Three Cheers for Felix Salmon

Reuters posted (and has since updated) an article on alleged financial connections between George Soros and Occupy Wall Street (OWS). The article illustrates much of what is wrong with English language journalism.

Felix Salmon wrote a devastating critique (just click the link and read it)

Felix Salmon works for Reuters. To me the news is that someone somewhere is willing to publicly criticize his employer without flinching or trying to find excuses.

I even suspect that Salmon’s post had an effect on the News division of Thomson/Reuters, since the headline of the article has been changed

Update: After a rather confusing series of events, the old version of the story is still online, while a recast version is here. Both of them now carry the headline “Soros: not a funder of Wall Street protests”. Which is an improvement.

My boring commentary after the jump. Up here I just want to conclude that I think the world would be a much better place if more people were like Felix Salmon

Also Ken Houghton but uh the point is willingness to criticize other members of the same organisation so I can’t type that above the jump.

So what went wrong wrong wrong in the Reuters article ? The first thing is that they let Rush Limbaugh act as their assignment editor. An article discussing whether Soros is financing OWS is damaging to OWS even if it reaches a firm conclusion.

The article clearly states the principle that loud hacks should be able to make Reuters write about their assertions “There has been much speculation over who is financing the disparate protest, which has spread to cities across America and lasted nearly four weeks. ”

Salmon wrote “Yes, there are people — led, it would seem, by Rush Limbaugh — who are loudly speculating that Soros is funding OWS.” He is guessing about the role of Limbaugh (a very safe guess but a guess). In any case it is clear that the right wing noise machine can get reporters as supposedly neutral journalistic enterprises to address their claims. That’s enough. “Opinions on Soros financing of OWS differ” is the message the busy public will get.

Then the article claims a connection because Soros gave money to the Tides foundation which gave money to some group in Canada which, years later, had a role in starting OWS. The point is that questions of fact are never purely black or purely white. There is always something (almost always more than this). So once the question is raised it is never declared settled by reporters. They aren’t supposed to draw conclusions on controversial issues. So the main thing they do is decide on which controversial claims to report (along with denials and rebuttals and all that).

This tiny battle seems to have been won by the believers that the facts should matter — that it isn’t enough to report both sides of a debate when one side has reckless disregard for the truth.

But it isn’t Reuters policy that one should investigate inflamatory claims and, if there is only the tiniest bit of evidence that there is arguably a shred of truth to the claims, not file an article. I think the problem is that there is reporters are given a incentive not to conclude that there is nothing there and the best article is no article at all. The bits on the internet are the same as they would be if the reporter had done no work. But for editors to do their job, they should consider a brief report (to them only) that there is essentially nothing there to be better than an article which focuses on the trivial bit that is there. But they don’t. They have trees to kill.

Also the reporter(s) (not named by Salmon so I won’t either) seem to be Republican hacks. But a good organization should not be vulnerable to a few bad apples.