Better Editing Please

by Brien Jackson

I don’t really understand the logic of Op-Ed pages. Apparently they seek out people who are so wise that their writing must never be edited, even though it’s going to reflect on the paper publishing it. Any attempt to maintain some sort of quality standards would amount to “stifling viewpoints,” or something like that. And, ultimately, I think it’s this attitude as much as anything else that’s led to the post-modernism of our political discourse. The Washington Post’s refusal to correct a glaring factual error in a George Will column is a now-classic example of this tendency, as is the various misinformation that percolated through the nation’s Op-Ed pages in the run up to the Iraq war. And even though it’s likely to be met much more approvingly by progressives, today’s Nicholas Kristof column is another, quite egregious, example of the lax standards of editing our “elite” Op-Ed pages. The takeaway:

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) sometimes arouses terrifying headlines as a “superbug” or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The best-known strain is found in hospitals, where it has been seen regularly since the 1990s, but more recently different strains also have been passed among high school and college athletes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that by 2005, MRSA was killing more than 18,000 Americans a year, more than AIDS.

Dr. Anderson at first couldn’t figure out why he was seeing patient after patient with MRSA in a small Indiana town. And then he began to wonder about all the hog farms outside of town. Could the pigs be incubating and spreading the disease?

That’s an obvious conjecture to make, I suppose, if you’re a writer who has long been writing columns taking a dim view of American swine production, but the basic structure of the column would flunk any high school logic class. The problem with the progression of the column is that at no point does Kristol ever actually present an evidentiary case that the MSRA outbreak is linked to the hog farms. Yes there have been some studies suggesting hogs can carry the MSRA bacteria, but that doesn’t really explain why it seems to be isolated to this town. It’s not as if there are onlya dozen or so hog farms around the country and so there isn’t a large body of evidence to go on. There are literally thousands upon thousands of similar farms all over the country, many undoubtedly larger than the operation in question. Are there MSRA outbreaks in towns neighboring any other hog farm in the country? Did Kristol look for any before he wrote this column? Did Kristol pursue any other possible causes of the MSRA outbreak in this town before jumping to the conclusion that hog farms cause widespread cases of MSRA infections based on what appears to be a clear outlying case? Or did Kristol let the conclusion dictate the facts? It’s pretty clear that that seems to be what happened.

I’m not necessarily faulting Kristol for this. After all, we all have issues we have deep seated beliefs about, and for many of us that causes us to do sloppy work at times when writing about those issues. The real question, then, is why the New York Times would run such a shoddy piece of writing. Why is their no editing process to reject a piece so clearly lacking in both evidence and logical argument building? Why isn’t there anyone to point out that Kristof is letting his desired conclusion affect how he is presenting the evidence, or lack thereof? It may seem like a small matter, because the topic doesn’t seem all that important in this case, but this is how misinformation regarding truly monumental issues makes its way into the public discourse. This is how newspapers can allow the claim that there is no scientific consensus on global climate change to be published under their banner. This is how major newspapers wind up publishing claims that Saddam Hussein was allied with al Qaeda prior to our invasion of Iraq. It’s the idea that, certain people at least, are above the editing process, and much be allowed to publish more or less anything they submit, no matter how poor of quality, lest “the media” put their thumb on the scale of the “debate.”

And it’s one reason I don’t count myself among the crowd lamenting the inevitable downfall of major national newspapers.

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