LiteratEye #49: Biff! Bam! Super-Journalist Takes On the Academics

Filed under: Media Literacy

Here’s the forty-ninth installment of LiteratEye, a series found only on The Art of the Prank Blog, by W.J. Elvin III, editor and publisher of FIONA: Mysteries & Curiosities of Literary Fraud & Folly and the LitFraud blog.

LiteratEye #49: Biff! Bam! Super-Journalist Takes On the Academics
By W.J. Elvin III
January 29, 2010

“I have never done any research that shows blondes are more aggressive, entitled, angry or ‘warlike’ than brunette or redheads.” Aaron Sell, Center for Evolutionary Psychology, in a letter to the Times of London.

You probably noticed the anti-British journalist rant posted on this site yesterday, provoked by the article referred to above. If not, it’s still available for your reading enjoyment.

The controversy has been getting a lot of play on sites catering to scholars such as Arts & Letters Daily as well as some more popular arenas like Defamer.

Thus far, though, no one seems to be standing up for British journalists. Until now, that is. Here in the LiteratEye bunker we’re taking a contrarian position on the matter. We declare British journalists to be the best and brightest in the business.

As I recall, old school British journalists could typically run circles around their American counterparts as news-getters and as entertaining writers. The few I’ve known as editors could no doubt have donned general’s uniforms and tidied up Afghanistan and Iraq in short order.

Their secret – and I’m speaking here of those I knew in the good old days — is that they understood and served reader interest. I’m sure they could have produced brilliant thumb-sucker think pieces or razor-sharp analysis of yet another boring issue. Or they could have written suck-up puff stories touting their intimate buddy-buddy relationships with the high and mighty. But, no, they wrote for the fellow who, over his morning coffee, would peek from behind the paper to say: “Jumpin’ cheeses, Alice, listen to this!”

There was one other secret, being that while they were experts at their craft, they were not prima donna specialists. If there was a plane crash, they covered the plane crash rather than protest that they only reported in their particular field, say, celebrity gossip, or pork belly futures, or high tech gizmos.

I ran the controversy past my friend Neil Marr, whose accordion-fold resume includes first rank British journalism though he is now an international publisher. Neil’s BeWrite Books is basically an editorial shop helping a few select authors get their work to market.

Neil’s craftsmanship and credentials qualify him for the Ink-Stained Wretches Hall of Fame. I mean, this guy should wear a cape and a mask, with a big “J” on the chest of his body-stocking. He’s Super-Journalist. And from his hideaway on the Riviera I can hear him muttering, in good Scots brogue, “Shut up, Elvin, and get on with the story.”

Yes. Well, Neil’s reply left little doubt as to where he stands regarding the lambasting of British journalists: “This grumpy piece of back-tracking, I think, sounds like just another bunch of sour grapes from a naive ‘expert’ “¦”

More in a minute. First, to put things in perspective, here’s evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa going on the attack near the end of the article posted here yesterday: “I hope American and British readers (and readers throughout the world) will finally wake up to the reality of British journalism: You just cannot believe what you read in British newspapers. I’d further call on my academic colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic never to speak to British reporters.”

He also took a serious poke at the National Enquirer, alleging, “It’s their job to make things up.”

What started the fuss was an article in the Times of London, stating in part: “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a ‘warlike’ streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way – the so-called ‘princess effect’.” And further: “Even those who dye their hair blonde quickly take on these attributes, experts found.”

The quoted expert, Aaron Sell, fired off a letter to the editor of the Times: “This article consists almost entirely of empirical claims and quotes about blonde women that Mr. Harlow fabricated, and then attributed to me. Please take the article offline immediately. Once your investigation is completed, please issue a retraction.”

Sounds awful, right? Those nasty Brits. So, for some professional insight let’s return to comments from Neil Marr: “Unfortunately the complaint smacks of anti-press cliché. Folks with a genuine gripe don’t whinge, they sue.

“Sure there are Brit journalists who’ll stretch a point for a good yarn. But Brit libel laws are the most restrictive in the west. That’s why London has become known as the Libel Capital of the world. People from countries whose laws aren’t as tight (notably the US) travel to Britain to take action: ‘Litigation Vacation’ it’s called now that it’s become so popular.

“And remember that papers like The Times, News of the World and Sun are all part of Rupert Murdoch’s vast international media empire; wealthy and, therefore, eminently sue-worthy. Murdoch hires reporters and editors at a much higher pay rate than any other newspaper publisher because, among other vital talents, these are guys who know exactly how far they can go with a yarn without hitting the sue-zone. They’re among the best in the business.

“And the National Enquirer has become a real scapegoat. Certainly when I was on the paper’s staff and later freelancing for them in Europe and the US in the seventies and eighties, I had never known such sticklers for accuracy and solid backup. Their ‘research’ department (we called it the Ministry of Truth because they went to such lengths to destroy reporters’ claims) was dynamite and had a bigger staff than editorial. Everything quoted had to match taped interviews and the research department would often phone an interviewee, supposedly to check a point, record him and then compare the voice print with the reporter’s recording to be sure the tape was kosher. Maybe things have changed – though I doubt it from the number of papers around the world who happily quote National Enquirer stories.

“This grumpy piece of back-tracking, I think, sounds like just another bunch of sour grapes from a naive ‘expert’ who got cold feet when he saw what he’d said appear in cold black and white in its most entertaining context.”

So there you have the mighty Neil weighing in. My own experience, including the grueling fact-check when freelancing for the National Enquirer, echoes his take. Stay tuned, there’s usually another round or two in dustups of this sort.


(Copyright 2009 WJE, exclusive to The Art of the Prank, for reprint rights contact

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