From the Mailbag: Journalistic Hubris, Aviation Close Calls, High-Tech Responsibility
The real payoff of the blogging world: engaging with informed readers. Several of them are quoted here.
Back in the pre-internet era, after you wrote a book or magazine article you’d get a slew of “letters”—documents written or typed on actual “paper,” and sent through the U.S. “mail.” The envelopes you were afraid to open had a tell-tale ransom-note scrawl.
Then in the classic blogging era, you’d get emails, which to me were often the most rewarding part of having a blog.
In this revived Substack era, I’m very grateful for the astute and engaged comments posted on this site, for example about this recent post, and the one before.
Here are several additional emails to me that have just come in.
1) The hubris of omniscience.
A reader on the east coast, who worked for many years in a U.S. government intelligence agency, says this about “learning from mistakes,” and why the press is so mule-headed about doing so:
I appreciate that despite your doubts about its value, you are continuing your long effort to improve press performance, as in your recent "Learning from Disasters: Political Media Edition." In that spirit, I have a suggestion.
In The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian, one of his memorable stories of the British Navy in the Napoleonic era, physician Stephen Maturin observes, "Then again all authority implies an extreme reluctance to admit past error."
The New York Times clearly aspires to be an authority—perhaps the authority—in the news business. Those who control it are behaving as Maturin described, even in the face of manifest and momentous mistakes.
The solution, if there is one, likely involves a lesser pretense to authority and greater humility. Not journalistic professionalism, but personal and institutional character, is the issue.
If journalism is, as it has proverbially been called, "the first draft of history," why should journalistic institutions refuse to revisit and revise their work? What good writer insists on his or her first draft?
Well put. And in the “what about me?” category on errant first drafts, here is one:
I was wrong in the summer of 2015 when I wrote that “no serious political party” would nominate Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. Or maybe I was right; judge for yourself. That was the last political prediction I have made.
Now, from another reader, on the west coast, about the error and hubris of the “coming Red Wave!” reports in the NYT and elsewhere:
I wonder if the "Red wave error by the media" had a silver lining.
Did some Republican voters not show up at the polls because they were over-confident?
Did more Democratic voters show up because they were afraid of the "Red wave?"
Wasn't the Democratic campaign strategy to scare people over the real prospect of losing our democracy?
I'm not sure the "Red wave error" wasn't in fact deliberate on the part of some politicians and some journalists, and that the real "Red wave error" was in fact Republican hubris.
Recall what happened in the first Bush-Gore debate; everyone, including Gore, assumed Gore would eviscerate Bush in the debate. Instead of eviscerating Bush, Gore rolled his eyes and signed at Bush's ineptitude. So when Bush was not eviscerated, he was declared "the winner," by journalists, simply because Gore had not eviscerated Bush…
2) What runway incursions are really like.
In reports on the JFK close call, I mentioned a similar near-catastrophe at the Minneapolis airport in the 1980s. A reader who lived there at the time has this to say: