“Education” is not the same as “learning” or “quality”

Millenials are supposedly “Playing Catch-Up in the Game of Life” and approaching “Middle Age in Crisis,” if one is to believe the Wall Street Journal; this stood out most to me: “Even with record levels of education, the troubles of millennials have delayed traditional adult milestones in ways expected to alter the nation’s demographic and economic contours through the end of the century” (emphasis added). But is all “education” created the same? How many people have degree not required for the job they’re working? Has the writer read The Case Against Education, which argues that much if not most of what we call “education” is wasteful?

If education is mostly about signaling, then the more people acquire the signal, the less the signal means anything—which seems to explain a lot of the reason why people moved from not needing high school to needing high school and from not needing college to “needing” college. We’re in an expensive credentialing arms race, which is great for college administrative staff but may not confer real skills and abilities on many of those who have “record levels of education” but whose education may also have record levels of “not meaning anything.”

We’ve also systematically raised the cost of housing in most municipalities, by erecting legal barriers to building more of it. This artificially raises the prices of the assets of people who bought in the ’70s into the ’90s but hurts the rest of us. Millenials spend more money and time in education, while regulatory barriers push up the cost of housing, and yet the reporter in this story doesn’t quite connect these features with each other.

Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.

* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

Links: Toni Bentley on “50 Shades,” MFA madness, global climate change, media politics, and more!

* “Fifty Shades of Grey Is an Ode to Female Sexuality, but There’s One Thing Missing” by Toni Bentley, whose amazing and amazingly lascivious book The Surrender I often want to recommend and yet rarely do, for reasons that will probably be obvious to readers of said book.

* “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” though it’s false that “Writers are born with talent” and that people who didn’t start as teenagers are probably doomed. The rest, though, are true, especially this: “If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.”

* “Scientists know there are more giant craters in Siberia, but are nervous to even study them,” which may be the most important article you’re going to skip.

* The Robots Are Coming: John Lancaster, brilliantly, on Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over and Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age. Both are good but if you’re a non-specialist be biased towards Average is Over.

* “Dave Barry: The Greatest (Party) Generation.”

* “Mercedes Carrera Explains Why Cytherea’s Rape Was Not Covered By The Feminist-Dominated Media.”

* “Are landlords the future global plutocracy?” See also Yglesias, The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think; I find it fascinating that many superficial liberals claim to be concerned about income distributions but also favor heavy land-use controls that exacerbate inequality. One or the other, people!

* “University labour strife underscores cost of tenured academics;” tenure costs much more than its distortionary effects are worth. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

* “Finding the Dense City Hidden in Los Angeles,” which surprises me too.

Looks matter and always will because they convey valuable information, and a note about the media

In “The Revolution Will Not Be Screen-Printed on a Thong” Maureen O’Connor laments that people judge each other based on looks (“Why can’t we just not obsess about bodies?”), and then kind of answers her own question:

I ask that in earnest — it’s possible that we actually can’t stop, that this compulsive corporeal scrutiny is some sort of biological imperative, or species-wide neurosis left over from millennia of treating women as chattel.

We judge each based on looks because, as Geoffrey Miller describes in Spent and others have described elsewhere, looks convey a lot of useful information about age, fertility, and health. Beyond that, women are competitive with each other in this domain because they know (correctly) that men judge them based on looks (among other things).

In addition, as Tim Harford discusses in The Logic of Life, speed dating and other research shows that women reject about 90% of those in any given speed-dating event, and men reject about 80% of women. Both men and women usually report that they want similar things—men want youth and beauty; women want height and humor. But researchers devised clever experiments in which dating pools of either men or women have changed systematically—for example, by having entirely very tall men or very short men. Yet the rate at which men and women accept or decline dates remains the same.

That implies “compulsive corporeal scrutiny” is based partially on the knowledge that any particular person will be judged based on the other people around.

I don’t bring this up merely to correct a point in an article; it’s also to observe that a lot of the stuff one reads online is based on limited knowledge. As I get older I increasingly get the impression that a lot of journalists would be better served, at least intellectually speaking, to spend more time reading books and less time… doing other things?

One thing I like about journalists or journalist-blogger hybrids like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias is their wide, deep reading, and their willingness to connect wide, deep reading with the subjects they write about. One might disagree with them for ideological or other reasons, but they do at least know what they’re talking about and usually try to learn when they don’t. Too much of the media—whether in The Seattle Times or The Wall Street Journal or New York Magazine—is just making noise.*

Given the choice between most media and books, choose books. The challenge, of course, is finding them.

EDIT: Maybe Ezra Klein’s new mystery venture will solve some of the complaints above; he mentions “the deficiencies in how we present information” and promises “context.” I hope so, and certainly I’m not the first person to notice the many problems with the way much of the media works.

* Granted, I may be contributing to this in my own small way by contributing a link and possibly hits to a noise-making article that should be better than it is.

TheAtlantic.com is increasingly copying others instead of writing their own work

Something is rotten at The Atlantic: Jordan Weissman “wrote” a piece called “Disability Insurance: America’s $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program,” which is just a restatement of an NPR Planet Money report and some of David Autor’s work (which I’m familiar with through his Econtalk interview and reading some of his subsequent papers; he’s also mentioned by NPR.) This comes not long after Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for trying to get writers to work for free. It seems like TheAtlantic.com is increasingly doing things like this: using thinly-veiled re-writes to drive traffic to it. Weissman’s piece adds little if anything to the NPR piece, and The Atlantic could have just linked to that piece.

The magazine is still very good, and original, but The Atlantic’s web content has been getting worse in a very noticeable way, with thinly-veiled re-writes of other people’s work. If you want to write about other people’s work, just link to it directly.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon more and more, but this is the first time I’ve posted about it. I hope it doesn’t become a series.

(And I’m letting the Scientology ad thing slide, because I think it was an honest mistake.)

Tina Fey's Bossypants and its relationship to James Fallows' Breaking the News

This passage appears in Tina Fey’s memoir / how-to guide Bossypants:

And Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to filler, but viewers get kind of ‘bummed out’ if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so ‘Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin’ and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!

The downside of being a cable news star is that nay ass-hair with a clip-on tie can come on an as ‘expert’ to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not ‘conducted myself well’ during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly about who might win show biz awards.) There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush ‘retarded’ in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and not be able to respond.

I love the word “reportage,” which sounds like “personage,” and bears the same relationships to real news or reports that McDonald’s does to real food with real nutritional value. And the phrase “wars and stuff” lets Fey drop into the mindset of a network executive, perhaps just a few years out from his or her MBA, who is trying to decide what might maximize revenue this quarter. Answer: sharks, missing white girls, and fake controversy. We don’t need any stuff about wars, tough compromises, or deep trends! Let’s dazzle them with superficial bullshit, which a subset of them really like, and hope no one notices what we’re not covering!

(Unfortunately, this works because we, collectively, don’t demand better. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Fey’s critique is close to James Fallows’ in Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. Fey is being funny and Fallows serious, and Fey is dealing with a media environment a decade and change later than the one Fallows describes, but on a basic level the environment has barely changed. If anything, the explosion in cable news has made it worse in many ways, with only a handful of exceptions (The Daily Show, which fights against the dumbest parts of the contemporary media, or coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder). The net result of this is Americans losing confidence in the institutions that are supposed to serve us. The responsibility is partially ours, but it’s also partially that of the people who nominally serve us.

Everyone who pays attention to the media knows it’s broken, and that the brokenness seems to have seeped into the larger culture as a form of blanket cynicism and condemnation. I don’t have a strong sense of how to reverse this dynamic, save perhaps on an individual level.

See also David Brin on how an idea has, over the last twenty years, become “fundamental dogma to millions of Americans:” “The notion that assertions can trump facts.” I wonder if the Western world’s enormous wealth insulates people from the potential consequences of their beliefs; very people die or are seriously injured as a result of dumb beliefs based on erroneous or completely absent information. In other words, it’s now much cheaper to believe nonsense.

On a separate, and more pleasant note, Fallows’ new book, China Airborne, will be published on May 15. In addition, Bossypants itself is funny throughout. Samples:

* “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.”

* “In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”

* “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

* “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

Breaking the News follow-up

My post on James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy generated a fair amount of e-mail and commentary. In the comments section, Steve Karger pointed to The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, which rehashes of some of Fallows’ points but without acknowledgement except at the top, which has a quote, and the very bottom of the page, which says “With fond apologies to James Fallows.” Nonetheless, it’s worth reading.

I found What should be “the new rules of news” in The Guardian, one of the UK’s major newspapers. I especially like this rule:

3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

Sadly, its recommendations seem unlikely to come to pass: the incentives against better journalism seem too deeply entrenched, especially compared with the cost of real journalism.

Salon.com reports that “Journalists like Evan Thomas now admit the Clinton scandals were bogus. When will they admit they played along?” And the answer appears to be “never.” These kinds of retrospective pieces remind us of what’s wrong with the news business: reporters are participating in the practices that weaken confidence in the business, much like individual investors who make decisions that collectively shake the market’s foundation yet are personally beneficially.

Finally, Fallows himself caught my post and wrote in reply:

I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it’s worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

He’s correct, and others have been gathering plenty of fresh examples, as “The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get” shows. I have no idea what arrangements he has with his publisher, but perhaps a new edition with a new forward/afterward would a) give a reason for additional coverage of the book and b) give the benefit of a small number of new examples without having to overhaul the entire thing. Then again, as far as I can tell, Breaking the News got a fairly loud reception the first time and the problems it discusses are fairly well-known, so maybe this wouldn’t matter much.

As I said in my first post, I think the individual’s response to lousy news is likely to be limited, since I can’t immediately make structural changes in the big news organizations that produce lousy “news,” which some people seem to prefer, like Fox News. But if you are interested in better news, try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal (which still seems pretty good) and the New York Times.

Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — James Fallows

The weird thing about Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is how timely it still seems—I think Thoreau called books “the news that stays news.”* Even after some of the particulars Fallows wrote about have receded—like, say, the healthcare debate—the main point that news celebrities and TV-style have cheapened, perhaps dangerously, American knowledge and democracy remains. More importantly, the habit of political score-keeping rather than dealing with substantive issues remains too; Fallows quotes a Clinton administration staffer who said after the 1994 Republic landslide:

They [meaning voters] had ‘made the monkey jump’—they were able to discipline an institution they didn’t like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done.

The process seems to have accelerated: i part that’s because of the Internet—people have more choices for news—but I wonder if it’s also in part because of the product being produced. Fallows gives an excellent sample of what TV news is like: mostly chasing sensation and catastrophe that doesn’t really mean anything, or have any nuance: there’s no real ambiguity concerning whether a killer should be caught and punished, or that a tornado is a tragedy. As Fallows says, “Then there is political news, almost always in the context of horse race politics—the mayor is criticizing his opponents, the city council is arguing with the mayor.” But over what? And why? The scorecard aspect ignores these important issues.

I’m not giving specific examples from Breaking the News because they’re too involved for a (relatively) short blog post, and the most specific parts of the specific examples have changed. But Fallows gives numerous anecdotes and stories to back his points, and it’s almost impossible to have seen TV news over the last ten years and not nod in agreement. The only place he fails in his proscriptions for working past the problems; most revolve around the idea of public journalism, which involves greater citizen participation in news topics, commitment to real information, and so forth. The major problem appears to be that most of the public doesn’t seem interested in such subjects, or at least in paying for them. Those who are interested subscribe to The Atlantic (Fallows’ current home), or, today, find what they need on specialized Internet forums. Most people appear interested in celebrity gossip and hating whatever “the other side” is doing.

For me, Hacker News does a better job of finding what’s worthy than all but a handful of publications (The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times being the most obvious). But Hacker News is only an aggregator, not an originator. Despite strides being made by blogging, it hasn’t come close to replace media organizations—in part because of lawsuit threats that can stymie the proverbial little guy.

As Jack Shafer says on Slate, “Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.” This is true: but it’s also true that the “big media,” much as hate using that phrase, has disproportionate power—especially television. And the media business (another unfortunate phrase) doesn’t seem able to reform itself, so the Internet is doing part of the job for it. Still, media companies are in the business of giving people what they want, or at least what they seem to want, and what people seem to want is to have their prejudices massaged, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. And the status conveyed by TV (which Fallows deals with in a chapter titled “The Gravy Train;” one consultant says of pundits, “Every time they vanish from the tube for a period of time, the requests for their speaking and lectures drop off dramatically.” In other words, appearing on TV is insanely lucrative) means that far more people want to get on than can get on. The result: you can get people to do or say almost everything. As Shafer says, no professional body will stop you. But if people become more accustomed to unfiltered material on the net, maybe they’ll grow more tired of the news blowhards.

Against these problems, the individual doesn’t have a tremendous amount he or she can immediately do. “Don’t watch TV, or at least most TV news” is an obvious one that’s akin to telling people to eat their broccoli, even as McDonald’s continues to expand like waistlines. But, as any community organizer knows, making people aware of a problem is often an important step in solving it. Fallows made people aware of this problem in 1996. Alas: too little has changed. Maybe this post is another step, however tiny, in the direction of change for the better.

* This quote is probably slightly wrong, or wrongly attributed. Maybe he was the one who said, “Read not the times. Read the eternities.”

Media myopia and the New Yorker

A month ago, the New Yorker published an article called “Out of Print” that shows the collective problems of the newspaper and larger media industries, which has been a regular topic in the industry itself, online, and elsewhere. I’m not one of these awful “bloggers will replace the media” types, chiefly for what, as the article says, “[…] the parasitical relationship that virtually all Internet news sites and blog commentators enjoy with newspapers.” You might notice that I’m linking to a magazine.

Still, I sent this letter to the editor, which went unpublished:

That “Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value, and . . . their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago” shows the industry’s collective myopia in the face of rapid technological evolution (“Out of Print,” March 31st). As a high school senior in 2001 – 2002, I was the co-editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper and seriously considered picking colleges based on their journalism programs, but even then it was obvious to me that the Internet would make journalism at best a tenuous career choice. From my perspective, the pace of change was entirely imaginable, and I shifted my academic priorities because of it.

Now I write a book blog. Although it is not professionally edited, it is one of many blogs supplementing or supplanting traditional book review sections that have been heavily cut by newspapers. My life is a microcosm of the problems being experienced by traditional print media.

Normally I like to hear about typos and amend them silently. But if there’s one in this particular blockquote—be silent! It’s too late!

A better press corps?

Two days ago I posted about CEOs’ libraries, which included one quote apparently made up by the reporter, Harriet Rubin: “Ken Lopez, a bookseller in Hadley, Mass., says it is impossible to put together a serious library on almost any subject for less than several hundred thousand dollars.” Mr. Lopez quickly responded to an e-mail query about the subject, and I’m copying his note in full:

That was a very controversial statement in that article and it’s only somewhat incidental that I never actually said it. What I said went more or less along the lines of this:

She: [After we had talked for a half an hour or so about books, book collecting, and book collectors…] So how much does it cost to put together a book collection, anyway?

Me: That’s an impossible question to answer. There are too many variables.

She: Right. I understand. So how much does it cost to put a book collection together?

Me: [sigh] There’s no way to say. All collections are different. [Now thinking of a bone I can throw her, even though it’s a stupid question…] Well, in a lot of collections, if the field is not too narrow, you find the following characteristics: there are a large number of books that pertain to the field that are relatively easy to acquire and therefore not very expensive. But there are a lot of them. Then there is also a much smaller number of books that are very scarce, very important or desirable, and very expensive. If you try to assemble a collection in a field where there are a lot of books, and you try to get all or almost all of the relatively accessible and not-very-expensive books, and you also try to get all or most of the not-easily-accessible and much-more-expensive books, you could very easily end up spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more.

She: Thank you. [Hangs up.]

I wouldn’t swear that that’s a verbatim transcript, but that’s pretty much how it went.

By the time the quote appeared (and I was in the boondocks of northwestern Argentina when article was printed and the controversy about that supposed statement erupted), I barely remembered talking to her. The giveaway, though, was “my” use of the word “impossible”: I doubt I’ve used that word once in the last 40 years. I just don’t talk, write, or think that way. So I took a lot of grief for having supposedly said that, but it was just another case of a writer getting what she (thought she) needed to make her story “work.” Joan Didion said it in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” that writers are always selling somebody out. She may not have been talking about misquoting per se, but it certainly fits this case.

A very reasonable response! The situation Mr. Lopez describes makes sense, and I apologize for my snarky comment yesterday: “How does Mr. Lopez define ‘serious?’ The answer might in part be ‘expensive,’ judging from his line of business: ‘We deal in rare books, specializing in modern literary first editions.'” That was undeserved, and I’m doubly impressed for the allusion to Joan Didion.

This incident relates to the bad- and wrong-press phenomenon I’ve seen covered elsewhere. Language Log has been finding misquotes and misstatements since I began reading it a few years ago, and they’re particularly keen on misused studies. Econoblogger and Economics Professor Brad DeLong has long (sorry, I couldn’t resist) been asking, “Why Oh Why Can’t We Have A Better Press Corps?” It’s a good if rhetorical question, and he’s compiled too many examples of professional journalist foolishness. The misquotes and bad science are particularly strange these days, because an army of interconnected bloggers can now point out examples of press speciousness or outright mendacity. When something doesn’t smell right, as happened with the fake quote attributed to Mr. Lopez, it’s relatively easy to find the truth.

To be sure, newspapers and magazines do an admirable job of getting most stories right most of the time, but it makes obviously ludicrous statements like the one attributed to Mr. Lopez all the more galling because I want to trust the media. When I can’t, I’m disappointed, and more likely to be skeptical next time.

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