Bizarroland: David Frum Says "Mistakes...Are Why People Should Trust Media"

Posted: Dec 10, 2017 4:30 PM

David Frum, former President George W. Bush speechwriter, appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter today to discuss media in the age of Trump.

The current Atlantic senior editor started off his monologue by making the following claim. 

“The mistakes are precisely the reason people should trust the media. Astronomers make mistakes all the time because science is a process of discovery of truth. Astrologers never make mistakes or at least they never own up to them because what they are offering is a closed system of ideology and propaganda," Frum told Stelter. 

On the surface, this sounds accurate. Astronomers and scientists follow the scientific method in order to discover the truth. As a reminder, that simple six step process is as follows: 1. Make an observation, 2. Ask a question, 3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation, 4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis, 5. Test the prediction, 6. Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or a prediction. Scientists largely do not report their findings to the public as they are in "the process of discovering truth," only once their experimentation is completed and is peer reviewed.

If the media actually did that before they released their reporting, more likely than not less mistakes would be published. 

Yet, Frum excuses the media's rush to produce false statements without fully testing their hypothesis because he says they are only working off partial pieces of truth. 

"Faced with wrongdoing circled by lies the process of piercing the lies to uncover the truth about the wrongdoing is inherently, not only difficult but adversarial because the people that are trying to find the truth are operating against bad faith actors engaged in concealment. They get partial pieces of the truth. So in the process there are going to be overshoots and under shoots. That Bloomberg/Reuters story about Deutsche bank. Donald Trump holds most of his debt through Trump related entities, so we don’t know what Deutsche bank was subpoenaed to release. But it Is not exactly wrong to say that when you get a Trump related entity, you get something other than Trump, but none the less error of emphasis. But it’s the process of bringing truth to light." 

This contradicts his first comparison saying that like astronomers, the public should trust the media because they make mistakes. Yes, it is good for the public when scientists admit their failures just as when the media corrects a story. But the admission of error is not the reason for public trust. Scientists are reliable because they have a system in place that gives confidence they will not make a similar mistake in the future. 

Plus, if a mistake happens, the scientific method allows the experts to retrace their steps and see where the error occurred. It is unclear what system is in place, aside from the public putting pressure on news organizations, that exists in the media to hold journalists accountable for fake news and to prevent future mistakes.

Frum continued saying that Trump and his supporters simply tell too many lies for the media to keep up with. 

"Meanwhile from the president and his supporters, you hear a system of lies. So they’re not well placed to complain because the mistakes occur in the process of exposing the lies, that the liars then complain about the mistakes that are investigating them.”

At this point, Brian Stelter clearly confused asked Frum for some clarification.

"You’re saying that journalists are held to high standard appropriately, but that the president and his allies are having a low standard," Stelter posited.

Frum then attempted to explain himself.

"No, I’m saying something a little different. Look journalism is a process. The way you discover the truth as a consumer of news is not by reading any one story and thinking 'aha here’s the truth.' You have to be engaged and be an active consumer. Because this is unlike law enforcement, which investigates and produces conclusions at the end, journalists show their work as they go. They approximate the truth. They reach it. And in this case they reach it not just because the truth is inherently difficult, but because they are confronting bad faith actors engaged actively in concealment designed to deprive from the public of important knowledge." 

In Frum's attempt to defend his fellow media members, he largely discredits their work by saying the media reports as they go along. It would be far better if the media acted as law enforcement did; gathering all the facts, interviewing witnesses, and looking at evidence before presenting their conclusion under strict scrutiny. 

Frum's bizarre explanation as to why the American public should still trust the mainstream media is half-baked at best. According to Frum, the impetus for determining the truth falls largely on the reader. As a consumer of news they should read multiple sources rather than depend on one source for their information. 

This is true, all purveyors of the news should hear all sides regarding an issue to ensure that they have a full version of the story. They should then make up their own opinion based on the facts. But, the audience also has a very reasonable expectation that news organizations use a strict method with standards before they publish their findings.  

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