Journalism Or Press Release? Same Thing.

If journalists are so great, why would a science writer ignore the facts of the science he's reporting on and unquestioningly adopt the false framing of a press release?

This is a fascinating article from the Science pages of the New York Times about the 3 billion year history of interplay between Earth's carbon and oxygen.

A quick summary of the science...

Humans, and the rest of the animal kingdom, rely on air for a steady supply of oxygen (O2), but for a seriously long time (a billion years) all of the oxygen in our atmosphere was impossible to access because it was bound up into molecules with carbon, another element, in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Events took a dramatic turn with the arrival of life, because photosynthesis, among other things, uses carbon dioxide and releases oxygen in the form O2. Then the plot turned again, as a wave of decomposition bonded most of the oxygen back together with carbon. Much later, after more twist and turns over the course of 3 billion years or so, we end up (spoiler alert!), with the hospitable oxygen-rich atmosphere that we know today.

Is there a good metaphor for this history? 

If this history were a song, it would be a duet featuring long harmonies sung by both carbon and oxygen, as well as bold solos where one or the other takes the spotlight.

Interesting, I guess, but you have a beef with the article?

Understanding the facts above, one can't help but stare, slack-jawed, when the reporter describes the scientists' findings about how the Earth's earliest atmosphere was filled with carbon dioxide (CO2) :

When they look at the oldest rocks on earth, they find no trace of oxygen in the atmosphere. 

But that's just false, as becomes obvious in the very next sentence which ends: 

the primordial air was made up mostly of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen.

The entire story frames the scientific facts involved not as a duet between two elements, but as a heroic ballad sung by just one: oxygen. Just a little problem of emphasis? No, framing it in this way is as false as the claim that Islands In The Stream is a song by Kenny Rogers! Leaving out a Dolly Parton is never a small mistake. it's a lie.

This bizarre choice by the reporter--choosing to say that CO2 contains "no trace" of O2--is critical to understanding the role of the press release and the reality that "bias" has nothing to do with the vast majority of lies told by the news media. It would be utterly ridiculous to claim that focusing on oxygen somehow reflects the "liberal media bias" of the New York Times. What's going on?

Where do the lies come from?

In reality, most bad journalism is down to the same factor that plagues every line of work ever undertaken my man: laziness.

This particular instance of press laziness can be expressed generally:

Checking facts is easy, checking the framing is hard.

The framing for this story originated in a press release. What press release? A bit like scientist looking at ancient rocks for signs of oxygen, we find the tell tale evidence for the existence of the unmentioned press release in paragraph 13, which begins:

In his forthcoming book, "Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History," Dr. Canfield suggests...

The timing of this NYT article is no more of an accident than an appearance on Letterman by Nichols Cage the week of the premier of  National Treasure III. And just like Nick Cage, that press release contained a communications strategy designed to sell the product. Knowing that the book title is just "Oxygen", it becomes obvious that that strategy is all about recasting the interplay between two molecules as the heroic journey of just one.

Would you buy a natural history book called, Islands In The Stream?  

But this raises as many questions as it answers. Why one word? why Oxygen? Why couldn't the book be called Islands In The Stream: Carbon and Oxygen and the Duet of Life? Because the 1997 book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, was such a huge success that it spawned a new genre that now includes Salt, Krakatoa, Banana, Potato, and Mauve (and my [unwritten] forthcoming book: Wrong: The GOP Death Spiral And The Future Two Party System)

A book called "Mauve" is a bit far from news media errors, what were you saying about that?

Working the press, whether for political or commercial motives, is about getting the story out in the frame that suits you. A frame that sells books will also sell newspapers, so the journalist has a financial motive to go along for the ride. This would be fine if reporters acknowledged that their job was a humble craft and avoided the pitfalls of hubris.

Instead, we are told that journalists are agents of the First Amendment, fighting for the Constitution, essential for democracy, sacrificing wealth and fame in order to provide an essential check on the rich and powerful. The inevitable result is Janet Miller, !00,000 dead Iraqis, 5,000 dead Americans, and countless thousands of young men who will need medical treatment, physical and mental, for the next 70 years.

Get over yourself, reporters! You're members of an exclusive club that includes Tucker Carlson! Puh-leeze!