Most people don't know who Niall Ferguson is. Of those who might know the name, few would care. Now, Ferguson happens to be a historian. He teaches at Harvard. He wrote a two-volume history of the Rothchilds that is regarded very highly by those who read it.
In recent years, he has become something of a public intellectual. From his seat in Cambridge (Massachusetts, not University; he was actually at Oxford before moving stateside) he has descended on occasion to opine about our politics and policy matters. With a name like "Niall", one would expect that marvelous brogue, but of course he has the rotund accents of Oxford at his command, making him sound authoritative, in particular to Americans who seem to believe there is something about the way upper-class Britains speak that gives their words gravitas. Combining his personal and intellectual pedigree, Tina Brown, who seems intent on doing to Newsweek what she did to The New Yorker, offered Ferguson pride of place a couple weeks back: the cover story.
It took almost no time at all for all sorts of people to point out the many ways Ferguson's article was - how do I put this delicately? - eighteen pounds of crap in a four pound bag. Just a few of the folks who took aim at Ferguson's really bad, terrible piece were Paul Krugman, who took just one bit from Ferguson demonstrating the dishonesty with which he used a particular piece of information; Matthew O'Brien and James Fallows at The Atlantic, the former doing a full fact-check and finding an abundance of goodies, while Fallows makes clear that Ferguson's bit of partisan hackery (Ferguson was a McCain advisor in 2008) wouldn't make it through an undergraduate survey class at the University at which Ferguson teaches; and even Justin Fox at . . . The Harvard Business Review (that had to hurt).
Ferguson hit back, attacking his critics as "liberal bloggers" who have an agenda that disregards the main thrust of his piece. He called the fact-checking and such "nit-picking", as if somehow it was irrelevant whether or not part of his argument about tossing Obama out on his can in January had any relationship with reality.
Now, if you've been perusing these pages for a while you should know I hate the word "blog" and "blogger". The word has connotations of laziness. It has connotations of sloppiness. It has connotations of a preference of heat over light, for style over substance, and of partisanship over impartiality. I would readily accept that last declaration; why else would folks spend their time writing stuff even their own families won't read if they didn't think it important to make a case about something in which we believe? Sheesh. That isn't a bad thing.
I sympathize with Ferguson in some way. There are, quite literally, millions of blogs and bloggers out there. Most of them are little more than the reflections of some teenager somewhere on the deep meaning of some Anne Rice novel, or love letters to The One Who Doesn't Know I Exist. Then, there are the political bloggers, who span the gamut both of ideology and reliability. The two do not go together. There are conservatives who both write well and with an attention to factual accuracy. There are liberal bloggers who aren't sure what a sentence is, and consider facts malleable things, a worry to be set aside for small minds.
Personally, I have always worked hard to make sure my facts were accurate. When they don't fit what I think is or (worse) should be the case, well, I acknowledge that and move on, adjusting the way I see things. Were I to write a piece about Mitt Romney that was as shoddy, non-factual, and ignored important details in the way Ferguson did for no less a platform than Newsweek I'd be embarrassed ever to write anything again. The last thing I'd do is go after critics who point out the many ways I go my facts wrong.
Which is why I find comments by Frank Popper on a piece at a site called Urban Ethics and Theory the single best response to Ferguson's attack on "liberal bloggers", and he says in part:
Newsweek didn’t help by putting the piece on the cover with a nah-Obama caption. Fallows makes the useful point that Harvard/Ivy people have written for nonacademic audiences honestly and effectively. . . . I suspect most of these people did not blow off fact-checking the way Newsweek and Ferguson did.It's really that simple. The original article is not factually accurate, and almost comically so. As a blogger of any ideology, I wouldn't allow myself to hit that "Publish" button on something so poorly written without, at the very least, making sure I read through the sources I was quoting and presenting what they say honestly and completely. To raise the specter of "liberal bloggers" without acknowledging said bloggers have a whole bunch of points not on the tops of their heads is a sure way to stir up sympathy among one's ideological soulmates. It does little, however, to legitimate one's attempts to be a public intellectual.