Thanks to yeoman work by John Nolte of Breitbart.com’s Big Hollywood (and to think I knew him when), “The Lena Dunham story has finally hit the mainstream media (not counting rogue blogs like ours),” Eugene Volokh writes today. Naturally, Time magazine circles the wagons, switching reflexively into postmodern Fake But Accurate mode and responding, “It’s unclear, however, how a reporter could hope to validate or invalidate something that happened behind closed doors a decade ago,” which would news to an MSM that once castigated Mitt Romney and George Bush for their actions decades ago as young men. (And then deliberately chose to airbrush John Kerry and Mr. Obama’s youthful indiscretions in 2004 and 2008, of course.) Fortunately, Volokh, now adding a smidgen of much-needed sanity to the Washington Post, punches back:
Second, the inaccuracy of some details that a person gives does cast doubt on the accuracy of other details. Of course, even honest people make mistakes. Of course, it’s eminently possible that all the other details Dunham gives are accurate, and the only thing that was fictionalized was the name. Of course, more generally, that a person who says she has been raped makes a slight mistake as to one detail doesn’t that she’s lying about other details that relate to the alleged rapist’s identity or actions.
Yet ultimately, when we — as journalists, as readers, as jurors — judge the credibility of sources, often the only way we can tell what happened “behind closed doors” is precisely by looking at how accurate and candid the witness has been as to other matters. An error or an unacknowledged falsification doesn’t categorically, automatically invalidate everything else a person is saying. But it does shed some light on the degree of trust we should place in that person.
To casually dismiss an investigation — an investigation that actually succeeded in getting a publisher to correct a statement — on the grounds that the investigation couldn’t directly verify another aspect of a story is, it seems to me, to miss this basic point about journalism, and about truth-seeking more broadly. I hope this attitude expressed by the Time writer is not characteristic of newspaper and magazine writers more broadly.
As the late Sen. Pat Moynihan once told an interviewer, “Hannah Arendt had it right. She said one of the great advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” Perhaps Time magzine, until very recently a namesake component of the giant Time-Warner-CNN-HBO conglomerate still suffers from corporate Stockholm syndrome and wants to circle the wagons to protect the HBO brand name. But it’s more likely that any chance that someone on the right could be correct about a story must be tamped down and rendered anathema.
And while modified limited hangouts can buy time, we’ve all seen this movie before — and it rarely ends well for the person at the eye of the hurricane.
Related: Time alumnist Michael Walsh on “Rolling Stone and Journalism 101.” Or as Michael writes, “When in doubt, don’t.” Sounds like journalistic advice that Rolling Stone, Dunham, Random House and Time should have all taken to heart in recent months.