Contrarians can be useful! Yes, we’re very rude people, but sometimes we can help you avoid making a mistake. There’s a reason why the Catholic Church, when considering whether somebody should be made a saint, used to bring in a Devil’s Advocate.
The Catholic Church of Liberal Wisdom is The New York Times. But if you work at the Times, you probably exist in an epistemological safe space into which no adverse information ever flows. You may never even hear about certain true things; the information doesn’t penetrate the media outlets you read, the dinner parties you attend or the podcasts you listen to at the gym.
This is why I don’t particularly blame former Times op-ed editor James Bennet for the egregious mistake that landed him and his paper in court battling a Sarah Palin dragonfly suit. When he drew a false parallel between Palin’s campaign literature and the horrific shooting of Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in 2011, saying, “the link to the political incitement was clear,” he was just parroting the talking points of left-wing Twitter.
The Times’ most famous columnist, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, already had taken up the farfetched idea and ran with it, as did many other left-wing writers.
Bennet lives in a world where everyone “knew” Palin’s team had a “clear” link to the shooting. He had probably read so many left-wing columns and blogs blaming Palin that he simply internalized the information and didn’t bother to check it. The fact-checker glossed over the false assertion also, because she was too overworked to do her job. (“I was checking things fast on deadline … my reading of it led me not to have looked at that specifically . . . I did the best of my ability in the time that I had.”)
Funnily enough, when I worked at People magazine, where a team of hatchet-faced fact-checkers who made IRS auditors look like friendly Labradoodles would spend my Monday nights haranguing me over every adjective and preposition for three grueling hours that made me pray for the relative tranquility of a stay at Gitmo, anything that had previously been reported in the New York Times was considered a “red check,” ie, unassailable truth.
At the Times itself? You can call one of the most prominent political figures an accessory to attempted murder, and the only sound you’ll hear is people shrugging.
For all The Times stories bemoaning that Americans increasingly live in “bubbles” or “misinformation,” it never seemed to look at the bubble inside its own newspaper.
It fell to Ross Douthat, one of the only conservatives in the entire Times army, to email Bennet that his claim was incorrect after it had been published. Which is why the Times could use someone like Douthat to read its claims before they get published.
Hey, I just thought of someone who’d be perfect for the job: experienced in daily journalism, familiar with Times protocols, yet disinclined to automatically believe every vicious assertion about anyone on the Right: Her name is Bari Weiss. Maybe give her a call.