In search of media accountability

IN SEARCH OF MEDIA ACCOUNTABILITY…. Over the weekend, George Will’s Washington Post column was devoted to his rejection of climate science and global warming. As one might expect, given the topic and direction, Will had several errors of fact and judgment.

Given that Will’s piece — which was, by the way, syndicated nationally — carelessly misled readers, Zachary Roth contacted both Will and Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt to see what went wrong here. How could Will make such obvious mistakes? And how did they escape the editor’s scrutiny and fact-checking process?

Will’s assistant told us that Will might get back to us later in the day to talk about the column. And Hiatt said he was too busy to talk about it just then, but that he’d try to respond to emailed questions. So we emailed him yesterday’s post, with several questions about the editing process, then followed up with another email late yesterday afternoon.

But still nothing from either of them, over twenty-four hours after the first contact was made. Nor has the online version of Will’s column been updated, even to reflect the fact that the ACRC has utterly disavowed the claim Will attributes to it.

We’re hearing that the Post‘s editing process for opinion pieces is virtually non-existent. Maybe that makes sense in some cases — it certainly seems reasonable to give most columnists a freer hand than straight news reporters get. But it’s difficult to know for sure when the Post won’t talk about it. And that approach sure didn’t serve the paper well here.

I chatted last night with a couple of people I know who’ve written items for both the Post and the New York Times, and they agreed that the WaPo editors checked for grammar and spelling, but made no meaningful effort to scrutinize the content. The NYT, meanwhile, was far more stringent. Given Will’s background and specific claims, this casual disregard is a very bad idea.

Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, points to the ideological dynamic at play: “The point of giving columns to Will and Charles Krauthammer and now hiring Bill Kristol is to show that Fred Hiatt and The Washington Post believe that whatever random crap the conservative movement wants to make up on any given day will get a hearing in The Washington Post. They’re not interested in informing their audience, they’re interested in showing that they’ll bend over backwards to be fair to the right wing. Publishing error-free articles by movement icons serves that purpose, but publishing sloppy error-filled ones serves that purpose even better.”