Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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"First thing we do..." Editorial edition

Posted: Sep 27, 2013 12:09;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 14:01

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Seymour Hersh in Salon today about the problem with “report the debate” journalism:

“Our job [as journalists] is to find out ourselves, our job is not just to say – here’s a debate’ our job is to go beyond the debate and find out who’s right and who’s wrong about issues,” Hersh said. “That doesn’t happen enough. It costs money, it costs time, it jeopardizes, it raises risks….”

And his solution:

“I’ll tell you the solution, get rid of 90% of the editors that now exist and start promoting editors that you can’t control,” he says. I saw it in the New York Times, I see people who get promoted are the ones on the desk who are more amenable to the publisher and what the senior editors want and the trouble makers don’t get promoted. Start promoting better people who look you in the eye and say ‘I don’t care what you say’.

Mutatis mutandis, I suspect much the same problem and much the same solution is true of Universities as well.

The cause of this is obvious enough: we all believe that the people who believe the same things as us or who agree with us are really quite clever. And when it comes to hiring, we tend to want to hire the clever ones.

What I like about Hersh’s solution, however, is that it proposes an algorithmic solution to our human desire to reward sycophancy: hire somebody who makes you uncomfortable.

This might not be a good way of running an assembly line, hiring an administrative assistant or organising a dentist’s office. And it might not be a good idea to hire nobody but people who make you uncomfortable. But I suspect occasionally taking a flutter on somebody you can’t control is good for the organisational DNA in knowledge enterprises like Newspapers and Universities.

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