Responding to Michael Hartwell: bad journalist, bad writer

I recently took Michael Hartwell’s blog Young, Hip and Conservative off my blogroll. The reason was very simple: I no longer trust his content. Now he has responded via Nate:

I wasn’t sure if I should respond to a critical post (1) Michael Hawkins wrote at Forthesakeofscience about me. I loathe having online discussions with him because of his tone, long-windedness and unwillingness to consider counter evidence. I didn’t want to leave a reply in his realm of control (I doubt he’d edit a reply in the comments, but I didn’t want to take a chance) and I avoid writing about personal issues on my blog. That’s what this is. Nate is a mutual friend of both of us and was kind enough to host a reply here. This post is mostly written for my friends, and I hope to hear from them.

I’m going to be doing a lot of interpreting through this whole thing – and he’s right, I am long-winded – so let’s get started.

What Hartwell means is that he’s upset that I don’t find most of his arguments convincing one way or the other. I imagine this is especially upsetting for him since he has set up a blog of faux objectivity and professionalism. Having people slap down terrible posts can be distressing enough, but when the goal is to advertise one’s self as a fair-minded journalist, it can dampen job prospects.

Hawkins made three major accusations: I make an unacceptable number of typos, I am a poor writer and I don’t research the subjects I blog about thoroughly.

Here is an excellent example of why I no longer trust his content: his poor reading leads to wildly erroneous conclusions. My accusation that he made an unacceptable number of typos was nothing more than a simple clause in part of a wider sentence:

You’re a bad-to-average writer, Michael [Hartwell]. Aside from never proofreading for typos (what are “rick people”?), you write in a journalistic style even though your blog is not a newspaper. In case you haven’t noticed, newspaper articles are written at a junior high reading level.

My point is clear: his writing is of a low quality, in part, because it is written in a way which is meant to appeal to the laziness of the masses. Of course, that point had absolutely nothing to do with why I erased him from my blogroll. Hell, I recently told Nate that his writing isn’t particularly good, much like his mother. That doesn’t mean he’s off the blogroll, though. Hartwell, as usual, has lost track of the discussion. This is a serious, repeating issue for him.

I have been mentioning Hartwell’s journalistic writing style lately, though. I’ve told him the reason, but I don’t think he gets it. Let me try to spell it out: By writing in short paragraphs that are 2 to 4 sentences each, he is able to hide from giving in-depth responses when challenged. It isn’t that people who write in his style are hiding. It’s that the style allows for such hiding – and he takes full advantage.

A lot of this spilled out on Facebook, where he proceeded to troll me by asking if I have a reading disability over and over. I do not, of course, and he asked it in a manner that would make it degrading to answer him directly.

This is simply more confirmation why Hartwell’s blog doesn’t deserve my reference. I did ask him if he had a reading disability, but he has blatantly attempted to portray the issue as if that’s all I did. What actually happened was he accused me of giving a grave insult to the President over the gay marriage issue. I then responded with a number of points. I will summarize them, but don’t just take my word. I put my Facebook posts on his blog:

  • He made an inept analogy to between the President and George Wallace – whereas Wallace actively sought to deny rights to people, the President took a meaningless position on something.
  • I think it is naive of Hartwell to assume that there is any politician out there who hasn’t been dishonest in an effort to get votes.
  • I criticized his laziness to fact-check.
  • I criticized his FOX Noise-like analysis that said the President would gain votes in important electoral states this November as a result of his position.
  • I criticized Hartwell for insulting the President just as harshly as he claimed I did.
  • I summarized that the President’s position changed as he considered running for higher office, thereby telling me that he changed so dramatically on such a big issue for the sake of appealing to the center.
  • I compared the President to the Christians out there who think homosexuality is wrong yet still vote for gay rights; the President’s former position did not result in any actual bigotry.
  • I then made a case for why President Obama’s positions have been good for gays anyway.

Here is the response Hartwell gave:

Cut your summary down to two chapters and I’ll read it, Obama basher

Right. I’m the troll.

Let’s continue:

As for his first point about typos, I absolutely agree with him…

That’s great, but it wasn’t my first point.

His second point about my writing style I flat out deny. Writing style can not be quantified, but I think this comes from different preferences. Of course, I find my stance to be superior and consider myself a good writer.

I take my writing philosophy from Orwell, Strunk and White (3) and believe in using sharp, simple sentences that are easy to comprehend. This gives my writing more power, in my opinion, and I reject cumbersome academic writing that makes the reader slow down to interpret obscure words. Curbing ones vocabulary takes a lot of effort, but that is my preference.

I emphasized one part of this to simply point out the bad-faith argumentation that is common of Hartwell. When did anyone ever endorse academic writing?

I am also a journalist (outside of my blog) and have to write in that style a lot, which makes it habitual. Hawkins repeats the cliche that journalism is written for a junior high reading level. This is nonsense.

The average American reads at about an 8th or 9th grade level, so says Google. This source says USA Today is written at a 5th grade level. A number of websites reference a source (Research for Practice by Elizabeth H. Winslow and Ann F. Jacobson, The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 98, No. 7 (Jul., 1998), pp. 55+57) which says the New York Times, New Yorker, and USA Today are each written at a 10th grade level. I presumed this was common knowledge, if not from simply hearing it from a variety of sources, then at least from actually reading newspapers.

What seems to be the crux of his post was an accusation that I use false facts. This is a big accusation which I completely deny. I use the scientific worldview as a mindset for writing about issues, including political issues. That is what makes my blog stand out.

Here is a post from Hartwell where he outright makes up a position for Stephen King.

Continuing on:

One column I wrote in college, however, was factually wrong and I still regret it. I was sympathetic to intelligent design and said it should be dismissed with studies, not written off. I had spent hours and hours reading about it, but I missed some key facts. I even wrote about it on my blog years later to show that people can learn, and we should be willing to say we were wrong.

This is what people who love science do, but for some reason, Hawkins used that to criticize me. What a bunch of hogwash. He wrote:

“He’s almost proud of the learning experience, in fact. It was certainly needed, but I’m not so sure touting one’s former ignorance is the way to go – at least not for a journalist.”

I am certainly proud of myself for letting evidence switch a position, even one I had stated publicly. I do not think we should blindly grip the positions we have, but constantly question and evaluate them, and if needed, change them. That’s the kind of reputation I want to have; not one of pretending to be born wise and unmoved by experience.

Again, this is continued confirmation of my distrust of Hartwell as a news source. He has overtly performed a quote-mine job here. He takes a small selection of what I said and then spins it as if I criticized him for changing his mind. Let’s just go to the tape. Here is what I actually said:

He’s almost proud of the learning experience, in fact. It was certainly needed, but I’m not so sure touting one’s former ignorance is the way to go – at least not for a journalist. He may not have been stupid in 2006 by virtue of his awful editorial, but he was a bad journalist for not doing his homework.

In other words, my criticism is most certainly not premised in Hartwell’s change of heart. I’m glad he figured things out. My issue is with him touting his lack of research as a point of pride. Yes, it’s nice that he corrected for an error, but correction does not excuse all mistakes. He failed to properly research a hot button topic before taking it on. He even had an entire biology department available to him. It all reminds me of a debate Christopher Hitchens had when he was in better shape (ya know…alive). Rabbi Boteach, after uttering a number of falsehoods out of ignorance, went on to declare that Stephen Jay Gould did not believe in evolution. It was embarrassing to watch.

Hawkins often comes off as an angry Internet forum poster who intends to derail discussions, even when he has a point to make. He also sees everything in black and white.

More interpretation: When Hartwell says I see things in black and white, what he means is that I don’t agree with him enough. And, really, I would be willing to find myself on his side of issues much more often, but I just think it would be a shame for us to both be wrong.

“Bigot” is a word he throws around casually. There is no distinction between a young person who violently attacks gays, or an old woman who votes against gay marriage out of ignorance simply because she was born in unenlightened times.(9) Everything must be one extreme or the other.

None of this is true. First, I’ve defined “bigot” a number of times here. I always use the word in accordance with that definition. Hartwell once even gave my definition a positive reference. Second, of course there is a distinction between the violent offender and the old woman: 1) The violent offender is, um, violent. He also discriminates against gays out of ignorance. 2) The old lady is presumably kindly and always has a hard candy to offer. Oh, and she discriminates against gays out of ignorance.

He also had a habit of writing sprawling replies in the comment section. I will admit that I spend more time on posts then I do writing a comment, but I honestly don’t enjoy any exchanges I’ve had with him. He makes it a point to be vulgar and rude.

It’s not so much a point of being vulgar but rather the fact that I’m not a sheltered child who can’t get over the word “fuck”. Furthermore, Hartwell knows the story here. I’m thorough and sometimes I swear. If he doesn’t like that then he shouldn’t reference my posts on his blog or tag me on Facebook when he posts his writings there. It isn’t my fault if he doesn’t know that by now.

(And here I thought libertarians weren’t in the game of blaming others for their own mistakes. But maybe that’s my mistake. I’ll take responsibility.)

He also gets upset if you don’t respond to each and every point sprinkled among his replies. I don’t believe he’s willing to reverse any of his positions in a comment section. With the combination of these elements, I don’t respond to a lot of his comments. They are a chore to deal with.

Interpretation: I won’t agree with him enough. Again, if I do that then nobody would get to be right. And it isn’t that I want a response to every single point I make. It’s that I would like a response to any point I make. Hartwell has a tendency to lose track of the discussion and make up positions for his opponents. For awhile not too long ago I would make it a point to ask him to quote where I said whatever it was he was claiming I said. Sometimes he would take up the challenge, but he would usually run away. When he did give a response, he would quote something which either had no relevance or was clearly read incorrectly by him. But hey, what do I know? They’re just my positions.

(Don’t worry, I’m getting near the end.)

Hartwell next quotes a recent instance where I swore and admonished him for not reading carefully. He then says:

In this case, the facts are that candidate Obama was distancing himself from what his office wrote in a GLBT-focused local newspaper two years later when he ran for the same office. During the exchange with Hawkins, I interpreted a news story as saying his aides denied his support for gay marriage in 1996, and I quoted it as such. In fact, the quote was unclear and Hawkins (correctly) interpreted it as saying his aides in later years denied the position.

A couple of things. First, I was swearing at him because he repeated a few facts I had already put forth as a premise for an argument. He didn’t add anything to the discussion. Had he read what I wrote, he would have seen that I already established what he randomly decided to re-write. That is, the reason I swore at him was because he didn’t bother to read what had already been said. This is in contrast to his claim that I swore at him because we had a disagreement over what the President’s aides had said and when they said it. I realize this may not seem like a big deal, but it goes to the broader picture I’ve been trying to paint: Hartwell loses track of discussions constantly.

Second, I think the disagreement above speaks for itself. Hartwell wishes to paint me as a black and white thinker, but the fact is I was correct when I did his homework for him. That is, he had made the claim that the President’s aides had disavowed a 1996 statement. I pointed out that that disavowing was subsequently disavowed itself by the White House. There’s more to the overall issue, but this was about a specific point. Hartwell has confused my steadfastness about one detail for a refusal to listen to his broader points. It’s his own conflation.

When you factor in that he believes the president is also a secret atheist, its easy to see that emotionally, Hawkins HAS to believe the president agrees with him. He’s emotionally invested and sees this as a sacred fact that can never be questioned. Otherwise, with his black and white worldview, he would have to believe the president has been a bigot.

I’m not sure Hartwell has read much of my blog. It does not matter to me what any specific atheist thinks insofar as that person’s lack of belief is concerned. Atheism is 100% descriptive. It does not lead one to bigotry. It does not lead one away from bigotry. In fact, it has nothing at all to say about bigotry. It isn’t normative, so even if the President was an honest-to-goodness bigot, I couldn’t possibly be disappointed in him from the perspective of an atheist. It’s a lot like when Christians claim atheists hate God. That isn’t a part of an atheist’s perspective since, by definition, an atheist does not accept the existence of any god. Thus, it is nonsensical to say an atheist hates God. Just the same, it is not a part of my view that any two atheists should inherently agree with each other by virtue of their atheism. Thus, it is nonsensical to say I have an investment in the President’s views because he may be an atheist.

And there you have it.

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