Recently, both the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Lewiston Tribune printed letters calling for fact checking of columnists and letter writers. The authors of these letters make the argument that blocking false content and misleading statements is the responsibility of the newspaper and doing so is necessary to preserve civic discourse.
Respectfully, I would like to push back against these ideas. The column you are reading appears on the “opinion page” and, as such, does nothing more than present someone’s opinion about some topic. Too often we see falsehoods on this page, such as claims that antifa was responsible for the attack on our nation’s capital, or boogeyman stories such as claiming that Black Lives Matter is a Marxist movement. Nevertheless, these are simply opinions that are easy to refute with informed responses via an engaged readership that does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. I can’t quantify this, but it is my impression that the readership of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, in particular, has been increasingly engaged in the past 2-3 years and I’m proud to belong to this community.
Asking the paper to do more would be problematic for a couple reasons. For one, small papers simply don’t have the expertise to fact check columns and letters. In theory, they could assemble panels of local experts to assist, but it would still take bandwidth and money, which isn’t feasible for small, privately owned newspapers.
Furthermore, if a letter or column is rejected based on inaccuracies, this will play into the hands of the conspiracy theorists who will claim that the papers are in cahoots with whoever they are disparaging. This is equivalent to going down the proverbial rabbit hole. It is better to have a liberal publication policy so that all voices are heard, including the ones correcting the errors.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect thoughtful and intelligent columns, particularly from syndicated columnists. Unfortunately, that frequently fails to work well as illustrated by recent recruitment of Dennis Prager as a columnist for the Lewiston Tribune. Prager recently regaled us with his uncritical personal story about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19 infections (Lewiston Tribune, Feb. 14). In doing so, he demonstrated his foolishness for self-medicating with a demonstrably ineffective quack remedy (see FDA news release about hydroxychloroquine, Nov. 9, as one example).
Prager also asked the question, “How many anecdotes about the effectiveness of these safe drugs does it take to persuade people.” For the FDA, which is charged with protecting the health of all Americans from fake remedies, the answer is “none.” Anecdotes only qualify as uncontrolled hearsay and Prager clearly demonstrates his ignorance of medicine and science by even asking this question. Why is this person wasting so much valuable column space?
More problematic are individuals who advertise their professional credentials in an attempt to implicitly legitimize their uncritical narratives. Consider Richard Eggleston’s column of January 24 in the Lewiston Tribune. In this bizarre piece, Eggleston declares that his expertise, which includes an M.D. and board certifications in ophthalmology and alternative medicine, are sufficient to pass uncritical judgement over a wide range of topics. In this case, board certification means that sometime long ago Eggleston passed a couple tests and likely maintained continuing education credits. The only evidence of scientific contribution that I can find consists of two descriptive papers (he is welcome to correct me if I am in error).
Board credentials are important for a given profession, but they are not a license to extoll, as Eggleston’s does in his recent column (Feb. 21), the unproven benefits of hydroxychloroquine without any reference to the professional literature of which he claims to understand. When someone advertises their credentials simply as a de facto claim of expertise while spewing nonsense, this crosses the line into the realm of professional malfeasance.
Nevertheless, I argue that even this egregious behavior should not be censored from the opinion page, but neither should it be supported. Irresponsible columnists such as Eggleston and Prager should be dropped thereby relegating their rantings to 250-to-300-word letters to the editor instead of wasting valuable column space in our papers.
Doug Call is a microbiologist and father of three.He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.