News Flash: Some Journalists Think You Are Stupid

I've carped before about the prevailing legal illiteracy of the media, and the various atrocities against accuracy it produces. There are bright islands in the dark sea — journalists who educated themselves about law before reporting on it, and who take the time to craft a story that accurately conveys complex legal issues. Those journalists are a pleasure to read, and I often learn things from them. But they are not the norm. The norm is a mix of willful ignorance and laziness.

The Polanski affair reveals that there is another element to this prevailing legal illiteracy: some journalists' unhealthy contempt for the intelligence of their audience. Patterico has pulled back the curtain to reveal a bit of this unbecoming contempt in the course of his dialogue with Washington Post blogger Anne Applebaum. Applebaum wrote a post on the Washington Post blog that made several mistakes about the case, and further said several things that were materially misleading. Among the mistakes and misleading statements: Applebaum said "there is evidence of judicial misconduct in the original trial" when there was no trial because Polanski entered a guilty plea. Applebaum wrote "there is evidence that Polanski did not know her real age," which may be true, but is grotesquely misleading for a journalist to write without also noting that Polanski admitted under oath during his guilty plea that he knew the girl was thirteen at the time. Applebaum writes of "Polanski's crime — statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl," but fails to note that Polanski was charged with both statutory rape and rape, that the girl's grand jury testimony made it clear that it was rape, and that even in her recent press statements she has maintained that she said no and Polanski ignored it. (Perhaps Applebaum, like Whoopi Goldberg, thinks it was not rape-rape.) And so on.

Patterico is an exceptionally able and dogged investigative blogger; I say that even though I frequently disagree with him on issues of substance. He has engaged in a dialogue with Applebaum culminating today in this post, in which Applebaum defends her inaccuracies in flat-out appalling terms.

I used the word “trial” in the layman’s sense – trial meaning a judicial investigation, court proceedings etc – and see no need to correct, as it would confuse the matter further.

The notion that a professional wordsmith can't convey the difference between a trial and a guilty plea without "confusing the matter" is sheer lunacy. The credible possibilities are (1) Applebaum didn't know it was a plea, because she didn't investigate adequately before writing, making her careless; (2) Applebaum didn't really grasp the difference between a trial or a plea, making her ignorant; or (3) Applebaum thought her readers couldn't grasp the difference between a trial and a plea, making her contemptuous, or (4) Applebaum thought that accurately describing the event as a guilty plea would not serve the argument she was trying to make, making her dishonest. Based on the "confuse the matter' language and general tone of her response to Patterico, I think the most likely explanation is #3: she thinks her audience is dumb.

Her defense of her statement about Polanski's knowledge of the victim's age is just as appalling:

Yes, there is “evidence” that Polanski did not know the girls age – or that he was told but did not believe it: He has told people since that, anyway. Pictures of her from the time show a girl who could be anywhere from 12-25. “There is evidence” is a broad expression and I see no need to correct that either, as again it would simply be confusing.

Either this is dishonest, or it reveals a paternalistic attitude towards readers. The most powerful evidence of whether or not Polanski knew that his victim was thirteen is his admission, under oath, that he knew. Saying that "there is evidence that he did not know" — without revealing that he admitted that he knew — is incredibly deceitful. If it's not intentionally deceitful, then it reveals Applebaum's attitude that, as a journalist, her role is to decide what facts are credible and what facts are not and present only the facts that she believes to her audience, even if that means concealing sworn testimony that contradicts her conclusion. Again, that suggests that she thinks that her audience is just too dumb to come to the correct conclusion themselves unless she sifts the evidence for them and presents it as an advocate.

Her big-picture conclusion is also revealing:

In any case, none of these particular issues has much to do with my main point, which were that this was a confusing story and that it’s very peculiar that the Swiss suddenly decided to arrest him now. I do not condone his original action in any way, and didn’t write that I did, either: However, I dislike the reduction of complicated stories to simple facts. And please don’t write back that “he drugged and raped a child” because that is not an accurate description of what happened.

But she unquestionably does like reducing complicated stories to simple facts. That's what she did, and it's clearly what she thinks it's her role to do. She asserts that it's not an accurate description to say that Polanski drugged and raped a child, yet that's exactly what the child in question testified that he did. A responsible journalist might carefully marshal all of the facts and lay out a case of why the evidence does not support the victim's grand jury testimony that Polanski gave her alcohol and a quaalude and then, over her repeated objections, penetrated her vaginally and anally. But that's not what Applebaum's doing, and not what she's saying. Applebaum's just saying that she has concluded that's not the real story, and so she wants to report that conclusion to her readers. It appears that she does so based upon the presumption that her readers cannot evaluate that themselves based on the facts — that the evaluation would be, in Applebaum's repeated words, "confusing."

Between Patterico and Applebaum, Patterico comes out of this looking far more like a competent and trustworthy journalist. And, again, I say that as someone who frequently disagrees with — and sometimes really dislikes — his opinions. Read the series of posts; they are a great dissection of journalistic practice.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Channeling you-know-who: Patterico's right; Applebaum's wrong. Settle it that way.

    As to Patterico, sure. I find his often True Believerism in the War on Some Drugs appalling, but it's pretty much par for the course among prosecutors; ditto what often crosses over from a sober appreciation of good police work and police officers (which he often demonstrates) into blind faith — but that's also pretty much par for the course.

    That said, I've long since given up on fact-checking him; I've never, once, seen him lie about an allegation of fact or conceal a relevant fact contrary to his argument.

    And, in this, that's exactly what he's caught Applebaum doing: both. She lied about facts around the Polanski case, and ignored, err, inconvenient truths in support of her thesis that the poor babyraper* is being persecuted.

    Orthogonally: I don't know that I'll ever be able to look at a work by any of the defenders of Polanski (excepting his lawyers; it's their job and proper role to defend the guy; everybody, even a babyraper*, is entitled to a defense) without remembering that, when there was no possible good excuse, they chose to make excuses for that disgusting babyraper*. Applebaum, to give the miserable excuse for a reporter the little credit that she deserves, at least had the decency to expose her indecency in her correpondence with Patterico.

    * Hyperbole; Polanski's victim, who he plied with booze and a part of a qualuude before raping her, was actually thirteen at the time, and not a toddler or infant.

  2. says

    It really is a pity. Applebaum has long been a favorite reporter on international, particularly Eastern Bloc, issues. She is usually clearheaded. I don't know what's gotten into her here other than that she is probably a starstruck acquaintance.

  3. Patrick says

    Her failure to disclose that her husband, a Polish government official, is lobbying for a Polanski dismissal is inexcusable.

    When Patterico and Media Matters line up on the same page, that's interesting. In fact the most interesting thing about the Polanski matter, to me, is the split that it seems to expose is not a traditional right/left split, but a split that seems to be based on one's attitudes toward celebrity, suspicion toward authority, and inclination to conspiracist thought.

  4. says

    Patrick, I've been fascinated by that same, different, split the argument is taking as well. I can't think of very many situations where a rapist would have a sizeable group so ardently defending him. Because this *isn't* a case of a guy having sex with a girl who was shy of the age of consent (setting aside the issue of whether 13 is "too young"). It's a rape case.

  5. says

    Someone (and sadly, I can't recall who) recently described Polanski as "the OJ Simpson of the elite". I think there's some truth to that.

  6. JanVan says

    This is my most charitable explanation of Applebaum. She is a working mother with two boys. These days she is very busy and distracted….maybe writing another book too. Her husband is temporarily away on business so she has to pick up the slack. He is Polish foreign minister?

    Anne Applebaum has been winging it for a while and she usually comes off well. This time her quick study technique made her come off like a fool. All kinds of inaccuracies and misrepresentations. She was inclined to side with Polanski the artiste and found herself justified because she never read the material she should have

    She is in too deep to admit how stupid she has been

  7. says

    At bottom, it's pretty simple. You're a Hollywood bigshot, who has been told by admirers and colleagues and sycophants for years how smart and goodlooking and perceptive and wonderful you are, and you've long since stopped doubting it.

    Then you find that somebody you've admired — perhaps from a distance, perhaps from up close — and been charmed by — ditto — is, well, a monster. (And make no mistake about it: Polanski, like Simpson, is a monster.) You've maybe shaken his hand, shared a conversation, basked in the charm of his presence and the brillance of his work . . . and you never saw in his eyes that this man would, that he could, carefully separate a thirteen-year-old girl from her mother or any other supervision, than ply that young girl with booze and drugs, then, over her protestations and futile attempts to push him away, could shove her down on a bed and force his penis inside her. Repeatedly.

    Less pampered and priviledged people have dealt with the failure to recognize a monster close to them. Speaking from personal experience: it's one of the most shocking things that can happen when realize what you've seen isn't the mask suddenly coming off to reveal the twisted, evil countenance beneath, but something far more shocking — the realization that the real face has always been there, but you just didn't have the wit, or maybe the character, to see it. And, if you've never woken up in the middle of the night and said to yourself, shit, how the fuck did I miss it? I envy you your good fortune.

    So it's easy: you just paste a mask on and pretend that it's the real face, and as the rest of the pampered pets nod and admire the mask, and say it just has to be the real face, while thinking because, otherwise, we've honored and befriended and been befriended by and clutched this monster to us because, well, it just has to be that way. Doesn't it?

    After all, you're smart and goodlooking and rich and perceptive. After all, everybody else in the crowd says so.

    Like I said: it's easy to explain.

  8. Bob says

    He could have been a monster 30 years ago and deeply regret his drug-addled decision now. However! That doesn't give him the pass that some Hollywood elite seem to want him to get.

    If he were some out of work slob who watched TV all day and lived in his mom's basement these same people would be demanding he be locked up. And then not give it a 2nd thought.

  9. Patrick says

    If he were some out of work slob who watched TV all day and lived in his mom’s basement these same people would be demanding he be locked up. And then not give it a 2nd thought.

    In another context, Chris Rock said it best:

    OJ was famous, that’s the only reason he got off – if he was anyone else, the only thing he’d be known as was “Orenthal the Murdering Bus Driver.”