Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Speaking Power to Truth

“What’s the matter, Ace?  You’ve been moping around all evening.”

“Sorry, Patty.  It’s that column on global warming by George Will we ran in the paper a while back.  It’s become a real headache.”

“You mean the one that pooh-poohed the idea that global warming was taking place, and mentioned different scientific studies that backed up his opinion?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.  Turns out that a lot of his facts were cherry-picked, misrepresented, or just plain wrong.  Some of the scientists he cited have gone public with letters saying their conclusions are exactly the opposite of what he’s attributed to them.  The paper has been swamped with letters complaining about the column, asking how something filled with so many errors could get by our fact-checkers.”

“What’s the problem?  Now that the errors have been pointed out, Will can just apologize and issue a retraction.”

“Well, actually there are two problems.  Will didn’t admit to any of the errors or misrepresentations.  Instead of apologizing, he wrote a second column even worse than the first, defending himself.  And since Bob Spinner appointed me the paper’s ombudsman, I have to explain to all our readers how Will’s column made it through our rigorous fact-check process untouched.”

“Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it?  How did that happen?”

“I checked with our checkers.  They just sat there and laughed at the idea that we would question a George Will column.  He’s a big name, he’s rich, he’s a pal of the powerful, and the last time somebody called him on his facts he threw a fit.  If you question anything he says, FOX and talk-radio come swarming after you like yellow-jackets around the barbecue at a picnic in the park.”

“So George Will is exempt from fact-checks?”

“In theory, no; in practice, yes.  It’s that ‘too-big-to-fail’ syndrome.  It’s cropping up everywhere.”

“I think I get it.  As the paper’s ombudsman, you’re stuck.  Your job is to tell the truth, which is that the paper didn’t apply the same standards to him that it does to everybody else.  But that’s obviously not something the paper will let you write while they still sign your paycheck.  So you can speak truth to power, and lose your job, or speak power to truth, and lose your self-respect.”

“That’s about it,” I agreed.

“So what are you going to do?  Are we still going to be able to make house payments and put food on the table?”

[Hands her a sheet of paper, looking uncomfortable.]  “This is what I wrote.”

[Hastily reads it over.]  “You’ve defended the process, selecting only one or two of the errors and offering semi-plausible excuses for how they could have slipped through, while ignoring the rest.”  [Both sigh.]  “Well, I guess we live to eat another day.  How do you feel about it?”

“Like a girl in a too-small bikini.  It reveals more about me than I’d like for the public to see.”

© Tony Russell, 2013


Anonymous said...

But wasn't that years ago? Or did he do it again?

Tony Russell said...

You're right; very good memory! Yes, the particular sequence of events written about here dates back to 2009. I wrote a column about it back then and for whatever reason never used it. When I came across it recently, I decided that it was still valuable, since Will keeps returning to the same points, no matter how often people show him to be wrong. He has had a number of columns and TV appearances making these bogus claims since. The last I saw was a column that ran the end of April this year.

Bill said...

Priceless, no matter when it was written.