Once in a great while, a mainstream media outlet “’fesses up.” That happened once with the New York Times, whose first “public editor” – a rough equivalent for “ombudsman” – Daniel Okrent admitted in print that the Times was a left-leaning organ. He attributed it to the Times’ Northeastern urban base…but he admitted it. He wasn’t around for long after that.
It’s not common, but it happens. It’s a bit startling when the editors of a hard-left paper allow it. Which is what makes this piece from Megan McArdle about the Hunter Biden laptop newsworthy:
Case in point is a story that ran in the New York Post in October 2020. The newspaper claimed to have been given access to a trove of Hunter Biden’s emails, from a laptop somewhat mysteriously abandoned at a Delaware repair shop. Among other things, those emails suggested Hunter Biden had possibly been trying to peddle his father’s influence during Joe Biden’s vice presidency.
An election was looming, and of course conservative media leaped on the “incriminating” trove. Here on Earth Prime, the information gatekeepers scrambled to keep this story from polluting the mainstream’s pristine infoscape, condemning the story as Russian disinformation, pure distraction, so dubious that even the New York Post’s own reporters were skeptical.
Twitter blocked the story, citing its policy barring “hacked materials,” then suspended the New York Post’s account for sharing it. Facebook allowed sharing but downranked the story in the news feed algorithms.
That’s a whole lot of effort to suppress a story that seems to be … true? The New York Times reported March 16 that the emails are part of the evidence in a federal investigation now before a grand jury.
One week into the “Oops, it was real” news cycle, I have now heard all the excuses as to why this actually is an instance of journalism and tech moderation working like they should. It was unverified, I’ve heard. Too close to an election. And even if the emails were real, they may have been obtained illegally — can’t have that!
All of which might sound very reasonable if only my profession had displayed the same caution with stories that made conservatives look bad.
AWWW! Poor Megan! That must have hurt to write. But this is the Washington Post, which means that even the admission of a grotesque journalistic failure has to come with a slap against the Right:
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, the difference in mainstream reporting is the difference between can and must. When it comes to stories that flatter Democrats, we often ask “Can I believe it?” If it’s not obviously false, we do. But if the story flatters the right, we are more likely to ask “Must I believe it?” If we can find any reason to disbelieve, we take it — and keep the story off our pages.
The obvious retort is that the same thing is happening on the right, only more so. And indeed, some right-wing media have gone much further with crazy election conspiracies than any mainstream outlet ever did with Russophobia. But pointing that out doesn’t do a thing to solve the problem.
“Crazy election conspiracies,” eh? I wonder how long it will be before Megan finds herself needing to walk that back. From the mountains of evidence already amassed, I’d say she’d better keep her contrition muscles limber.
All that having been said, the “Can I believe it?” / “Must I believe it?” divide noted in the above deserves further thought. It goes to the distinction expressed by the title of this piece. While its epistemological significance is considerable, the import of its use as a justification for censorship is even greater.
Religions generally stand or fall on their credibility. “Is what this creed asks me to believe within the realm of the possible?” That’s what makes miracles – seeming violations of the laws of nature – a sticking point for the skeptic. But a miracle multiply witnessed, recorded, and confirmed raises the stakes.
Credibility is the foundation for the excellent recent movie The Case For Christ, which chronicles reporter Lee Strobel’s attempt to disprove the greatest miracle in all of history: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Strobel, upset by his wife Leslie’s conversion to Christianity, did everything he could think of to establish a case for disbelieving in the Resurrection – possibly even to prove that it had not happened. He couldn’t do it, which led to his own conversion. Yet let it be said explicitly and without hedging: It is not possible to prove, in a rigorous sense, that the Resurrection did happen. The “Must I believe it?” criterion cannot be met by this assertion of historical fact.
Concerning assertions about current events and the decisions of those who confront them, a third factor enters the room: “Do I want to believe it?” This can be a scale-tipper, as the McArdle column indicates. Many explanations for developments that are dismissed by large majorities at one point are later substantiated well enough to reach the “Must I believe it?” threshold. That’s going on today with the allegations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen through vote fraud. The mainstream media’s handling of the Hunter Biden laptop indicates how heavily on the scale the desire to disbelieve can weigh.
“We believe easily what we fear or what we desire,” said La Fontaine. And it is so. But belief is an internal matter, more often determined by factors entirely personal to the believer / disbeliever than with credibility or evidence. If I may use a dispreferred word, it should not factor into decisions about whether to discuss a given proposition. It certainly should not be used as a justification for censorship of any sort.
But until the Second Coming, media organs will do as they have done. Their editors’ preferences will factor significantly into decisions about what to cover, what weight to give the purported evidence, and how to frame their coverage. There’s no help for it except a degree of counter-censorship that no decent American would countenance. In this lies one of the great dilemmas of our time – and an irony of personal significance, as I very much want to disbelieve it myself.