Progressive Journalism Needs Noodges

On an increasingly despised subspecies

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During my first year at New York Magazine, when I was editing the behavioral-science vertical Science of Us, the Ferguson protests happened. It can be surprisingly difficult to find original, interesting behavioral-science angles on current events, but in this case there was a pretty obvious option: I wrote an article headlined “Eyewitness Accounts in Ferguson — and Everywhere Else — Are Very Flawed.”

I just reread the article and it is, as I remembered, a straightforward explanation of how the Ferguson controversy was complicated by the fact that there had been conflicting eyewitness accounts about exactly what happened in the moments immediately prior to Darren Wilson shooting and killing Michael Brown. Many people don’t realize this, but eyewitness accounts are quite unreliable and strangely malleable — what you think you see can be influenced by what you expect to see, or what other people tell you before or after the event, and so on. This is all very solid science.

Soon I heard from a staffer at another left-of-center publication. She was upset I had written the article, because she was worried that people would use it to undermine the cause of the protesters. I found this genuinely confusing. For one thing, it definitely wasn’t my job to interpret the events at Ferguson through a “pro-Brown” lens (for lack of a better term) — it was my job to explain the news to readers in a way that would make them more informed about behavioral science and the world around them. For another, the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the weight that has traditionally been lent to it, has, on balance, undoubtedly hurt poorer and darker-skinned people more than richer and whiter ones. So if your primary concern is making the justice system fairer to people who don’t have much power, isn’t it important for people to know they can’t really rely on eyewitness testimony as much as they think they can?

I forget how I responded and I know we didn’t have any extensive back and forth. At the time I didn’t have to give it much thought. I found it weird and revealing that this other journalist was upset at me, and I was annoyed that a lefty provocateur type was also mad on Twitter, for similar reasons, but overall it didn’t matter. I was doing my job, and I thought the article as fine, and I could continue going about my day — there was just nothing to worry about.

***

I spent Thursday and Friday at the Heterodox Academy annual conference. It was good — on Friday I moderated a panel titled “Is Open Inquiry Truly at Risk on Campus?: New Data, New Insights.” The panelists were excellent, and all had nuanced views about what’s going on on campuses. While everyone on the panel was committed to open inquiry and had some criticism or another about the present state of things, no one adopted a straightforward, snowflakes-won’t-let-traditionalists-speak-anymore stance on the subject — which I think is good, because that viewpoint is oversimplified. (Some in the audience disagreed.)

But something is going on on a lot of campuses. Just because there isn’t an overwhelming wave of, like, anti-free-speech Marxification among students — and there isn’t — doesn’t mean that certain norms aren’t shifting in unfavorable directions. And not just for students, but for researchers, too. When it comes to one area where I have a significant amount of reporting experience (gender dysphoria), and another where I have some (sex differences), I can’t discount the idea that something bad is in the air — I’ve heard too many first- and second-hand accounts from researchers about how it’s getting harder and harder for them to do their jobs. The easiest way to explain what that something is is that the space of acceptable ideas to express and explore is shrinking, a bit, with the level of shrinkage in a given domain correlating roughly with its level of relevance to contemporary social-justice battles. (And let me just burn this strawman before it can even be fully erected: No, I am not referring to arguments like “Black people are genetically inferior” or “Poor people should be euthanized.” The easiest way to weasel out of any conversation about free speech or open inquiry is to pretend everyone who has concerns is wearing white hoods, but that’s just not true.)

Now, this is all complicated, and a lot of it isn’t new — in The Blank Slate, from 2002, Steven Pinker (who gave the closing address at Heterodox) unspooled some rather vicious academic brawling which dated back decades, and which bears many similarities to what’s going on now. But even if this sort of thing comes in cycles, it should still be addressed head-on, because each cycle does considerable damage to human knowledge, and oftentimes, unjustly, to individual careers and reputations.

Throughout the conference, I kept getting hit over the head with the parallels between what’s going on in academia and what’s going on in journalism. I hear from both professors and editors who haven’t said a word, publicly, about what they’re seeing around them, but who are frustrated by it and wish they could speak up. I hear from both researchers and writers who don’t really think their universities or publications have their backs when it comes to certain issues. This is all difficult to talk about, easily coopted by reactionaries (here’s a photograph of anti-gay protestors in Kyiv marching against “cultural Marxism,” a term used by some of the less thoughtful and intellectually honest critics of progressive academia in the States), and hard to quantify — in part because those who are frustrated but who aren’t already in the fray have almost nothing to gain by announcing themselves — but it’s happening. I was skeptical four or five years ago, but I’m not anymore.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the noodge lately. It’s a Yiddish word, defined here as “to annoy with persistent complaints, criticisms, or pleas; nag.” It’s also a noun. My brother was often called a noodge growing up, and I think I’ve adopted some noodgy habits of my own over the years. At this point it’s part of my professional identity: I’m not a noodge for the sake of being a noodge, but rather because I think the world is exceptionally complicated and doesn’t give up its secrets easily and you can’t really hope to understand or explain it without a bit of, well, complaining and criticizing and pleaing and nagging.

Journalism and academia need noodges. We are annoying as hell, I know that, but if you don’t have the wheezing nerd in the back of the room who, during one of those pre-calamity moments when everyone is completely on the same page, bathing in their own certainty, will shoot up their hand and say, “Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhh, I have a few questions about that,” your whole enterprise will collapse in the long run. It really will. Without noodges, the ideas of whoever is most confident, ideologically photogenic, or morally certain will tend to win the day, and we know that these are not good proxies for accuracy and intellectual integrity.

Now, I’m in a pretty lucky position, and that’s why I can speak about this openly. My brushes with controversy came in my thirties rather than my twenties, when, simply by dint of luck, I already had built up enough social and professional capital to weather them. I’m not trying to garner sympathy for myself. Rather, my point is that while I can speak candidly — well, somewhat — many other journalists can’t, but they share my concerns. This is an increasingly common feeling, based on the many off-the-record conversations I have had. I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t be able to pitch my Ferguson story today — it’s not that controversial. But on that subject and a bunch of others, I’m less and less certain. I’ve more or less stopped pitching stories on some subjects, because it’s clear major progressive outlets either don’t want to step into the fray at all or have decided, perhaps for the sake of broadcasting that they are on the ‘right’ ‘team,’ to outsource their journalism to activists committed to rather myopic narratives (again, if on Monday you complain about someone expressing skepticism over eyewitness testimony, don’t be surprised when on Tuesday a different sort of story breaks and you are forced to pretzel yourself back into the position that actually, eyewitness testimony is unreliable). Sometimes they do that by having actual activists write opinion pieces — nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as there’s also real journalism going on to balance things out — and sometimes by hiring journalists who are effectively stenographers for those activists.

It’s hard to garner much sympathy for the journalistic noodge these days, partly because we can be professionally annoying, partly because Donald Trump is president (who has time for intraleft nuance and skepticism?), and partly because the entire economic edifice of our industry is disintegrating. But it will be a shame if we’re mostly extinct a few years from now, or relegated to centrist or conservative outlets despite not having centrist or conservative politics. I don’t want progressive journalism to be owned and operated by the sort of person who thinks that it is only appropriate to point out that eyewitness testimony is fallible — a thing that is true, and a thing that is important — when the political and activist winds are blowing the right way. That’s not journalism.


Questions? Comments? Noodging? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal.