A Postscript to a Hasty Judgement: When Indignation Trumps Caution

Because I was so quick to tell you the story — reported so ably in the New York Times by Richard Perez-Pena — of a student with a stuttering problem  at a New Jersey college who had been asked by the Professor not to speak in class, I need to add a postscript.

While the full details of the story may remain murky, Perez-Pena — in the admirable journalistic tradition of careful follow-up when new details are revealed — — wrote a subsequent story with the instructor’s version of events.

Without claiming that I now have a firm handle on the truth in this complex situation, I do feel obligated to state the following:

Virtually every complex human interaction imaginable defies easy description. First-rate writers and researchers can try, and perhaps come close, but it is inevitable that different parties and witnesses to an interaction will see things differently.  Perez-Pena, a skilled and distinguished  professional,  was forced — given the initial choice of the professor not to comment — to write the first  story without her version. Only days later, when she did agree to speak, Perez-Pena immediately wrote a follow-up.

The speed with which I angrily chastised the instructor and the institution for this incident, while born of a deep anger and sensitivity to discrimination against people with disabilities, clearly should have awaited a fuller  account including the professor’s version. I still may not agree with what I now know was  the professor’s judgement, but the point is that my reaction preceded my even having any idea what that  judgement was.

The fault was allowing my indignation about discrimination  (an indignation that is alive, well, and still white-hot) to lead me to temporarily reject even the possibility of an alternate version of events.  I should have thought more carefully before allowing anger to trump caution.

Isn’t it just like complexity to come along and ruin certainty and clarity?

First There Were 30 Bodies in a Pit; Then There Were None

I don’t like “gotcha” media criticism, especially the kind that attempts to elevate some completely human error – either intentional or not – into a mortal sin. Some sins – especially of the journalistic variety – do have serious consequences for the victim of the inaccuracy or typo, can mislead and confuse, and can plant seeds of fear and anxiety in communities already reeling from one trauma or another. Not good.

But I really need to see intentional malice or serious negligence to go from annoyance to indignation.

Yesterday afternoon, in quick succession, I received several news bulletins about 30 dismembered bodies that had been found buried outside Houston. The news bulletins, which I include here, came from serious news organizations, and were phrased with language implying enough certainty that I immediately forwarded the news to some colleagues at John Jay College’s Academy of Critical Incident Analysis, a research group in which I participate. Among other things, we are interested in the impact of sudden high profile catastrophic incidents on public attitudes, behavior and the larger social order.

Most of you already know how it ended. It was a completely inaccurate report that had originated with nothing more than a tip from a psychic. It should never have been elevated to the status of an urgent bulletin. Even worse, in this case, is that several of the bulletins were neither hesitant nor qualified. Bodies had been found.

The serious news organizations that made this bizarre leap will certainly examine how and why this happened and determine how to avoid it in the future. It was not a routine mistake. It was bad. Real bad. First there were bodies and then there were none.

But less than focusing on the mistake, I think we need to think carefully about a newsgathering environment that has elevated speed to such importance that time for contemplation and evaluation may have slowly slipped away. Speed, of course, has always been part of the highly competitive journalistic enterprise. The 20th century began with bloody battles between Hearst and Pulitzer over who could get the first and second and third extras to the newsstand first.

Since then, though, speed as a term has almost completely lost its power to describe the “speed of sound” global news environment. One piece of news, launched on the most appropriate channel, can be global in minutes. Rather than being something that can be pulled back or reconsidered, an inaccuracy is now launched into permanent orbit and circles and circles the globe even after it has been throroughly debunked. And sometimes the subsequent “debunking” gets infinitely less play that the initial nonsense.


We are now in a world where caution isn’t simply important, it is absolutely required of anyone who reports anything, including each of us as we report things to each other.

Yesterday, lots of people in lots of places – fearing being slow in the age of the fast – skipped the caution. And the result is that there will be a pit of dismembered bodies outside Houston for a long, long time.

Even though it really isn’t there at all.

Wanted! Science and Medical Reporting That Can Accurately Interpret Complex, Nuanced Findings

Sometimes I worry that my posts keep repeating themselves, and that each time I point out how often well-intentioned reporters botch the  reporting of nuanced scientific findings, I might simply be repeating myself.

But I care about this problem because, each time a story appears with a new scientific or medical finding, an entire community of people dealing with an illness or condition is mobilized and immediately  begins to focus on the new development. 

Ad why not?  Their health, well-being, and lives  might be at stake, not to mention that of their friends and family.

You may not know that the New York Times has been grappling with this very issue for the past month. The issue is Alzheimer’s.

Today, around 2 PM   the public editor of the New York Times posted the latest update to a month-long controversy that started with a story that  first appeared on August 10th.

In this case, the original August 10th story had to do with the hypothesized connection between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Public Editor’s warning?  Beware “the problems that arise when a story or headline couches some development as an absolute – in this case, new research describing a relationship between certain proteins and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Yup, a big problem.

Reverend Campfire, Media Coverage, and the Social Fabric

I’m telling you: This job never gets boring.

Every day offers some new and provocative illustration of the intricate and fascinating role that media and culture play in both weaving and tearing away at our fragile social fabric.

This week’s example came like clockwork, ripe for analysis by all who watch the social parade and all the passing wackos, issues, provocateurs, and even — when we least expect it — occasional voices of reason and clarity.

This week it’s the lunacy of one profoundly disrespectful and incoherent member of the clergy (self-proclaimed) who, gleeful at what is likely the first time anyone other than his dentist has paid attention to the bile coming out of his mouth, is threatening to burn a copy of the holy text of a major world religion.

Look, I know this is a world in which the World Wrestling Federation seems to be the arbiter of rules for civil discourse. Maybe we should simply ignore this nonsense, however hateful. Yet this is a fragile historical moment in which a vile threat by a vile man has found its way into the midst of a social context marked by fear, loathing, raging Islamophobia, and a backdrop of what the eminent Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter once perceptively called ” the paranoid style in American politics.”

And, of course, the whole hateful spectacle is being reported and re-reported by a mass media that, whatever you think of the coverage, has quite correctly gauged the zeitgeist as to the newsworthiness of it all. People do want to hear about Reverend Campfire. The direct intervention of both the President and Secretary of Defense has only heated up the whole noxious brew and made it an even more legitimate news topic.

Which leads to one of the iconic and ultimately unanswerable questions that seems to always come up in media studies: Does all the media scrutiny fuel the frenzy? Or is the frenzy itself a legitimate news topic?

The easy part is the “who causes it?” question. In a complex and crowded 24-hour digital information environment, no one culprit is an easy target. All sorts of individuals and institutions –political, media, corporate — are acting simultaneously, interacting with one another, struggling to promote an image of themselves and their views that supports their interests and agenda. To point to any institution as primarily culpable for a momentary frenzy or panic is to try to make the richly complex, multi-variate process of social and organizational behavior fit into a simple cause and effect model.

You may wish the media had ignored Reverend Campfire and his book-burning threats, and you make think that ignoring him would have ended the whole shebang. But to dismiss this as primarily a media-constructed spectacle is to engage in that great American past time of latching onto the nearest reductionist answer to our latest vexing question.

Like it or not (and I don’t), this is a legitimate news story, deserves media scrutiny, and even reveals a fundamental truth about free society: The social fabric, even when vigilantly supported and protected by constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, is always just one rip away from serious damage by a kook like Reverend Campfire.

And that damage can be caused by one, perverse loony-tune who truly seems to be enjoying his ability to elicit a great big national squirm.

Believe me, I’m more than sick of hearing about Reverend Campfire and his three-ring hate-fest.

But maybe the dues we owe for the protection of free expression include being forced to listen to one slightly imbalanced exhibitionist and then having to watch the whole spectacle actively covered by a seemingly obsessed, yet free, press.

If that’s the price, I’m ready to pay.

Congratulations to Sheri Fink, Pro Publica, and the New York Times: Pulitzer Prize for “The Deadly Choices at Memorial”


Photo Credit: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum, for The New York Times


Late last year,  I called your attention to a riveting piece of investigative reporting that was a cooperative venture of the non-profit investigative journalism group Pro Publica and the New York Times

Photo Credit: Tony Carnes/ Christianity Today


Reported and written by  Sheri Fink and A.C. Thompson,  The Deadly Choices at Memorial describes the frenzied and painful struggle inside a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina as the  staff dealt with seriously ill  and terminal patients. 

Dr. Sheri Fink


Today the piece won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. 

A must read. 

I’d Laugh If I Wasn’t Screaming: The Revolt of “The Soldiers of The Selfish Revolution”©

Absolutely and mind-bogglingly astounding.

Today, in a compelling demonstration of just how compassionate and altruistic some people can be, thousands of people with health insurance gathered on Capitol Hill to protest a bill that would provide some coverage for those who are not covered.

What happened to the grand American tradition of at least being a little ashamed and even secretive about your selfishness? Now, apparently, you can boldly and even proudly trumpet your belief that your good fortune should not be extended to others.

I can’t believe that some of these soldiers of the selfish revolution © didn’t at least wear masks.

Yes I’m angry. But I learned a long time ago to always look for the sadness underneath my occasional ranting and raving. And this time it wasn’t hard to find: I share a country with at least some people whose social conscience ends right at the place where the needs, sometimes the desperate needs, of others have to be considered.

Listen to the wisdom of one of these anti-government  misanthropes:

“It’s time to make a stand,” he said. “We want to see limited government, not more taxes put in our face. We don’t believe our health care system entirely broken. We need to slow down, stop and start over with this legislation.”

Mr. Scevola said that he had health insurance through his employer. “Kaiser Permanente,” he said proudly. “They are the best on the West Coast.”

I’m so thrilled he is happy with his coverage.

Another Brilliant Coup for Pro Publica: Abuses at University of Phoenix

Whether the non-profit model for investigative journalism ultimately catches fire, the best of the current non-profit organizations doing in-depth reporting is Pro-Publica.   I previously called your attention to Pro Publica’s  incredible cooperative reporting effort with the New York Times, written and reported by Sheri Fink, detailing the struggle for survival inside Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina.

And now another: Pro-Publica reporter Sharona Coutts has written a detailed and compelling report about abuses at the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest for-profit university that relies heavily on on-line instruction.  The report details mind-boggling recruiting and financial aid abuses.

One reason I get excited about the Pro-Publica model, even though it may be short-lived, is that  it is almost impossible to imagine a major media outlet covering a story like this with substantial human and financial resources. Yet it is a story that must see the light of day  in an  economy in which countless prospective students are desperately seeking the training they need to keep their head above water.

Pro Publica deserves a real pat on the back.