Sunday, March 01, 2009

Blog integrity

Blog integrity matters to me. I don’t want to post anything untrue. When I get a fact wrong, I want to be corrected, so I can post an update and offer an apology. (I’m speaking for myself, but I believe that everyone who posts here has the same ethic and in fact have demonstrated that commitment to truth here.)

In November, I posted an entry about a Sarah Palin story that had been reported in the mainstream media. I’ve learned that it was this post that led to our blog brother Michael opting to end his participation here. Specifically, it's my understanding that he felt he couldn't participate in a blog that perpetrated a falsehood and perpetuated it in the face of the truth. I, for one, miss Michael here and would like to coax him back. I don't think I committed the ethical violation he thinks I did.

Let’s start with the underlying facts about that Sarah Palin story. (I know, I know... it feels like such ancient history.)

Actually, there were two mainstream media stories on the topic. First, there was Story A. On Nov. 5, 2008, Fox News and others reported that according to unnamed sources within the McCain campaign, Sarah Palin did not know that South Africa was a country and that she didn’t know which countries were part of NAFTA.

Story B came out a few days later stating that Martin Eisenstadt was the source for Story A.

Then, on Nov. 10, the news came that Martin Eisenstadt was a prankster; he had no connection to the McCain campaign. This meant that Story B was a hoax. In some news accounts, the distinction between stories A and B was blurred, giving the impression that Story A had also been proved a hoax, whereas really only Story B was disproved by the revelation of Eisenstadt’s true identity. Fox still stands by Story A: they have sources, still unnamed who are not Martin Eisenstadt, who claim Sarah Palin didn’t know the countries in NAFTA.

Now, turning to my blog entry about the story...

On Nov. 5, I posted this

This is phrased in an “if this is true” construction. Set that aside for the moment (I’ll come back to it) and take the post as a pronouncement of the truth of the story. On post date, Nov. 5, I had no reason to believe it wasn’t accurate; there had been no reporting counter to it. And I don’t think anyone thinks it wasn’t OK to post it the day I posted it.

In the following days, when the Eisenstadt hoax was perpetrated and uncovered, the news stories were fuzzy. It wasn’t clear to me then whether the hoax was limited to Story B (the identity of the sources) or if Story A was also a hoax. Michael’s interpretation was that Story A was a hoax.

On Nov. 11, Michael posted on it, citing Hot Air.

Michael also commented on my post, wondering if we could agree that my post should be retracted and quoted this text:

He says there’s no way she didn’t know Africa was a continent, and whoever is saying she didn’t must be distorting “a fumble of words.” He talked to her about all manner of issues relating to Africa, from failed states to the Sudan. She was aware from the beginning of the conflict in Darfur, which is followed closely in evangelical churches, and was aware of Clinton’s AIDS initiative. That basically makes it impossible that she thought all of Africa was a country._On not knowing what countries are in NAFTA, Biegun was part of the conversation that led to that accusation and it convinces him “somebody is acting with a high degree of maliciousness.” He was briefing Palin before a Univision interview, and talking to her about trade issues. He rolled through NAFTA, CAFTA, and the Colombia FTA. As he talked, people were coming in and out of the room, handing Palin things, etc. She was distracted from what Biegun was saying, and said, roughly, “Ok, who’s in NAFTA, what the deal with CAFTA, what’s up the FTA?”—her way, Biegun says, of saying “rack them and stack them,” begin again from the start. “Somebody is taking a conversation and twisting it maliciously,” he says.

Michael provided no link to this. The quoted source, “Biegun”, wasn’t familiar to me and the text included no explanation of who he was. Given the absence of background info, I admit I didn’t pay any attention to it. That was an error on my part and I apologize. In preparing this post, I Googled the text from Michael’s comment to see if I could determine where it came from and I learned that it came from a National Review story and that Steve Biegun was involved with briefing Palin during the campaign.

So there was and there remains a discrepancy between professional media reports: a) Fox has two unnamed sources that say Story A is true; and b) National Review has a named, credible (as far as I know) source that says that Story A is not true. What’s an amateur blogger to do with such a situation?

Sure, one should be skeptical of unnamed sources. Someone may be lying or they may have misinterpreted something Palin said during debate prep. (Of course, the Watergate story was revealed by unnamed sources while others who were on the record lied to cover the story up.) It’s also possible that all the sources are telling the truth and both Fox and National Review are correct; maybe Biegun didn’t converse with Palin on these topics until after the unnamed sources had had a first discussion with her about them during which she learned some things.

Given the muddiness of the situation, I don’t think I had an ethical obligation to update or retract my post about the Palin Story A (and I did not post on Story B, so had nothing to correct in that regard). I’m open to input from my blog brothers on this, though. If we have a rule that we need to post on every competing version of stories we post about, I think we may have a lot of remedial blogging to do.

Yet another issue raised by my post is one of construction. I framed my post with an if-this-is-true format. It was a hedge, because I had some skepticism about whether it could be true. Michael made the case, using a hyperbolic example, that couching a post in an “if it’s true that...” construction doesn’t cure the post of being unethical if the “that” is untrue. I think he's generally right about that; and I agree that correction is warranted when it turns out to not be true. I do think, though, that hypothetical questions (that are by definition in an “if true” format and typically conjure something not true or not proven) are useful in finding the limits of others’ positions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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