Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Socratic Method

"The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance."


There was a lively debate, about what is journalism, in the comments of the post "Socratic Irony." Jim Johnson argued running press releases is journalism.

These stories were not spontaneously generated by the reporters, they were fed by PR hacks. Why shouldn't PR hacks send press releases to bloggers, too?

In fact, that is how most "news" is generated: reporters weed through dozens and dozens of press releases they get to determine what should be followed and what shouldn't.

The Fox News show Happening Now ran an anti-stimulus package press release from the Senate Republican Communications Center. Fox News even had the same error attributing a 2008 Wall Street Journal, as released in 2009. Fox News copied the press release verbatim.

Fox News was forced to admit it's error.

Yesterday on Happening Now we showed you how the stimulus bill has grown over time. Our story prompted by a news release from the Senate Republican Communication Center. There point that a $56 billion proposal in September has grown to $838 billion in five months. In compiling the story, our producers and researchers did what we always do -- we verified the accuracy of the material. But in double checking the newspaper quotes referenced in that news release we made the same mistake they did. We labeled a Wall Street Journal article as having run in 2009 THE WSJ piece ran in 2008. That was our error, and we apologize.

Merely running press releases isn't journalism. The need for fact-checking and research will always be a part of the best journalism. Socrates spent his life questioning authority, in search of the truth. Fox News treated the press release unquestioningly as the truth. The conservative movement prides itself on ignorance of journalism and economics. Conservatives need to acquaint themselves with the Socratic Method.

Socrates would ask a serious of questions to get to the truth. The Oracle of Delphi proclaimed Socrates the wisest man in Athens. Socrates did not believe this. He proceeded to question other Athens' citizens. Socrates's interviews made the philosopher realize he was the only Athens citizen aware of his own ignorance. What are the chances Fox News will do the same level of soul-searching?


  1. I've got a story about press releases from a day I spent at the RI state house:

    "I found out later that [Attorney General Parick] Lynch’s brother had authored a press release from the RI Democrats which discussed the Attorney General applying some heat Governor Carcieri concerning the growing Department of Transportation scandal. Since I haven’t introduced this story yet, let me briefly explain that scandal: the DOT has a massive budget and numerous employees, yet the people they have on staff aren’t qualified to do things like inspect bridges.. You know, basic DOT stuff. So the DOT has hired outside, out of state consultants to do those jobs — for exorbitant prices. And it seems like the only body in the state watching over the DOT is the Providence Journal, and they (with the rest of the media) want to know why the governor’s office isn’t providing oversight and punishment. Given that the governor wants to lay off 1000 state workers to solve a budget crisis, yet the DOT is sucking down huge amounts of funds for, well, sucking in general, this story has become a perfect media storm here. [...]

    Attorney General Patrick Lynch then came over to talk to [TV political reporter Bill] Rappleye ... Rappleye shows Lynch the the RI Democrats press release that was distributed by his brother, and Lynch looked it over to see if it came out just the way he typed it the previous night."

    Who's typing all those press releases, anyways?

  2. Press releases are not news. They are spin and should be treated as such.

    Who's typing all those press releases, anyways?

    I don't know. I do plan on reading your blog post. So much for privatization being cheaper.

  3. Somewhat ironic to this conversation, my blog post could serve as an example of a blogger reporting actual news -- even if the news is small, like saying who the actual author of a press release is.

  4. The greater irony is after Johnson saidjournalists do nothing, but read press releases -- Fox News is caught running a GOP press release. Conservatives are totally ignorant as to what journalism actually is.

  5. As far as I'm concerned, the lot of cable news is mostly not "journalism," it's talk. They report some news, then spend endless days talking about it. One of the most recent examples is that plane crash landing in the Hudson.. Yeah, an amazing story, but you know I got bored with it after the first solid 2 hours of coverage, nevermind solid 48 or 72 hours or however long it went on. I mean, fucking please -- get back to work. Oh wait, their work is just talking all day. Nevermind.

  6. Jim Johnson argued running press releases is journalism.

    No. Press releases are news! News and journalism are NOT synonymous. News does not have to be objective.

    And this is the real crux of the problem facing "the News" industry -- what you and I think is news is different. News is not what someone else thinks is news; news is personal. Like the proverbial obscenity, I'll know news when I see it.

    Sure you ignore most press releases you get. As do I - even press releases that are within our genre of blogs (mine is a bit narrower than yours).

    But "tips" or "leaks" or "press releases" are how journalists START the process. Take Sansom and his college gig. If the college didn't issue a press release, would the Times/Herald have started the process of real investigative journalism? Would they have "happened" upon the issue without a press release?

    Press releases and most "news" in the world is not journalism. But the "news industry" seems to think the only thing that should be "news" would be journalism.

  7. Jim, you worked as a GOP operative. You know press releases are used for public relations. Charlie Crist or Pepsi can issue a news release. That doesn't mean Crist's budget or Pepsi's new brand lives up to the press release's description.