The NY Times and the Lack of Intellectual Diversity

Even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to humans to be dispassionate in the evaluation of evidence. We all have internal narratives of how the world works. When presented with evidence that buttresses our ideas, we tend to accept such evidence. When confronted with evidence that challenges or questions our notions, we try to find reasons to dismiss or discount that evidence. This is not necessarily an inherent character flaw. If we entirely bounced between different ideas as new evidence presented itself, we would be all sail and no rudder. Our world view should be responsive to new evidence, but there should be a measure of inertia that allows us to consider new contradictory information as provisional.

One important control on ideas is to have peers, particular with diverse ideas critically examine our conclusions. It is the lack of this intellectual diversity that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS over its story about President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. Rather’s  report was  in large measure based on documents that proved to be forgeries. These forgeries were so obvious that once the story ran on the 60 Minutes II news program, bloggers were able to quickly demonstrate that the fonts in the forgeries post-dated the time of the supposed documents, and could be easily re-created with Word and a copy machine. Rather and his compatriots at CBS did not start out to broadcast false information. However, the documents were so in keeping with their beliefs and their desires that normal journalistic skepticism was dispensed with. They just had to be true.

If the politics in the CBS newsroom were not a mono culture, the obvious flaws in the documents would have likely been discovered before CBS embarrassed itself and further diminished its already declining credibility.

One might have hoped that other organizations would have learned from this conspicuous and well-document error, but the NY Times apparently hasn’t.  On February 21, the paper published an article that  implied that Senator John McCain had a sexual relationship with a lobbyist and that this relationship resulted in special favors. A critical examination of the article reveals that no one said that they knew there was a romantic relationship and the principals deny it. Moreover, the most McCain apparently did for the telecommunications lobbyist’s company was to request that the government act on the company’s license application that had already taken twice as long as to consider as normal. Moreover, he explicitly wrote that he was not urging the government to make any particular decision only that it make whatever decision it needed to make in a timely manner. Hardly the stuff that scandals are made of.

Who knows? There may actually be a scandal somewhere in this or any candidate’s past, but if the NY Times had adult supervision it would have waited for more evidence before publishing this as a page 1 story. The story undercuts the NY Times credibility and partially immunizes McCain against similar charges in the future.

Bill Keller, the executive editor of the NY Times and the person who had to give the final OK for publication in the wake of the controversy conceded: “I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision [to publish] with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot.” This suggests the the NY Times newsroom does not even have sufficient population of moderate Democrats and independents to bring intellectual diversity. The “Gray Lady” is apparently not meeting enough people with a variety of ideas and growing a little senile and tone deaf in the process.

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