The Fallibility of Journalistic Memory, a Play in Three Acts

If you’re looking for a little fun reading on this long holiday weekend, I would like to point you to a series of posts Ann Althouse has put up over the past couple of days. It’s not stats related, but touches on some of my other favorite topics: bias, certainty, and memory.

Act 1: Poetic Justices and Questionable Citations

Linda Greenhouse writes an Op-Ed for the New York Times, in which she complains about the “lack of poetry” in the recent Supreme Court Whole Women’s Health vs Hellerstedt decision.  Greenhouse compares it to the decision Planned Parenthood vs Casey, written 24 years earlier.

The next day, Ann Althouse blogs about the article, noting that Greenhouse attributed the line “Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt” from Planned Parenthood vs Casey  to Anthony Kennedy.  Althouse points out that the line was taken from a jointly written decision, and that to attribute it to only one justice (Kennedy) is not correct.

Act 2: Challenge Accepted

Ann Althouse posts a follow-up post after Linda Greenhouse emails her to dispute the quote mis-attribution charge. In her email, Greenhouse cites her source for attributing the line to Kennedy: the Jeffrey Toobin book “The Nine” and her own presence in the courtroom the day the justices read the Planned Parenthood vs Casey decision 24 years earlier. She recounts Kennedy leading off with the line in question, and the stir it created in the courtroom. She asserts that the act of reading the line verifies that he was the author. She ends the email with the line “Of course you are completely free to trash my opinions and my writing style.  I would caution you against challenging my facts.”

Althouse, choosing to ignore that last part,  located the original recording of the reading of the decision. She discovers that not only did Kennedy not lead off, but neither he nor anyone else reads the line that Greenhouse so clearly remembers hearing.

The book in question does attribute the line to him, but has no named source for that information.

Part 3: We’re All a Little Wrong Sometimes, Aren’t We Though?

Confronted with the recording that shows her memory was incorrect, Greenhouse emails Althouse again, conceding that “I guess it’s fair to say that each of us was right and each of us was wrong.”

Althouse posts that email, along with her complete rejection of Greenhouse’s conclusion here. She (Althouse) ends her post with “I didn’t say anything that was wrong. I have a way of blogging that keeps me out of trouble like that. I don’t make assertions about things I don’t know.”

Epilogue: One of my favorite books is Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris1. There’s a tremendous amount of research in to how and why we rewrite memories, and the book covers a lot of those reasons. The main takeaway here though is that we all need to guard against created memories and overconfidence in our facts….ESPECIALLY if you’re going to be writing for the New York Times and PARTICULARLY if you’re challenged.

The point of who exactly wrote that original line is a minor one to many people. Kennedy was certainly involved in with the decision, so naming him as a solo author isn’t that out there. If Greenhouse had merely cited the book that mentioned the line as his, I would never have thought twice about it. However, when she cited her own vivid recollection that turned out to be completely wrong I have to imagine nearly everyone reading the saga started questioning her more seriously.

To her credit, Greenhouse did fully admit her shock at discovering her memory was incorrect. Hopefully the lesson for all of us here is to be very cautious when we rely on an emotionally charged memory, and  EXTRA cautious when we tell someone not to challenge our facts.

1. Conservative readers be warned: in the very first chapter of the book Tavris lets some pretty liberal biased statements through as fact. She cuts this out (I think) after the first chapter, but it’s really bugged at least one person I’ve recommended the book to. I think it’s worthwhile despite that, but YMMV.