Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Post doesn't actually claim to have fact-checked George Will

George Will wrote a terribly-wrong column denying climate change (feedback here). When challenged about what happened to fact-checking, the Washington Post went radio-silent for a while and then made things worse, claiming the "facts" were at least defensible when they're not. Carl Zimmer actually makes the daring claim that fact-checkers should even eliminate misleading factoids, not just wrong ones, although the Post failed to do either.

Zimmer quotes the Post's response:
the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.

The Post blundered its defense by mentioning the copy editors, because we know they didn't fact-check anything. Zimmer's right in referring to the response as lawyerly, because it is only about who "checks" the column, not about who fact-checks it. Yes, there were no grammar mistakes so the copy editors did their job, but that wasn't the question put to the Post by the reality-based community.

So what fact-checking really happened? Will might have had some flunky of his own incompetently check his stuff - or more likely, a fire-breathing wingnut kid working for Will came up with the misrepresentations and fed them to Will, none of them checked for accuracy by Will. From then on, it was just "checking" or editing, not fact-checking. The editors may have incidentally checked a claim or two, maybe, but thorough checks aren't their job. In short, the Post didn't thoroughly fact-check Will and didn't claim to while trying to give the false impression that they did. Sounds a lot like Will's article.

So my question is whether the Post is misleading its new ombudsman who reported this or whether he knows what actually happened.

Many years ago, I was a rinky-dink volunteer ombudsman at an AIDS hospice. It was clear to me that my job wasn't to support and parrot the hospice management; I was to use my independent judgment to support the people using the facility. I hope the Post ombudsman understands the same thing.

UPDATE: emailed the Post ombudsman about this (

UPDATE 2: Hank points out in the comments that copy-editors at some places do check facts, so their inclusion in Post's defense isn't necessarily a giveaway. Still I bet they do very little fact-checking, and their inclusion without specifics shows the Post is just babbling about process without showing they did their job (because they can't).

UPDATE 3: A search yesterday on blogs for "george will warming" gave me 45 hits before I found anyone willing to defend Will's column or the Post. The denialsphere seems to have mostly given up on this one, which is nice.

UPDATE 4: unrelated, but Will defends Obama over Iran here. Credit where due.

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