Lazy Editorializing at The New York Times

Editor's note: In its most recent anti-NASA editorial on the White House space policy, the anonymous author takes a cheap shot at NASA Administrator Mike Griffin by taking his comments out of context. Moreover, they do so in an attempt to make you think that Griffin's ulterior motives are far different than a full reading of his prepared remarks put forth:

"Michael Griffin, the NASA administrator, insisted he did not intend to sound jingoistic when he addressed a conference in Spain this month but he sure came across that way. He wondered aloud what language future settlers of the Moon and Mars would speak. "Will my language be passed down over the generations to future lunar colonies?" he asked. "Or will another, bolder or more persistent culture surpass our efforts and put their own stamp on the predominant lunar society of the far future?" "We fear the old notion that space might provide the perfect arena for international cooperation may be yielding to a new era of competition one not seen since the cold war race to the moon."

What the New York Times fails to do is accurately place that partial quote in the broader context in which Griffin spoke. This is irresponsible journalism. It is also sloppy and deceiving. The Times' editorial staff has a long-standing beef with NASA and the White House over space policy and they will even stoop to selective parsing in order to get in a jab.

Reading the prepared remarks Griffin spoke from, the excerpts the Times sought to distort can be seen in the true context Griffin intended them to be heard. Griffin was contemplating what sort of human culture might arise on other worlds. He also spoke openly of international collaboration as well as competition. But the Times wants you to think that Griffin et al have more base and sinister ulterior motives.

Here is what Griffin actually said - in context:

"I have often said, but it bears repeating before this audience: I have no doubt that humans will continue to explore space, going to the Moon and Mars and far beyond. Thus, the question of "whether" this will happen is not an interesting one to me; I know that it will. The interesting questions center around topics like "when", and "who", and "what", and "why". When will humans next return to the Moon, or venture to Mars, or first explore the near-Earth asteroids? Who will first do each of these things, and many even bolder things beyond them? What languages will they speak, and what values will they hold? Why will they go; what gains will they expect to return to their parent societies?

Such questions can be considered jingoistic if taken out of context, but that is not my intent at all. My intent in raising them is to ask how each of our cultures regards its role in exploring the space frontier. The American culture retains even now a certain frontier mindset, based on our history. We in America are the descendants of pioneers from Spain, Portugal, Holland, Great Britain, France, Germany, and many, many other countries who emigrated over many generations to settle in what became the United States. But the British were the boldest and most persistent of these early groups, and so the primary language of the United States came to be English. Canadians speak both English and French, while elsewhere in the Americas both Spanish and Portuguese are spoken. Now, these various languages not only convey the thoughts of their speakers in different ways, they also encourage and allow different thoughts.

Language is, in part, a window into and a map of the culture of its users. And so, looking into the future of space exploration, I sometimes wonder what languages the explorers and eventual settlers of the Moon and Mars will speak? Will my language be passed down over the generations to future lunar colonies? Or will another, bolder or more persistent culture surpass our efforts and put their own stamp on the predominant lunar society of the far future?"

These thoughts are hardly jingoistic as the Times' anonymous pit bull would have you think. Indeed, any good history book dealing with the way the western hemisphere and other portions of Earth were explored - by nations in Europe and Asia - touches on these themes. They appear again and again down through history. They will appear in future history as well. I have also thought about this topic. Anyone who ponders what sorts of cultures will be established on other worlds eventually thinks about such things. That is part of what makes the prospect of living on other worlds so enticing.

What the New York Times has done here is akin to what I call "drive by editorializing". You grab a sentence out of context that lets you make a point, you hope that no one will actually read the entire source where you got it, and as a result you leave your readers with a false impression of what was originally said.

For a newspaper that thinks of itself as some sort of standard-bearer of responsible journalism this editorial is a cheap shot. It is also a sloppy and intellectually lazy way to make a point. I can see why no one would put their name on it.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on October 22, 2006 8:07 PM.

Why Is NASA So Shy About Promoting The New White House Space Policy? was the previous entry in this blog.

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