Yet Another Week

This week we have a couple of issues to consider: First, we find another example of Reuters News Service treating the news as an opportunity to editorialize. Second, we learn how poorly and embarrassingly incompetent a peer-reviewed journal paper can be written and yet still be published.

It must have been exciting for Deanna Wrenn. Wren is a statehouse reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail. The Charleston Daily Mail is important in Charleston, West Virginia, but it does not enjoy the prestige of the New York Times or the Washington Post . Wrenn was reporting on the return of former POW Jessica Lynch to her home town in West Virginia after her release from Iraqi captivity and recovery in a military hospital. Wrenn was undoubtedly pleased when her story was picked up by the Reuters News Service and spread quickly around the Reuters global news network.

Wrenn originally wrote: “In this small county seat with just 995 residents, the girl everyone calls Jessi is a true heroine — even if reports vary about Pfc. Jessica Lynch and her ordeal in Iraq.” Certainly, this represents a positive view of the Jessica Lynch story, but probably accurately reports the sentiment of Lynch’s friends and neighbors in her home town.

After Reuters edited the story the words and the tone radically changed. According to Reuters: “Jessica Lynch, the wounded Army private whose ordeal in Iraq was hyped into a media fiction of US heroism, was set for an emotional homecoming on Tuesday … Media critics say the TV cameras will not show the return of an injured soldier so much as a reality-TV drama co-produced by US government propaganda and credulous reporters.” This represents such a negative spin on the story that Reuters should have run this statement as an editorial rather than as straight news.

News services edit stories all the time. For good or for ill, that is their right. What Reuters did that was particularly egregious was to keep Wrenn’s byline on the story. Wrenn’s story did not bear any significant resemblance to the story Reuters published. Wrenn was so embarrassed by the tone of the story that she asked “Reuters to remove my byline. They didn’t.”

A year ago, Reuters made it a formal policy to refrain from referring to any person as a “terrorist,” using the specious reasoning that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, as if there is no meaningful difference between a George Washington and an Osama Bin Laden. Presumably, Reuters did not believe its judgment is sufficiently discriminating to discern whether people are deliberately targeting civilians in actions that have no significant military value. If we extrapolate from Reuters actions with respect to the Wrenn story on Jessica Lynch, perhaps Reuters was correct in not trusting its own judgment

While Reuters was busy creatively editing news stories from West Virginia, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley decided to spread a little confusion as well. A study conducted by Professors Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley, John Jost of Stanford University, and Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland at College Park concluded that political conservative generally shared some common character traits. These traits include “aggression,” “intolerance,” “uncertainty avoidance,” and the “need for cognitive closure.”

To reach these conclusions, the learned professors studied conservatives from Mussolini, Hitler, to Stalin, Khruschev and Castro. There is a reasoned case made by Frederick Hayek that Nazism and Fascism fall closer in the political spectrum to statist philosophies as opposed to those in favor of more limited government. However, classifying Mussolini and Hitler as conservatives conforms to conventional, if inaccurate usage. Inexplicably, the authors also include Castro and Nikita Kruschev as conservatives. This inclusion should certainly come as a surprise to a century of Leftists who have made careers as apologists for these Communist dictators. It does certainly seem that the authors were trying to contrive their assumptions to drive their conclusions in a certain direction.

However, even allowing for all these improbable assumptions, the authors are only able to demonstrate an incredibly low correlation between persons who are political conservatives and the traits they cite. Almost none of the natural human variability in personalities can be accounted for by the conservatism of the person. For most scientists, models with such low correlation would not be considered explanatory and would be categorically dismissed. But what do they know? These professors unlike conservatives and most scientists are “tolerant of ambiguity” and not unduly constrained by the week-minded need for “cognitive closure.”

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