Accuracy and Objectivity

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The World magazine article was a striking instance of inaccurate reporting. It was inaccurate in two ways, and for two reasons.

Mark Twain once said, “Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.” He was exactly right, and this is the fundamental way in which the article conveyed a world of misinformation. As Trinitarian Christians, we believe in the Incarnation of the Word of God. This incarnation means for Christians that ultimate Truth had a mother, a hometown, and a lineage. In short, the ultimate Word took on a particular context. In doing this, by taking a mother, He honored all particular mothers. In growing up in Nazareth, He honored all particular hometowns. He was born into the tribe of Judah, and thereby put His blessing on all gratitude for one’s own tribe. In short, because God took on flesh, context matters. Truth is not a simple matter of abstractions. The skeleton of truth can be abstracted out and put on the blackboard (sometimes helpfully), but that abstraction is not the truth as it lives. It is a helpful and necessary tool for understanding life, but it is not life itself. The truth, for those who believe in Jesus, always has a habitat.

A great deal of havoc can be caused by those who think that if every word in a sentence is true, the sentence must be true. This truncated view of the truth is antithetical to a Christian worldview, which is grounded in the fact that Jesus had a mother, a hometown, and an agonizing death, and not just in the abstracted propositions about these events. The propositions are true, but they are not the Truth. The Truth is the one who died for me.

So context necessarily matters. Now suppose the headline in the World story had been “Douglas Wilson Now Cocaine-Free”? Every word is true. I am Douglas Wilson. I am cocaine-free. Further, as my wife will happily testify, I am now cocaine-free. So why would this sentence be a lie, when every word of it is true? Suppose it had been “Wilson Out of Rehab.” What’s wrong with that? I am out of rehab. Suppose I called World to remonstrate with them about these crazy headlines. And then suppose they said something like: “What do you mean inaccurate? Which word is inaccurate?” The reason this kind of misdirection can work (and it works very effectively) is because the unspoken context of all sentences directly affects the meaning of the sentence. In short, sentences always mean far more than what they merely contain. They mean where they are.

All stories must therefore be contextualized, and when we read magazines like World we have to trust them to do that contextualization for us responsibly. But not only do all stories have a context, this one is a whopper and has plot points and story lines running off in all directions. And World magazine knew about this much larger context. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wrote a detailed letter to Joel Belz last summer warning him about the dangers of ignoring that larger context. When I was interviewed for the story, I referred plainly to the importance of this surrounding context. There were also additional activities on the part of our adversaries that made World aware of what was going on. Nevertheless, they made the deliberate choice of doing a small story when only a large story could possibly have done it justice. And the aftermath illustrates just how pertinent the ignored warnings were.

So why has World magazine taken the approach they did to this? And why have they not responded thus far with any comments on their journalistic responsibilities in this? A small fire can burn down a great forest, and St. James warns those who are in a position to do this kind of damage. This is the Dan Rather problem, admittedly with a small r. Ignore the criticisms as long as you can (because you can). In the insular world of the modern newsroom, false views of journalistic objectivity and accuracy have not yet been brought into conformity to a biblical worldview. This is why conscientious Christians, like those at World, can do this kind of thing, and then wonder why there is all this shouting. Marvin Olasky commended Steve Wilkins for his “fine example of taking responsibility for actions.” But I want to know if World intends to follow that example any time soon.

The second way that the World article was inaccurate was in specific details. Even if we take the truncated “only the words have to be accurate” approach (which runs contrary to incarnational living and thinking), the article still fails. The material was not stolen, and no responsible party in this controversy maintains that they were. The only responsible entity thus far that has made that (unsubstantiated) charge is World magazine itself. So they should either make their case for calling the citations stolen, or they should retract that wording with an apology. Some have made a great deal out of their belief that the word plagiarism does not carry any connotations with regard to intent. I differ with this, but will anyone step up to the microphone and seriously maintain that the word stolen does not carry any connotations with regard to intent? The man who discovered the citation problems (Dr. Tracy McKenzie) did not believe the citation problems were deliberate. Why was this (very) important point left out of the article?

And while we are on this point, it is Dr. McKenzie, not Mr. McKenzie. And it is Tracy McKenzie, not Tracie. The article is almost 400 words in length. Counting the ones I have already cited, there are at least eight straight-forward factual errors in this article. That’s one mistake per every 49 words or so. And these are just the simple kind of factual errors that World is willing (in principle) to count as mistakes. But as I have argued above, the whole article was a mistake.

These are not trivial issues. When I watch national news reporting (which I regularly do), I know that I do what many other conservative Christians do. I have a translation grid in my mind that enables me to extract what actually happened, while discounting for the leftist bias that is transparently there. The sad thing is that I have had to start doing this same kind of thing with World. When the Terry Schiavo mess was coming down, one of the things that I was going to write on was the involvement of Randall Terry as a Schiavo family spokesman. I had learned certain things about Randall Terry (from World) that had made me wonder what he was doing there, defending against the violation of this commandment, when he had so clearly violated that commandment. But I hesitated. We were still in the early stages of our problems with World, but I had seen enough already to make me wonder if I should say anything about another man’s reputation based on what I knew solely from World. I wound up not writing anything on that point because I didn’t know if they did to Randall Terry anything like what they did to me. I don’t know. That story might have been a good one, and it quite possibly was. But I don’t know. How could I?

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