I don't know if my thoughts are sharp enough to qualify as a razor, but I do have an opinion on why two of the nation's largest newspapers still get the story wrong even though all the information required to get it right have been made freely and easily available.
About three weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh remarked that liberals prefer "phony soldiers" to real soldiers - phony soldiers like Jesse MacBeth, who became a liberal darling with tales of atrocities that were proven to be false, even as he was proven never to have been an Army Ranger as he had claimed. He also mentioned what I would call a "soldier phony" named Scott Beauchamp. Scott Beauchamp is indeed an Army corporal who wrote a diary for The New Republic about the depravity of US soldiers in Iraq. He wrote these diaries before he had ever set foot in Iraq and has since confessed that he made it all up.
The free and easy availability to the truth has not had the slightest influence on the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Friday's Times contained a story that took for granted that the Media Matters lie was true.
After Rush Limbaugh referred to Iraq war veterans critical of the war as “phony soldiers,” he received a letter of complaint signed by 41 Democratic Senators. He decided to auction the letter, which he described as “this glittering jewel of colossal ignorance,” for charity, and he pledged to match the price, dollar for dollar.
That's just BS and if the Times cared even a little bit about the truth, they could have asked him or simply consulted his website. They didn't. They accepted Media Matters and Harry Reid at face value.
And this morning, the Washington Post takes it for granted that Media Matters is a reliable source (pun intended) and also repeats the lie.
The letter in question is an Oct. 2 two-pager from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to Clear Channel Communications CEO Mark Mays lambasting the syndicate's Rush Limbaugh, who had recently criticized U.S. troops who were against the war in Iraq.
"Phony soldiers," blasted Limbaugh.
A brief glance at the transcript or listening to a tape of the conversation in question would have immediately informed the reporter that Rush Limbaugh was not referring to dissenting soldiers as "phony soldiers." He referring to phonies like MacBeth and Beauchamp.
So, how is it that two of more widely quoted newspapers in the country get it wrong even though getting it right would require only about two minutes of their time? It's all about the narrative. When journalists hear a factoid, they judge the reliability based not upon exhaustive or even in this case convenient research, but on whether or not the factoid conforms to the assumed narrative.
"We fell into a stereotype of the Duke lacrosse players," says Newsweek's Evan Thomas. "It's complicated because there is a strong stereotype [that] lacrosse players can be loutish, and there's evidence to back that up. There's even some evidence that that the Duke lacrosse players were loutish, and we were too quick to connect those dots."
But he adds: "It was about race. Nifong's motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class. . . . We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place. . . . We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong."
Evan Thomas revealed what we already knew. The narrative drives the story, not the facts.
So when trying to judge the motivation for journalists getting the story wrong in the face of a preponderance of facts, I'm going to come down on the side of what I'm going to call, ideological laziness. If a story conforms to the reporter's preconceptions, it's obviously true and the reporter need not put any more effort into it. I'll call it Mike's Razor.