Critics of a Newsweek cover story by historian Niall Ferguson say the piece should never have been published because of the errors and flawed logic it contains. But isn’t it better if those kinds of mistakes are corrected in public view instead of behind closed doors?


There has been a lot of sound and fury this week about a Newsweek cover story written by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, a piece that many critics — including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — argue should never have been published because of the factual and other errors they say it contains. Meanwhile Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a post praising the nameless fact-checkers who prevent mistakes from appearing in magazines like his and Time. But isn’t there a public value to seeing mistakes that are made before the fact-checkers get to them and seeing them corrected? I would argue that there is. If what we are after is more transparency when it comes to journalism, public fact-checking and debate is an integral part of that process.

Just to recap for those who haven’t been following the drama, Ferguson — a professor of history at Harvard and the author of several books — wrote a cover story for Newsweek (which merged with Tina Brown’s online entity the Daily Beast in 2010) in which he argued that President Obama has failed to fulfill a number of promises related to the U.S. economy and therefore doesn’t deserve to be supported for reelection. The piece triggered an outpouring of criticism from a number of observers and complaints that Ferguson’s argument was based on faulty numbers and deliberate misinterpretations of the evidence.

Why is it wrong to outsource fact-checking?

Politico writer Dylan Byers has been one of those holding Ferguson’s feet to the fire for the story, saying the writer used a flawed argument based on skewed figures and arguing that Newsweek should never have let the piece see the light of day. As Byers put it:

“Newsweek has stayed silent on the controversy, choosing instead to ‘monitor the debate’ as if the editor and publisher bear no responsibility for what appears in their pages.”

Coates, meanwhile, said in his Atlantic tribute to fact-checkers that what the magazine had really done was “unwittingly outsourced its fact-checking to the web.” But is that such a bad thing? The Ferguson piece has been thoroughly fact-checked, debunked and otherwise dismantled by Byers and a host of others, including Krugman — and the Atlantic, which does a line-by-line critique of the piece and the flaws in the historian’s logic — as well as Andrew Sullivan at Newsweek’s sister publication the Daily Beast and Matthew Yglesias at Slate.

My point is this: Isn’t it better to have those criticisms and counterarguments out where readers can see them and inform themselves if they wish? And if Ferguson is the type of academic who plays fast and loose with the truth in order to make his argument, as Atlantic writer James Fallows seems to suggest he might be, isn’t it better that we know that by seeing his arguments in as clear a light as possible? If those errors or logical inconsistencies had been fixed by nameless fact-checkers at Newsweek, all we would really know is that the magazine has a good fact-checking department.

One of the most controversial aspects of the idea of “news as a process” is that in some cases it involves distributing information before the truth of that information is fully known, something I have written about before as it applied to what Andy Carvin of National Public Radio was doing during the revolutions of the Arab Spring: Carvin says he used his Twitter followers as a kind of “public newsroom” that helped him confirm and verify information coming from Egypt and elsewhere. In a similar way, Reddit and Twitter have been used as public fact-checking engines and have shown they can be very effective.

It’s valuable to see errors made and corrected

Some, including former Poynter writer Steve Myers, have made the argument that some kinds of news — such as the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., where the gunman was initially linked to the Tea Party political group — shouldn’t be treated as a process, because of the risk of making serious mistakes. And others have argued that an ABC News report this week about director Tony Scott (who committed suicide) having an inoperable brain tumor should never have made it to air, because it turned out not to be true.

Obviously, no one wants publishers or media companies of any kind to just print, air or distribute information they know to be wrong. But in cases like the Aurora shooting and the revolutions in Egypt, the reality is that the availability of “true” information is in a constant state of flux. And in cases like Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, the validity of an argument like the one he is trying to make is also open to interpretation, as Krugman himself admits. So why shouldn’t that interpretation be exposed and debated in public instead of behind closed doors in some editorial office?

One point some critics have made about such an approach — including during a Twitter debate I touched off a few months ago when I asked why we need editors — is that not everyone will see or read the corrections to a report or will have the time to follow up on the allegations about a piece like Ferguson’s, and that is undoubtedly true. That is why it’s almost as important to have places that collect those kinds of things, whether it’s “Regret the Error” author Craig Silverman’s column at Poynter or next to the source of the original report, as with the Daily Beast’s list of criticisms and outlets debunking Ferguson’s piece.

In his post, Krugman describes how when he writes a column for the New York Times, he has to submit a list of links and sources for the claims he makes, which an editor then uses to test his arguments. In an ideal world, I think we’d be better off if the columnist just added those links to his column and let his readers fact-check the validity of his claims — and if others did the same. To paraphrase Jeff Jarvis: “Do your best, and let the internet do the rest.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz and Shutterstock/Swellphotography

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  1. Mahesh Paolini-Subramanya Tuesday, August 21, 2012

    I’m baffled – why is this expected to be an “either / or” thing? In an ideal world, wouldn’t there be at least *some* basic level of fact-checking done by “reputable” organizations, but then the sources would *also* be made available for everybody else to validate/verify/criticize?

    1. Good point, Mahesh — it shouldn’t be an either/or question. Obviously there should be some editing, but I think there is more value in the public fact-checking than lots of journalists want to admit. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Mr. Ingram,

        Your statement…

        “and in cases like Ferguson’s Newsweek piece, the validity of an argument like the one he is trying to make is also open to interpretation, as Krugman himself admits.”

        is also either intentionally misleading or extremely sloppy when Dr. Krugman is actually saying the opposite. The “open to interpretation” would be his first type of wrong or “legitimate” difference in opinion. Your statement gives the impression that Dr. Krugman conceded his original key point and therefore gives a bit of “legitimacy” to Ferguson argument. Here is the relevant full paragraph that shows that he does not and that you mislead or were sloppy with.

        “Matters are quite different when it comes to the third kind of wrongness: making or insinuating false claims about readily checkable facts. The case in point, of course, is Ferguson’s attempt to mislead readers into believing that the CBO had concluded that Obamacare increases the deficit. This was unethical on his part – but Newsweek is also at fault, because this is the sort of thing it could and should have refused to publish.”

        If I understand Dr. Krugman’s point is that it would be much better for all of us if basic fact checking were done for “readily checkable facts”. As your post is just an blog post and not an article, I did have less expectations for accuracy. But, none the less, Krugman’s argument would have saved me from (and probably hundreds of others) either getting the wrong understanding or having to chase down all of your claims.

        I say this because before commenting, I looked to see if anyone else noticed the error, intentional or not, on your part. The answer was no… hence, +1 for basic fact checking (ie. an extra look from one additional impartial viewpoint for the benefit of all of us).

        James B.

  2. I think your suggestion that opinion essays such as Ferguson’s based on questionable or subjective interpretations or actual misstatements of facts can be compared with journalism which has usually been intended as objective reporting of facts is deeply flawed. What value does unedited, unchecked, unmediated “reportage” have to readers? Shouldn’t journalists and editors remain the “smart” filters that professionally present information and context?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Roger — I’m not saying we should give up on editing of all kinds, just that there is value to seeing what reporters and writers of all kinds produce without all the filters we have put in place.

      1. There is plenty of unfiltered unchecked news available. As a Newsweek subscriber, I would prefer and expect that there is at least some objectivity and accuracy in the articles that pretend to be factual. What Mr. Ferguson wrote was more of a political add that even an opinion piece.

  3. While I haven’t read the original article (my copy of Newsweek, delivered the old fashion way, is in my backpack), I have read much of the criticism of the article that you’ve cited. And I’m not sure I completely agree with your argument.

    When I read an article (online or in print) from a respected publisher, I have a higher expectation with respect to the quality of the writing and research. I don’t expect a significant article (whether opinion, analysis or news) from Newsweek, Time, NYT, WSJ, Seattle Times, etc to not be based fact. I expect their arguments to be soundly grounded in reality. Yes, mistakes will be made, but not to the level that it appears that this article has achieved. From what I’ve read, Niall Ferguson’s article sounds more like a blog post or worst, an extended comment in some online forum. When I invest in a serious publication, I expect them to treat my investment with care and not squander my trust in their journalism.

    I do think that in today’s online world, serious journalism is constantly vetted and fact-checked, all recorded for history in the comments section. But the true goal of these sites is to foster a healthy debate, raising the level of the conversation (maybe I should change that ‘is’ to ‘should be’ :-). But including your sources, where possible, with 8×10 colour glossy photographs with pictures and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, should be part of all online publishing. And I think we’re seeing more and more of that, as articles include the hyperlinks that we all can follow, if we want to follow.

    So yes, more social fact-checking (assuming that we can agree on some trusted sources). But if you’re going to want me to continue my investment in you, you have to make sure that what you publish stands up to the scrutiny.

    Civics is Civil

    Jim Sullivan

  4. Let it be known that what I actually said is, “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” Bit of a difference.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. That’s why I said it was a paraphrase — and why I linked :-)

    2. Jeff, and now, due to sloppy journalism, your misquote will live on. Some people will know what you actually said, and some people will believe something else, because they read it here. The Internet is a backstop for bad quality, it doesn’t build quality in.

  5. You ask why we need editors. I have seen more misspellings, grammatical errors and punctuation errors in the last 15+ years since the advent of the public internet than I believe I have ever seen in my previous 28 years before that. While spellchecking has come a long way, it still is unable to reliably distinguish context and correct word usage.

    In addition, it puts egg on the face of revered publications (i.e., The New York Times, Time, etc.) to have to print retraction after retraction due to faulty fact gathering.

    Journalism used to be a business where integrity was hardly ever questioned. Since the 90’s it has turned into a circus that rewards those who publish a story first and the facts be damned.

  6. Here is a prime example of why we need editors or better self editing, from the feed at the side of this article:

    The billion-dollar question: What is journalism for?
    As newspapers try and re-engineer their businesses to adapt to the disruption caused by the web and…

    It should be “As newspapers try to re-engineer…”

    1. Thanks, Ken — that’s why we put those things in there, to give people something to complain about.

  7. Does not look like that the writer of this article really understand the meaning of the sentence ‘Do your best”… just pouring out garbage to let the readers figure out if it is true or not is not journalism, its vulgerism.

  8. Russ Mitchell Tuesday, August 21, 2012

    > Isn’t it better to have those criticisms and counter-arguments out where readers can see them and inform themselves if they wish?

    No. Maybe it’s good, but it’s hardly better. Is it better to buy a car that’s been mangled by the assembly plant when a team of friends is available to try to fix it up for you? It’s good to have such friends. But I’d rather have the manufacturer build it right in the first place.

  9. Garbage and BS are meant to be used for fertilizer, not worthy of reading or getting gullible folks to cite the flawed article to support their arguments in support of the lawed veiwpoint to begin with.

  10. I guess I’m too old fashioned for the modern world. I don’t mind readers discussing and commenting on my work, but I will purely be damned if I’m going to leave it up to them to do my job FOR me. When I put words out with my name on them, I will do anything and everything I know, can learn about, or can imagine to make those words correct. “We don’t know but a guy we met who said he knew someone whose cousin went to school with a girl whose brother in law” — no, sorry. There is still value in the three-source rule.

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