Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jonathan Kay and journalistic standards

On Feb. 18, 2008, National Post columnist Jonathan Kay wrote an on-line piece with the title "Richard Warman and Canada's phony-racism industry", a column that was quickly withdrawn with an apology, and is now the subject of a lawsuit. I will not quote that essay or link to it, since Kay has retracted it and it is now before the courts. Many copies have circulated around the internet, however, and if you really want to read it, a google of the title will take you there.

Kay began his column by laying out Klatt's technical case against Warman: that both he and the Cools poster had the same IP, that their operating system and browser "were an exact match", and that Klatt's "expert" opinion was that they were identical.

Those who have followed my posts about this matter will know the technical weaknesses of that case: the IP was a web-caching proxy shared by hundreds of thousandsthe Cools-poster's computer was actually set-up differently than Warman's; and the "expert" testimony of Bernard Klatt is deeply flawed.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit moves forward, and now Jonathan Kay and the National Post have filed their statement of defense. It is, as you will see if you follow the preceding link, hardly a riveting read. There are, however, a few interesting things there. Consider, for example, Kay's description of his research into the Cools allegations (paragraph 29):
      Jonathan Kay, Richard Warman
Now, the first thing to note is that, as a research effort, this is not very impressive. Kay reviewed section 13.1 of the act (but he surely knew that before); he reviewed decisions involving the Lemire case, presumably some of those listed here (they are not, however, very informative); he attended a single CHRC hearing (which one, one wonders); he reviewed Klatt's affidavit and some previously published articles.

There are some odd choices here. Attending a hearing is praiseworthy, but less efficient than reading the transcripts, which are available on the internet. By contrast, Kay did use the Klatt affidavit, which was not (as far as I know) available on the internet until I posted a copy here,-- but I posted that months after Kay's controversial column. He does not mention making any interviews.

This raises a more important point. Kay's journalistic practices, at least as described here, seem decidedly sub-standard. He reported serious allegations against Warman as established fact when they were not so, and he did this on the basis of an affidavit that he did not understand (if he had understood it, he would have recognized its errors). He did not (apparently) bother reading Klatt's testimony and his subsequent cross-examination, where some serious gaps in his knowledge were exposed. Nor did he (apparently) consult Warman's counter-affidavit, read Warman's testimony on this question, or contact Warman to get his side of the story.

Now, I confess that I know little about journalism as a profession, and perhaps those with more experience than me can comment. But from my limited perspective, there is grounds for concern here. First, Kay got it wrong (that is, the technical evidence does not show that Richard Warman was responsible for the Cools post: quite the opposite). Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, Kay's column and the efforts that he describes in his statement defense, reveal no great concern for factual accuracy, fairness, or balance. This seems to me to be fundamental failure of journalistic standards.

Update.  Mark Bourrie at Ottawawatch has some interesting observations on the lawsuit.


pogge said...

If you review Kay's biography as published at the National Post you won't see any indication that Kay has ever worked as a field reporter. He's been a computer programmer and a tax lawyer. Now he's a critic, editor and, wait for it, pundit.

Pundits these days don't do their apprenticeship in the field and develop and hone the instincts that a good reporter has. So when they stray into what we would think of as reporting, it often doesn't go well.

See Steyn, Mark. He was a theatre critic who was encouraged by Conrad Black to become a political pundit. At some point someone decided he should be a foreign policy critic. Has he gotten anything right since then?

Dr.Dawg said...

I note that Levant is trumpeting about the statement of defence, pretending not to realize that this is boilerplate stuff that any defence in a civil action will reproduce word-for-word. (I am indebted to a friend in the legal profession for this information.)