Somewhere along the way, telling truth from falsehood was surpassed by other priorities to which the press felt a stronger duty. Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, was unaware of this history when he asked users of the Times whether reporters should call out false statements.
Brisbane’s post, Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? exploded onto the web today, startling user after user, and journalist after journalist, all of whom reacted with some version of: Why is this even a question? Alright, I’ll tell you why.
Brisbane wrote: “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” For example:
On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.
As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?
If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:
“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”
Brisbane said he gets a lot of mail from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” Then he got to the meat of his question, which was to us, the users.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?
The comments at Brisbane’s blog post are blistering. They reveal the deep divide between “traditionalists” in the press, of which is Brisbane is one, and current users. I will just quote one to give you the tone. Matt Talbot in California: “That this should even be an open question is a sign that our supposedly independent press is a cowed and timid shadow of its former self.”
There will be plenty more said about this column because a lot led up to it. For now I want make one observation, and let that stand as my reaction.
Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.
No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point. Rather, the drift of professional practice over time was to bracket or suspend sharp questions of truth and falsehood in order to avoid charges of bias, or excessive editorializing. Journalists felt better, safer, on firmer professional ground–more like pros–when they stopped short of reporting substantially untrue statements as false. One way to describe it (and I believe this is the correct way) is that truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities. Other things now ranked ahead of it.
But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession.
And so officially, this event (“truthtelling moved down the list of newsroom priorities”) never occurred, even though in reality it did. Because no one was ready for that devastation. Therefore no reckoning (wait: how could this happen?) ever took place. Denial was successfully maintained, even as criticism built and journalists inside the fraternity announced what was happening. Professional practice even shifted to take account of the drift.
Arthur Brisbane, public editor of the New York Times, skipped onto this scene seemingly unaware of these events. And he basically blurted out what I just explained to you when he asked the users of the New York Times: so whaaddaya think… should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?
Yes, that is what he said. Look at his post again. He tells us that readers are “fed up with the distortions and evasions” and they “look to The Times to set the record straight.” This seems to be their number one priority, he muses. “They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.” (Which is what always stopped us before.) And so Brisbane wants to know: should we run with that? It would mean changing our practices, but we could do it. Hey, what do you guys think?
And then came the reply, which was… devastating.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
UPDATE: September 16, 2012: Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor at the New York Times writes a landmark column: He Said, She Said, and the Truth. “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be,” she writes. But some of the Times editors have a very different view.
Arthur Brisbane reacts to the reactions to his post. “I often get very well-reasoned complaints and questions from readers, but in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking…”
I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and fact-check.
What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question.
And Jason Linkins reacts to him:
Brisbane seems to think that this should force everyone to rethink their original response, somehow. In addition, he apparently had the expectation that readers would provide “diverse” and “nuanced” responses to a question that basically boils down to, “Should the stuff we put in the body of our stories be, like, true and junk?”
My colleague Clay Shirky, writing in The Guardian:
[Brisbane] is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.
Glenn Greenwald’s point is that the failure to challenge dubious assertions isn’t random. There’s a pattern to it.
The Atlantic rounds up stunned reactions and includes a brief interview with me: Yes, The New York Times Should Definitely Be a Truth Vigilante.
A blogger at National Review conforms to type. Machine could have written it.
At Poynter: Incredulity meets the public editor’s column.
Climate change blogger Joe Romm: “If the NYT actually thinks that a newsmaker has made a false or misleading statement, then it has two easy options: debunk it or not print it in the first place! This second point is apparently something that never dawns on Brisbane at all.” (Link.)
James Fallows says we should look on the bright side. “Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations.”
Bill Keller, until recently the executive editor of the New York Times, reacts to Brisbane’s column. “I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit by his choice of examples…” He draws a good distinction.
Jill Ambramson, current executive editor of the Times, responds to Brisbane:
In your blog, you ask “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.
We do it every day, in a variety of ways. On the most ambitious level, we sometimes do entire stories that delve into campaigns to distort the truth. On a day to day basis, we explore the candidates’ actions to see if what they’ve done squares with what they are saying now…
Crikey wishes this debate would come to Australia. “It’s merely to state the bleeding obvious that he-said-she-said is deeply embedded in our journalistic culture.”
Metafilter’s post: Duh. The comments, as always, are great.
David Westphal, former head of the McClatchy Washington bureau, says in the comments that “the pendulum is now swinging the other way.”
I’m guessing most journalists now believe (or soon will) that it’s their sworn duty to baldly call out false and misleading statements. You see reporters writing a lot more sentences like this in their stories: “This is not true.”
But is this sort of thing sufficient? Or should there be a quantum shift in news organizations’ resources to the identification of bogus assertions and errant beliefs? You can imagine an edition of the Times replete with stories, fact-checking features, etc., where that was the main point.
Maybe this is what Art Brisbane was getting at: Where does calling out lies and distortions rank among news organizations’ many roles? It’s obviously very low now. Is that where it should be?
My guess, now that we’re coming to our senses about the stupidity of claiming neutral ground while the BS flies, is that we’ll find it needs to rank much higher.
“Our mission is to find the truth, report it and defend it,” writes Robert Niles. “Don’t like the results? Challenge us with your own data. We’ll shoot it out and see who’s left standing.”
Related: PressThink, The production of innocence.
Greg Sargent at the Washingtonpost.com responds: What are newspapers for?
The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Here, here, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.
In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.
Anthony Moor, director of editorial operations at Yahoo and formerly deputy managing editor at the Dallas Morning News, in the comments:
As a journalist myself, I lament our profession’s decades-long somnolence as members of the political and business class employ ever more crafty polemical and propaganda techniques to sway public opinion… In the face of reckless attacks on our credibility and mission, journalists have retreated into a defensive, hide-bound embrace of “objectivity” at the expense of authority and truth. We’ve gazed at our collective navels, wondering, “who are we to question?” and “don’t they have a right to respond?” rather than striking back with what should be our unassailable weapon: Seek truth and report it.
Because editors and reporters generally don’t have the guts to take abuse directly from readers, they employ ombudsmen and public editors like Brisbane as their shields: The ombudsman exists primarily to take in the face whatever rotten fruit, bean balls and shards of broken glass that angry readers want to heave at the editors and reporters who produce the newspaper. The ombudsman is a safety valve that prevents reader fury from exploding, a way for the newspaper to say “we listen.” And today, as the gashes on his face prove, Brisbane is earning his pay.
It’s time to completely change the way the ombudsmen do their job, says Dan Gillmor.
Voice of San Diego makes clear where it stands: Why We Consider Ourselves Truth Vigilantes.
We really don’t like “he said, she said” journalism. We don’t consider ourselves stenographers for public officials or the powerful. We have an active responsibility to you to not pass along junk information. So we make it a priority to write with authority and determine, as best we can, what is true.
Finally, Art Brisbane, the Times public editor, in a follow-up column tells us where he comes down on reporters fact checking the claims they are reporting: an abundance of caution is required. Also, the furor over his earlier item was not worth addressing, except in the most superficial way.