Posts tagged ‘Mary Mapes’

Celebrating Post-Modernism in Journalism and the Media

The date was September 15, 2004.  Trends take years to manifest, but often there is a watershed event at which one can say a tipping point has been reached.  Such was the case when the New York Times ran the headline:

THE 2004 CAMPAIGN: NATIONAL GUARD; Memos on Bush Are Fake But Accurate, Typist Says

"Fake but Accurate" has become, even when the words differ slightly, a common refrain in post-modern journalism.   It is a statement that the narrative matters more than facts, and that the truth or falsity of a narrative would no longer be judged solely on facts and logic.

I have zero opinion about the quality or quantity of President Bush's military service, but the memos in question were unquestionably fake.  They used printing technology that did not exist at the time.  They exactly mirrored Microsoft Word's default settings for font and margin.  The person who supposedly typed the memos said she never did so, and no one could provide any plausible chain of possession for how the documents reached CBS.  So fake.  But CBS and many outlets stuck with the story in the face of all these facts because the narrative was one they so desperately wanted to be true, and fit so well their pre-existing opinions of Bush.  Dan Rather and Mary Mapes have apparently never admitted they were fakes.

Recently, Robert Redford has reinforced this event as a seminal turning point in journalism by making a movie called, of all things, "Truth", which essentially still sticks to the story the memos weren't faked.  He couldn't be more clearly making the point that in post-modern media, "truth" is the narrative, not the facts.

By the way, I find this every day in the climate world, where I hear "fake but accurate" all the time in defense of the narrative of apocalyptic man-made climate change.  I can't tell you how many times that, having demolished some analysis as flawed (e.g. Michael Mann's hockey stick), I am told that, "well, that study may be wrong but it's still accurate."

Fake but Accurate, Early 20th Century Style

Were Sacco and Venzetti really guilty?  I you are like me, you hear those names and say - boy, those names sound familiar.  I am sure they came up some time in my US history class in high school...

Sacco and Vanzetti were early 19th century anarchists executed in Massachusetts for robbery and murder.  Fellow communist, anarchist and author Upton Sinclair helped to generate a lot of sympathy for the two, raising a storm of protest that the two were innocent of the crime and were being tried and executed for their political beliefs.  They have been heroes of the left and the progressive movement ever since.

Asymmetrical Information points to this article, which describes new papers that apparently belonged to Upton Sinclair that make it clear that Sinclair actually discovered that Sacco and Venzetti were indeed guilty:

Soon Sinclair would learn something that filled him with doubt. During his
research for "Boston," Sinclair met with Fred Moore, the men's attorney, in a
Denver motel room. Moore "sent me into a panic," Sinclair wrote in the typed
letter that Hegness found at the auction a decade ago.

"Alone in a hotel
room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth," Sinclair wrote. " "¦ He
then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had
framed a set of alibis for them."

Sinclair decided that, for the benefit of the "movement", as well as his sales, not to reveal the truth

"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a
traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair wrote
Robert Minor, a confidant at the Socialist Daily Worker in New York, in

"Of course," he added, "the next big case may be a frame-up, and my
telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the

He also worried that revealing what he had been told would cost
him readers. "It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti
because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my
public," he wrote to Minor.

This all resonated with me because I recently had an email exchange with a reader who reminded me of this quote:

have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements,
and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide
what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

- National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider

No one knows better than a blogger that everyone picks and chooses the news they want to notice and the facts they promote and don't promote.  But at some point on the slippery slope you hit a transition to outright dishonesty.  It seems that this temptation to support your cause with a fake story was not invented by Mary Mapes.