I agree with Paul Krugman when he writes, “We know what Ferguson is going to do…But what is Newsweek going to do?”
While the immediate controversy surrounded a less than esteemed Ivy League Professor (or Self-Hating Brit, Neoconservative Imperialist, Colonial Apologist—take your pick), the larger issue has always been what Tina Brown’s Newsweek phenomenon says about the current media environment.
What does it mean for Niall Ferguson’s deceitful takedown of Obama to be considered a success? What are the new rules governing political journalism, magazine publication, and the background Internet buzz that encompasses both?
When all is said and done, Ferguson’s essay is just a sideshow, a distraction from the main event. Yet the cover story signals something important and the controversy over it is infinitely illustrative of the problems with traditional ideas of “fact-checking” as well as the divide between traditional journalism and public discussion online.
How the piece begins is instructive. “I was a good loser four years ago,” writes Ferguson. Though this claim is one of many that deserves scrutiny, its author has the right to be the ultimate arbiter of its veracity. Taking Ferguson at his word then, we have a person about to argue at length regarding the failures of one presidential candidate, and the potential successes of another, starting off with a nod to his own emotional wounds. Ferguson’s beef with Obama is competitive in nature. This is not his case for why you shouldn’t vote for Obama, it is an unabashed attempt to help his own political team.
Ferguson’s cover story is a kind of speech-act, a piece of rhetoric that is performative rather than demonstrative. Fanciful and witty, clever and full-throated, the article is, before all other things, a piece of entertainment. Its subsidiary goals however, persuasion through deceit, partisan rallying by indulging mass delusions, leave it worthy of the analytic savaging it has so far received.
From its unclear thesis to the fraudulent insinuations that are peppered throughout Ferguson’s article (each couched in parenthetic half-heartedness), “Obama’s Gotta Go” is deftly composed despite being intellectually fallow. With the skill of a practiced debater, Ferguson’s argument proceeds from one point to the next, bobbing and weaving between the gaps in his own explanations to offer an ever evolving rational for why the Obama presidency is an irredeemably failed one.
The problems with the essay aren’t the apparent factual errors, which some have gone to great lengths to describe, but rather how it puts style and bravado above substance and explanation. Ferguson isn’t interested in discussing ideas; he’s interested in precisely the kind of “swashbuckling” and rhetorical aggression for which Tina Brown admittedly commissioned him.
By now, most people should be aware of or have read the damning critiques of Ferguson’s cover story. I listed many of them here and my own lengthy and detailed analysis of it is here. After reading the “fact-checkers,” and then reading Ferguson’s defense, and then reading more from the “fact-checkers,” it becomes readily apparent that the simple and traditional notion of a “fact” just doesn’t make sense anymore.
What Ferguson’s critics fail to understand (and what he doesn’t seem to grasp either) is that there are at least two distinct kinds of facts we now need to discriminate between. Thanks to the information revolution and the culture wars, modern public discourse operates on “weak” and “strong” facts. Strong facts are where objective truth has retreated to, consisting of basic things like the correct attribution of proper names and past events. There is a street. That street either is or isn’t Madison Avenue. Nolan either did or didn’t direct seven movies before The Dark Knight Rises. When facts like these are disputed we agree to let Google settle them. In other words, the kinds of issues readily solved by the ultimatum, “Pics, or it didn’t happen.”
Weak facts, on the other hand, are what are listed here. They include, but certainly are not limited to, policy proposals, budget forecasts, and the results of group negotiations. Does ACA really have mechanisms for bending the health care cost curve? Will the budget deficit really increase by X dollars of Y years? Is it the President’s fault or Congress’ that the Simpson Bowles Plan was never adopted? Any answers to these questions are necessarily factually weak because believing them requires accepting complex systems of other weak facts.
Communities then form around various collections of weak facts. Whether it’s part of the echo chamber effect or the result of deeper tribal impulses, one epistemic community ends up lacking enough shared ground to meaningfully interact with and debate another. Ferguson’s initial piece, his critics’ responses, and his eventual rebuttal, are a good example of the divide this leads to. The Harvard professor has, at various points throughout his story, weak justification for the claims he makes. Weak because the justification is recognizable to others, like for instance Krugman or Fallows, but not compelling since it relies on weak facts that neither of those commentators subscribe to. This isn’t exactly anything new, especially to partisan politics.
What makes it worth revisiting though is how the new Newsweek model signals the a shift toward this mentality in popular journalism. Many of the same people deriding Tina Brown’s publication for sensational covers and lack of objectivity are the same people who have been calling out more prestigious publications like the New York Times and Washington Post for “false equivalence” for quite some time now. Ferguson’s article and the political reporting typical of either major metropolitan newspaper demonstrate two opposing ends of the epistemic nihilism that plagues national discourse.
For the Times or Post, the growing number of things that have moved into the weak fact category have forced both publications, in the hope of remaining “objective,” to seek “both sides of the story,” even where this duality doesn’t exist. So you have a debt ceiling crisis that was the fault of both political parties, a debate over global warming and whether it’s man-made, and so on and so forth. This makes not only for deceptive journalism, with reporters compromising the truth in order to appear politically unbiased (he said/she said articles), but also for boring, unengaging fluff pieces.
Wire services like the AP and Reuters deliver strong facts (usually) and then newspapers and magazines filter them through each partisan community’s preferred system of weak facts (the deficit has exploded under Obama; Romney destroyed jobs while at Bain), in order to (1) argue that both sides are more or less equivalent, or (2) report on how either side’s recent talking points or actions will appeal to “regular” voters, or more often than not, the proverbially “independent” ones (who don’t really even exist, but which help publications pretend they have an objective audience listening to their objective analysis, and that both are free and above and “independent” from the body politic of which both are inescapably a part).
Newsweek and the cover stories they commission have decided to do the exact opposite though. If you can’t beat them, join them. And so Newsweek tries to appeal to both sides by offering each its own partisan handjob. Andrew Sullivan’s article lauding Obama as the first gay President, and Michael Tomasky’s attacking Romney, despite being different in tone and substance, are otherwise stylistically of a piece with Niall Ferguson’s. They are unconvincing to the uninitiated while inspiring to those already disposed to agree, but nevertheless entertaining for both. My mom has noted to me the sensationalist decline of Newsweek, feeling the magazine to be trashy and unenlightening. She also admits that she makes it a point to read the periodical more now than she ever did before.
I see this as the cable news effect. I don’t watch MSNBC or Fox News expecting to be educated or challenged (and I don’t watch CNN at all, except for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS…but alas…). I watch them because Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell will keep me up to date on what things I as a liberal should be enraged about, and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly will give me people to be enraged at. It is at once exhilarating and entertaining, hair-pullingly frustrating and mind-numbingly hilarious. Both networks give me the cathartic verbal boxing matches that I crave in my weaker moments, each with their own favorite punching bags from the opposing team. And this is the exact kind of rhetorically juiced “swashbuckling” that Tina Brown & co. have sought to offer their readers in the pages of Newsweek. Even I, someone who Niall Ferguson’s hack job presumably shouldn’t appeal to, have visited the Daily Beast more times over the previous week than the previous month. It works!
What’s to be done about this? Traditional fact-checking doesn’t cut it in this environment. Look at Mathew O’Brien’s analysis of the Newsweek cover story, and then Ferguson’s response. I tend to agree with O’Brien’s points, but none of them directly contradicts what Ferguson wrote. The Professor’s facts are all (nearly) true. Despite that, his article is still deliberately misleading. The average reader will come away misinformed on a whole host of issues. And yet not because Ferguson made up facts, but because he manipulated and compiled them in such a way as to let his readers infer the conclusion, even when that conclusion, if not the facts that prompted it, will be completely false.
PolitiFact’s shortcomings are readily apparent. Truth, facts, and fairness are not all the same thing. I can use bad facts to say something that’s true, use good facts to say something that’s false, and no facts at all to make an argument that’s completely unfair. Hence James Poniewozik’s take on Harry Reid’s shameful gossiping about Romney’s tax records,
“So I get why PolitiFact needs to address this stuff too. And why it may seem nitpicky for them to accuse Reid of lying–sorry, setting his pants on fire–when what they really mean is something harder to sum up in a catchphrase: that he’s willfully rumormongering, trying to spread an impression that is at worst completely bogus and at best he has given no evidence for.”
“The system gives Sun writers room to exercise their judgment—as in a July 29th item by Karoun Demerjian that assigned a ‘legit’ rating to a pro-Obama ad that asks, ‘What is Mitt Romney hiding?’ even though, as Demerjian noted, the ad’s insinuation that Romney may have paid no federal income taxes in some years is likely not true (or, in the Sun’s terms, that suggestion ‘elicits eye rolls and guffaws’). And while not everyone will agree about what constitutes a fair attack, the brief posts generally include enough background information to allow readers to begin to draw their own conclusions.”
As Brendan Nyhan notes, “PolitiFact’s rating system doesn’t work well for irresponsible and unsubstantiated claims that can’t be definitively falsified.” No wonder similar attempts to fact-check Ferguson’s piece fall flat: the bulk of what he writes isn’t false, but rather unsupported by the best available evidence. Unlike attempts by PolitiFact and other journalistic outlets to renew their monopoly on the truth, what we actually need is something more like what the Sun is doing. Of course, anyone who reads mostly online or follows any part of the political blogosphere even somewhat closely knows that this kind of evaluation is what already occurs naturally on the Internet.
The Daily Beast posted several links to critiques of Ferguson’s essay in the body of the article. If you read “Obama’s Gotta Go” online at some point last week, you were presented with ample opportunities to see other pundits taking Ferguson to task over what he’d written. Once there, any one of those posts would have more likely than not linked to several others offering other analysis (and it should be noted that last I looked, the Beast was linking to more liberal criticism than conservative praise). So even though The Daily Beast has aped the junk-food model of cable news, it’s done so in an online context that is horizontal enough to provide a better analysis for readers than a single fact-check piece ever could.
Unfortunately, the problem arises with precisely the Newsweek’s readers who are reading it in print and who aren’t presented with the rigorous feedback loops which make Internet commentary better vetted. Those who saw the Newsweek cover and read Ferguson’s cover story in the checkout line or at the doctor’s office will most likely only ever see what he presented them with (i.e. a load of horse $#!^).
This is, I think, why so many people, including myself, were shaking our fists at our computer monitors. It wasn’t so much the disingenuous trolling of Niall Ferguson, so much as the captive print audience he was reaching but which remained sealed off on the other side of the one-way Internet looking glass.
I’m left wondering then if maybe we shouldn’t make the move from compressed tree pulp to e-readers sooner rather than later. I’d feel much better knowing that someone reading Ferguson’s piece, whether conservative or liberal, were forced to confront, and attempt to make sense of, the disagreement across the comments and blog posts. The alternative is for them to be left alone, isolated from the discussion and forced to consume the Harvard professor’s smart sounding but unsubstantiated prose (or those of any number of Obama acolytes) without the support and engagement of their fellow commentariat.