Saturday, January 15, 2005

--Don't stop the presses!--

In an article --Don't stop the presses!-- about the use by CBS News of fake documents in the Bush/National Guard matter (for example, Trenton Times, A10, Jan. 15, 05), Andy Rooney asks "How many businesses have paid to have themselves investigated?"

Well, Lucent Technologies paid to have itself investigated by the Beasley Committee after the use by Jan-Hendrik Schon of fake documents. Also, the University of California paid a group at Michigan State University to review the deal between Berkeley and a certain drug company.

Rooney also states: "Journalists make fewer mistakes than people in most businesses because they're being watched more closely and they know it. A journalist's mistakes are out in the open."

The problem with this argument concerns the behavior of CBS in the twelve days AFTER the "60 Minutes Wednesday" episode aired. This was a concern of Thornburgh and Boccardi, but not of Rooney. Rather and CBS defended the piece against various criticisms, but did not perform any further checks on the documents or the sources in that period. If one's mistakes are "out in the open," isn't it a bit reckless to stand by a story without making sure that criticisms are without merit?

Recall the assertion in the Harvard Law Review that the PTO grants 97% of all patent applications. That mistake is out in the open and has been uncorrected for about two years. If the journal does not take responsibility for its error, the odds are the mistake is never going to be corrected. Lots of people will think that the PTO does grant 97% of all applications. Similarly, three different law reviews (at Berkeley, Chicago, and Stanford) have published the same footnote suggesting that the inventors of the transistor thought it only good for hearing aids. Many law review readers will develop the belief that the inventors of a ground-breaking innovation didn't appreciate the scope of their work.

Rooney also notes that "most important news isn't interesting," an observation that does apply to the various models (Quillen/Webster; Clarke) for estimating a patent grant rate. The better sound byte is to assert an unsubtantiated "fact" and imply that the people at the PTO are incompetent in allowing nearly every application that comes in the door. Or that the Nobel Prize winning transistor inventors were myopic boobs who missed the whole forest. Maybe we should stop the presses, or at least require those asserting "facts" to prove them. Just because something is "out in the open" does not mean it is correct.


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