His New Republic editor obviously never thought to ask: Say what? Would hackers have conventions …?

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