Nathan Robinson and when the truth is hidden

I came across an article recently The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. Its basic argument is that there are a lot of shitty new sites that are with paywalls up in front of some of the better ones. That particular premise I more or less agree with it. There are two major flaws with it though:

1. The very author of the article above is Nathan Robinson - the very one being critiqued here:

i.e. a subset of true claims you might be more likely to find in the shittier free sources.

2. Not everything you'll find in those better news sites is true, a phenomena that's likely to be most pronounced for politically sensitive concerns

Take this as one prominent example:

After smearing a bunch of prominent historians who'd objected to certain elements of the piece due to their identity characteristics, we then later found out that the history professor who they'd consulted ahead of publication and against who the same identity-based smear strategy wouldn't work had "vigorously disputed" the same claims. If you read the article later authored by the person they'd consulted you'll see that see seems at least as harsh against those historians who'd critiqued the piece as she is against the New York Times itself.

It is difficult to overstate the extent to which a newspaper publishing false claims known in advance of publication to be false damages its reputation.

By and large I generally expect people in practice to take more liberty, overstating their claims for causes they take to be important. At the same point in time, I'd expect the political opponents of a cause likely to be overly critical in evaluating arguments that might detract from their overall case. i.e. it seems to me that what seems to happen is that you get shittier argument where more-rigorously fact-checked arguments are needed which then devolves into a dumpster fire.

The claim below was made regarding investigative journalism, wherein here the New York Times critiques the shoddy reporting of Ronan Farrow, but I think a similar sort of argument also applies here:

i.e. a 90%-true story - which is about where I'd put Nikole Hannah-Jones article - may actually hurt you rather than help you.

I find it kind of amusing how Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism hit the bestseller lists the week after Trump was elected. In some ways I think the book fairly accurately describes the sort of actions Trump takes, but in others I think it's not unreasonable to apply some of her critiques to people like Nicole Hannah-Jones. e.g. Arendt wrote in that book:

... there is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography ...

Nikole Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for the work mentioned above where she's continued to include assertions her own factcheckers told her in advance of publication were false. Arguments like this were made at that time:

I can think of few situations as dissimilar as a journalist making true yet unpopular claims to the extent she was able to make them and a journalist publishing claims it's difficult to argue she didn't know to be false at the time she published them. It's not unreasonable to treat Ida B. Wells as a hero but in the same vein it seems only reasonable to treat someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones (who brands her twitter account as Ida Bae Wells) as worthy of contempt.1

My argument in short: if, when it's politically convenient to do so, you've demonstrated that you're willing to both (a) avoid making certain classes of true statements and (b) willing to make false statements you shouldn't be surprised if people stop trusting you. It's not that Trump isn't incredibly dirty, it's just that you've made yourself particularly vulnerable to people likely him. At the moment it seems as though there's a competition to see who can destroy institutions most quickly.

  1. I've previously argued that Paul Krugman also generally writes columns worth avoiding. In the New York Times he's worth treating as just a troll, even if one who happens to have a Nobel Prize to his name. ↩︎