NY Times At It Again: Has To Run Massive Correction For All The Errors In Aaron Sorkin's Facts Optional Rant About Why Facebook Should Fact Check

The NY Times’ Opinion Section continues its run of truly awful decisions lately. As we learned during the Bret Stephens “bedbug” fiasco, the NY Times deliberately chooses not to fact check its opinion and op-ed writers, allegedly based on some weird belief that since these are opinions, they don’t need any fact checking (or, alternatively, that some sort of fact checking might stifle the creative voices the NYT Opinion pages thinks are worth publishing).

Given that, it takes a certain amount of failed irony detection to then run an angry rant of an “open letter to Mark Zuckerberg” from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin complaining about Facebook’s recent decision not to fact check political ads. Sorkin is an amazing writer, but it seems particularly odd to have him write such a piece, since he has a history of writing movies about real life people in which he completely misrepresents reality. Indeed, he did exactly that about Mark Zuckerberg. So it seems a bit rich to have him be the delivery person for a message about truth in media. And that’s doubly so because many, many people believe that Sorkin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg in The Social Network is accurate, when it is very, very much not.

But an even larger point: when you’re writing an open letter to demand more fact checking, wouldn’t you make sure to carefully fact check your own piece first? Apparently neither Sorkin, nor the NY Times Opinion pages thought that was worthwhile. And, as more and more people called out blatant factual errors in the piece, the NY Times had to gradually rewrite and issue a longer and longer correction on their piece.

Correction: Oct 31, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which “The Social Network was released. It was 2010, not 2011. The nature of the major lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker was misstated. It was an invasion of privacy lawsuit, not a defamation suit. In addition, information about Americans’ use of Facebook as a new source was misstated. In 2018, over 40 percent of Americans said they got news from Facebook; it is not the case that half of all Americans say that Facebook is their main source of news.

I’ll note that the significance and importance of each of these corrections is in inverse order of how they are presented (and, indeed, the larger, more important corrections came later as well). It’s not that big a deal that Sorkin forgot the year of his own damn movie, but it does seem at least a bit ironic in a piece advocating for the need for more fact checking that such an easily confirmed fact is misstated. The nature of Hogan’s suit against Gawker might not matter that much to Sorkin, but it’s actually a pretty big deal in terms of what happened and why it happened.

But the last one is a real doozy. A huge part of Sorkin’s argument was that Facebook has to be held to a different standard because so many people use it as their “primary” source of news. Except that’s not what the data shows at all. It shows a smaller percentage said they had found some news on Facebook. Not that it was a primary source. Separately, finding news on Facebook is completely meaningless regarding the question of fact checking political ads. Most of the news that people find via Facebook is legit. Some of it is not. But how much is that bit that is not accurate actually influencing people? That’s an important question — and one that isn’t clearly answered yet. It would be interesting to find out, but Sorkin just seems to leap beyond all of that, misstate how many people get how much of their news from Facebook and assume the worst.

In some ways, that’s just Sorkin being Sorkin. But it boggles the mind that anyone — either Sorkin himself or the NY Times — would think that they should rush forward with a snappily written attack on Facebook’s failure to fact check… and not do even the most basic fact checking on the story itself. Even if Sorkin had a point in the “open letter,” it is completely drowned by the irony of the errors.

But there is a larger point here: there are reasons why the NY Times chooses not to fact check its opinion pieces. You or I may disagree with them — and we can speak out about why we think it makes the paper of record look like a cheap nonsense tabloid. But it has that choice. Facebook also has that choice — and we can criticize them too. But the idea that fact checking magically fixes all things is completely overblown. And the idea that politicians will suddenly stop lying in ads, or that this will magically make voters smarter is all completely unsupported.

Sorkin’s piece insists that “tens of millions of kids” are being misled by fake ads on Facebook — but there’s no evidence to support that. Indeed, most evidence regarding those susceptible to scam info on Facebook are the boomer generation. You know, like Aaron Sorkin. And, for what it’s worth, actual data suggests that misleading stories didn’t really take off from Facebook, but rather from television, which just happens to be the medium in which Aaron Sorkin is most famous. Funny that Sorkin doesn’t mention any of that, isn’t it?
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