Saturday, April 22, 2006

Rutten misses the point

I like Tim Rutten's media column in the Los Angeles Times. But Rutten appears trapped in his own bubble regarding the dislike of the mainstream media among many conservatives. While making some perfectly legitimate points about the absurd statements of such buffoonish figures as William Bennett, Rutten uses them as a foil to caricature all conservatives.

Rutten seems convinced that the only reason the MSM is criticized by right-wingers is that it is too effective. But Rutten is in deep denial that MSM errors or bias are a legitimate cause or contributing factor for this dislike.

"As it turns out, though, addressing those things isn't what the critics have in mind. They don't want an unbiased news media, they want a press that reflects their bias," Rutten's latest column claims.

His next sentence is revealing:

"They'd like a press that is wholly blue or wholly red, one that stops bothering a nation increasingly divided in this very fashion with inconvenient facts and doubts."

Come off the phony balance, Rutten. Your entire column is dedicated to criticizing conservatives who, in your opinion, want a press that is wholly red. You don't discuss ultra-liberals who want to do the analagous thing. (They do exist, like their ultra-conservative counterparts).

There is a deep disconnect between many MSM types and conservatives, a lack of communication and understanding. Since our profession is communication, journalists, of all people, should be able to recognize this disconnect and find good-faith ways to bridge it. One of those ways is to admit that much of the criticism is legitimate, and to be willing to criticize peers who violate ethical boundaries.

Yes, there will be some conservatives who will not accept anything short of complete capitulation. But what of those who honestly don't understand what we do? Aren't they owed an explanation, despite the clownish antics of the William J. Bennetts?

Digression alert:

I had a small experience in such dialogue just after the 2004 election, when I took a call at my paper, the North County Times. It was from a Republican subscriber who was upset at what he thought was a biased subheadline putting Kerry first in mentioning the results, even though Bush had won. He was thinking of cancelling his subscription.

What followed was a very polite 45-minute conversation without any name-calling or spittle ejection from either side. This reader was genuinely puzzled over the way the headline was constructed. I told him I didn't know, but that at our paper, we don't tolerate deliberate bias, because it is dishonest. (Unconscious bias is much more tricky to deal with, and that's the subject for another time.) I also pointed out that the main headline did say that Bush had won.

Unable to resolve the matter, I took his name and number and gave it to an editor. Later, I found out that the headline was in material provided by the Associated Press. If you'll remember, exit polls had Kerry winning, so my best guess is that the format was decided earlier in the afternoon. While the headline was correct and the facts were up to date, the format was not changed. That is tough to do on a paper when minutes count.

Whether I was right or wrong in my deductions, the subscriber appreciated that I took the time to try to figure out what had happened. This is the way such matters should be handled. And while a few callers have not been so mannerly, I don't generalize.

Back to Rutten:

The Michael Hiltzik meltdown should have given Rutten pause. Hiltzik used his now-suspended Golden State blog mostly as a vehicle to ridicule those who disagreed with him. There was rarely even a pretense of politeness or trying to understand the point of view of his conservative critics. (For whatever reason, Hiltzik focused on the follies of the right, and never seemed to acknowledge those on the left).

To its credit, the Los Angeles Times has left the blog on its site. Go and read some of Hiltzik's columns and especially his replies to commenters. Sample Hiltzik language on his nemesis, conservative blogger Patterico: "The Patterico comment threads are generally filled with quacking lunatics agreeing with each other, punctuated by the occasional voice of reason."

Rutten's account doesn't even mention Hiltzik's purple-faced screaming fits, which make any derision by Patterico look mild. (Patterico calls the LA Times the "Dog Trainer"). Instead, Rutten focuses on Hugh Hewitt, who often unfairly stacks the deck in his arguments. This is no defense of Hewitt by any means. But read Rutten's distorted view as he quotes Hewitt:

"The incident has provoked a kind of cybernetic thunderstorm, and one of the most revealing claps came from talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who used his popular blog to argue against what The Times had done.

"In his (Hewitt's -- ed) view, "The paper should admit that their journalists are just polemicists who carry their opinions with them into battles they care deeply about. They are as biased as the day is long and getting longer. They aren't objective, and never have been…. Hiltzik may be the most honest guy at the Times."

Hewitt's aspersions are nasty and unproven. Unless Hewitt knows most of the LA Times staff, he has no way to judge their motivations, However, Hewitt is just one critic. Cherry-picking a quote from Hewitt does not do justice to the legitimate arguments against Hiltzik.

In the interests of fairness, here is Hewitt's reply to Rutten. Hewitt noticed as I did that Rutten failed entirely to discuss Patterico, who assembled an utterly damning case that Hiltzik had dishonestly used Internet sock puppets to praise himself and bash critics.

Funny thing is, Hewitt helped provoke Hiltzik's neck vein-throbbing downfall with a rather mild gibe at the LA Times's declining circulation:

"Cue the doom music.

"So what will the Los Angeles Times do?

"Double the number of Joel Stein columns?"


Hewitt made an entirely apolitical allusion to the Times' tone-deafness in its opinion section, which is an embarrassment for a top-tier paper. Stein is a nonentity whose one-note schtick is that he's trying to be famous for being famous.

So what does Hiltzik do? On April 14, in full purple-faced screaming ragegasm, Hiltzik published a statistically worthless piece attempting to show that Hewitt's blog circulation is plummeting. As a business columnist, Hiltzik should have known better than to take two months of Hewitt's Web traffic and extrapolate. That decline comes after a sharp spike in January. And we don't have a full year's data for Hewitt's blog on Site Meter, the service he uses.

Take a look at Hewitt's traffic on Site Meter. Note that Hewitt signed up for Site Meter in July, 2005, and April is not yet finished. One of the things Hiltzik got dinged for by critics is failing to provide hyperlinks to his data. That's because Hiltzik, by his own account, recorded the data manually, looking at Hewitt's Site Meter ratings every day. So the suspicion of critics is that Hiltzik didn't want to show evidence that would contradict his claim -- a claim he later e-mailed me was not made seriously. It was just supposed to show the ridiculousness of Hewitt's own methodology.

Of course!

The rest is now blogosphere legend. Hiltzik's insult-match was noted on other blogs. The purple-faced pundit also got into a dispute over cable and telco policies on Independent Sources under what was later found to be a fake name. In fact, the abusive language was so similar to Hiltzik's style that people immediately suspected something.

Meanwhile, Patterico, who long had noticed peculiar patterns in some of the pro-Hiltzik commentators, was assembling a case for sock puppetry on Hiltzik's part. Independent Sources got into the act when they outed a pseudonymous commentator, the snarling "Nofanofcablecos", as Hiltzik.

Finally, Patterico published his utterly devastating dissection of Hiltzik's Sybil-like posting habits .

During this meltdown, I had had some email exchanges with Hiltzik, who chided me for being taken in by his critics. I promised to wait for his response before saying anything. Hiltzik did not explicitly deny sock puppetry, not did I explicitly ask if he had engaged in it, but he said the issue was unimportant.

So I decided to wait, looking for Patterico, in reality prosecutor Patrick Frey, to keep his word that he would prove his case "beyond a reasonable doubt."

And Patterico more than kept his word. His precisely detailed piece threw a net of evidence around Hiltzik from several directions. Barring some fakery or massive blunder on Patterico's part, it looked to me as if Hiltzik was a serial sock puppeteer. That puts him in the category of John R. Lott, an association which will please neither. It also revealed a techno-cluelessness of Hiltzik's, or possibly his underestimation of Patterico, whom he held in such contempt.

But I waited before writing anything characterizing the evidence, because I wanted to first give Hiltzik a chance to reply, as I had promised him. And if Patterico had not proven his case beyond a reasonable doubt, I would have condemned him and profusely apologized to Hiltzik.

Hiltzik quickly ascended to his blog throne and wrote a scathing non-denial. Hiltzik attacked Patterico for hypocrisy in tolerating anonymous postings from supporters, but not from critics such as Hiltzik.

". . .He makes a stab at rationalizing his selective exposure of one out of his scores of pseudonymous commenters by complaining that my comments were "acid-tongued" or "insulting." This is a curious cavil, given the overall tone of his blog, characterized by his pigeonholing of his postings about "left-wing" newspapers (among other targets) under the category "morons," his habit of accusing editors and writers of the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers of deliberately slanting news articles, and the coded racism of his rants about illegal immigration. . ."

This fooled no one. Patterico clearly stated from the beginning that sock puppetry, not anonymity or pseudonymity, was the offense. And Hiltzik implicitly admitted using sock puppets.

One other point bears noting: Patterico used a kind of rhetorical jujitsu against Hiltzik. As Hiltzik got more hysterical, Patterico toned down his rhetoric. Patterico let the facts speak for themselves.

So here we are: A Pulitizer Prize winner has turned his reputation into a steaming pile of rubble, the victim of his own hubris and unwillingness to take any of his critics seriously.

Sounds like a good media column for Tim Rutten. The question is, will Rutten write it?

Update: Thanks to Richard Graham for his eagle-eyed typo catch.

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