So whaddaya think: should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?

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.

12 Jan 2012 2:05 pm 126 Comments

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.

Amusing: Should Vanity Fair Be a Spelling Vigilante?

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 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.

Jack Shafer for Reuters:

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.

The NPR ombudsman supports Brisbane, referencing an earlier exchange I had with him about the same issue in NPR reporting. See: We Have No Idea Who’s Right.

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.


gregorylent says:

does beating the drums for war/invasions come into this?

One important connection is that like the shift I describe in this post, the “how could this happen?” question never come online for the failure to detect a phony case for War in 2002-03. In other words, denial set in.

I appreciate your position on this, but you speak in such absolutes so as to discredit “traditional” journalists who are actually out there searching for truth in light of the objectivity myth.

Also, Knight Ridder reported Bush’s sketchy reasons for war, much to other media’s ignorance:

Gary Webb also comes to mind.

Lew Glendenning says:

Yes, these publications and intrepid journalists ( Gary Webb was an honest man, RIP) made such a change in the future.

The change was none at all, except for a few people who remember the truth, and now distrust MSM, our completely illegitimate government( doesn’t follow the Constitution and Congress doesn’t represent the people), and most of the other elements of the Establishment.

How can the Woodstock generation have such good intentions and have produced such a bleak future?

I think it’s fairly obvious that I am speaking in broad tendencies and have not made any claims such as “no journalists and no news organizations exhibited any counter-behavior whatsoever.”

But if you think I am making such absolute claims, we will have to agree to disagree.

your reference to journalists wanting to be “more like pros” gets to the crux of the matter. Not being a pro yourself, but an academic polemicist making a living and a reputation on going after the pros, you wouldn’t understand what behaving like a professional even means. You have an idiotic ivory tower view of how reporters function, and it’s a disgrace that you have a platform that allows you to muddy every conceivable issue involving the practice of journalism.

Yeah, but did you like the post?

E. Manhattan says:

For years I’ve watched and read as professional journalists let politicians and religious conservatives spout malicious lies about their opponents without challenge.

Those “professionals” are certainly not worthy of admiration or respect. When their own organization has previously broadcast video proving that an assertion is a lie, is it “professional” to ignore that? If a reporter has no memory of some supposed fact, is it somehow “unprofessional” to ask the person making the assertion to give you the date, time and place such a thing occurred? And then check it, and report whether or not it’s true?

It seems the vast majority of Americans are in touch with ivory tower academics, and out of touch with the “realities of professional journalism”.

We want lies challenged, and truth reported.

maybe later says:

Those of us who remember the front page stories, and oped pages of the NYTimes in 2001 knew the paper long ago stopped telling the truth.

Jay Schiavone says:

The Times can do all the “truth telling” they like, but when news consumers turn on the TV they will see professional journalists dishing on equal terms with pundits. And pundits are whoever the chews show chooses to put in front of the camera: operatives, lobbyists, academics, think tank fellows, comedians, whatever. Any real truth telling gets steamrolled in that environment.

Jay Schiavone says:

Oy. And when I type “chews show” I actually mean “news shows.”
But let me add to my cynical stance: once the practice of conscious “truth telling” becomes requisite, it will be only a short time before we see that Republicans and Democrats are corrected at effectively the same rate. Take a look at the Politifact controversy to see how that scenario has played out.

The problem with Politifact was that they overstated their case. Some of the individual statements by democrats were in fact over the top. But at base, the statement that most republicans voted to end Medicare as we know it is more true than false. At worst, it’s half true and half false. Suggesting that it was the most untrue thing said over the course of the year is more than a bit of a stretch.

eyelessgame says:

One irony about PoliFact’s LotY, which I believe has escaped most peoples’ notice, is that they based their decision partly on a *poll* of their readers, with a list of perhaps ten “finalists” – of which the end-Medicare claim was one.

Eight of those finalists were quotes by Republicans; the other two by Democrats. Duverger’s Law applies: every partisan Republican who visited the site had two choices, every partisan Democrat had eight. Of course one of the two choices preferred by Republicans would win – a consequence, ironically, of Democrats’ greater interest in telling the truth.

Martimr1 says:

Actually, the horrendous thing about the LotY is that Politifact’s pick DID NOT with the readers’ poll.

Martimr1 says:

sorry.. did not WIN the readers’ poll…

Been waiting for your response, well said. Thank you very much for keeping the focus on analysis as a key element of journalism.

Philosophically this trend seems to align quite nicely with the ascent of post-modernism. It seems like in the last 5 years a pushback has been brewing. Reconsidering the merits of modernism in different spheres of life.

On a tangent, the documentary Helvetica tracks the exact same timeline in the world of typeface.

Mad Dog M13 says:

Two words: Spiro Agnew.

Yes. If I had to punctuate the change I describe in this post, the beginning point would be this…

I find it telling the stature Spiro Agnew holds in liberal mythology. It would be interesting to survey the public or just journalists asking: “who was Spiro Agnew?” and “What was Spiro Agnew’s opinion of the news media?” Is there any evidence that Agnew had any impact? It seems to me the Agnew dead-enders on both sides make up such a small ideologically-driven group so as to be best written off as reality-detached.

Laura O. says:

Great post. I definitely get the sense that too often news orgs are wary to offend some group, or are too focused on being first to do the real reporting, and not just simply repeating what was said. It’s becoming very frustrating for readers and audiences, at least for me, so it’s nice to see them starting to question this.

Maybe “[n]o one knows exactly how it happened,” but the shift seems to coincide with corporate ownership and, in the TV news business, a focus on ratings. I suspect a lot of my generations has given up on traditional media for exactly this reason. I now only watch broadcast news for the comedy value of the propaganda.

Kim Davis says:

“No one knows exactly how it happened…” Is it really a mystery? The context is the view from somewhere – in which newspaper proprietors used their papers as platforms for propaganda. This has remained simply a mainstream practice where I grew up, the UK.

The view from nowhere was a laudable corrective, but was never intended to create a platform on which truth and lies would get equal time, so long as they can be attributed. It’s a true eye-opener that Brisbane thinks it might be just that.

“The view from nowhere was a laudable corrective, but was never intended to create a platform on which truth and lies would get equal time, so long as they can be attributed.”

Very, very well said. Thanks, Kim.

The view from nowhere just makes the media willing patsies and suckers for the same propaganda.

This is why so many young people get their news from a fake news show (no, not Fox — The Daily Show). Because Jon Stewart not only never fails to point out when some political figure is lying, he uses video proof to back it up. Why doesn’t every cable news show do this? Oh right. Because they’d rather avoid controversy and keep their chummy relationships with their pundit/guests. It’s not re-prioritizing, it’s cowardice.

Jay, I think you’re misunderstanding the reaction. People aren’t confused, and the problems with contemporary journalism are perhaps even better understood outside the profession than within it. The guffaws are much more “last straw” than “please, I need an academic to explain this to me.”

Who said the reactions were confused? I didn’t. You’re reading something into my commentary that is not there.

Joe Scutella says:

I’m shocked and surprised that the editor of the New York Time has to even ask such a question. Was he born in the advertising department? Nonetheless, the degree to which interviewers and journalists alike are unprepared when a politician or pundit makes a claim which is, on its face, dubious at best, startles and frustrates me to no end. It is as if, in the interest of expediency, and with an all too yielding eye towards some misguided notion that questioning somehow makes one unfair, journalists become lazy. I can’t watch the likes of Anderson Cooper, for example, for this very reason. As a self proclaimed “journalist” he should be seeking truth, not fairness. So his idea of journalism is to allow his guests to prattle on with talking points as if they are gospel from on high, without questioning them, and then he brings on someone from the opposite point of view to do the same, and he washes his hands like Pontius Pilate, claiming to be “keeping them honest.” We have turned news into entertainment and entertainment into news (see Bill O’Reilly). It has become slight of hand for the slight of mind, with 39 flavors to chose from, each offering brain freeze. People don’t seek news anymore, they seek affirmation. One can count upon one hand the actual number of true journalists still working in this country (see Matt Taibbi).

You make good points, but hard to read — you’re not the only one who posts in one big fat long paragraph. Break things up, please!

If you want to see politicians feet held to the fire, watch MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews, Ed Schultz, et al. — if they can get politicians to go on their shows…

Thanks, Sarah Palin, for “legitimizing” the friendly interview only for Republican candidates. Another backward step for meaningful political discourse and bipartisan governing in America.

It is interesting to me that you define “truth telling” in contrast to “objectivity.” It would seem to me that the one requires the other. At least, it should. But along with the diminished importance of truth telling has come the whittling down of the definition of objectivity to its current grotesqueness: giving equal time to each side irrespective of their accuracy or the extent to which each is grounded in reality.

Alan Schietzsch says:

Dan has hit the nail on the head. The issue is not the point of view, as much as the EVIDENCE.

The value of professional independent media in a democracy is in analysis more than reporting, particularly in the age of Social Media.

It’s a matter of evidence, not opinion (or lack of opinion).

I’d say the reason behind this was the right wing meme about the “librul media”, and the media’s resultant contortions in an attempt to disavow those accusations, coupled with individual reporters’ increasing desperation not to alienate key politicians (thereby losing that invaluable commodity known as “access”) by calling them out on bald lies. But as Stephen Colbert so aptly pointed out, “Truth has a well-known liberal bias”.

You have hit on the Why Not — “Access” denied. And with it go advertising dollars. And we are back to the bottom line that is fueling everything. Money Rules. We Serve. More’s the pity.

The “access” fear card gets played a lot as a rationalization for why the media fails to ask pointed questions and challenge politicians, but I regard it as overblown. Politicians need publicity like you and I need oxygen. The last thing a Presidential candidate who is competing in 50+ states needs is to have to buy publicity – that would be unsustainable even for the likes of Mitt Romney. If a leading politician huffs and puffs and refuses to be interviewed, then the media simply needs to report why and how he/she refused, then move on. Eventually that politician will be back to be interviewed on the media’s terms. It simply needs a few prominent media outlets to refuse to play the pre-screened questions game, and the current fictional house of cards will slowly collapse. The “we will lose access” objection is simply yet another excuse for the lack of a spine in the media.

Tom Morrison says:

I’ve been railing against this trend for several decades now. At times there is something as objective truth. I would suggest that most times there is. If every anchor/editor flatly stated “you’re wrong,” each time some gasbag tried to get away with it, it would help. But, remember, people believe what they want to believe and politicians are quick to manipulate that system. Romney wouldn’t sit for an interview for how long last year, yet expected people to support him in his quest to become Commander-in-Chief. Politicians tend to head to where the soft-ball questions are, which is why interviews such as Romney’s on FOX are so telling. He never expected to run into journalism in that venue! When he did, all the personal issues which make him such a poor candidate — the over-scripting, the sense of ‘noblesse oblige,’ and his short temper with those who don’t acknowledge his idea of his own importance — lept out immediately. And though he didn’t start it, the concept that if you repeat a lie often enough and with conviction, the populace will believe it (Eric Cantor’s stock in trade) was well displayed.

We didn’t get here in one day, and one inadvertently idiotic question from what the once-reliable TIMES calls its ombudsman won’t get us back to the basic standards of journalism. We can but hope.

Compelling argument. That we are even examining this “murky” issue is letting light in. I hope it will be like the buried boats that survive intact for thousands of years until they are brought to the surface and exposed to oxygen and then, poof, they disintegrate.


You missed the most significant “other priority” that surpassed truth telling in journalism: access to/infatuation with power. This amply demonstrated when the reporter from The Rolling Stone had the temerity to go off-script about the Afghan war. Lara Logan and other brand-name journos simply don’t want to risk their invite to the WH Press Correspondents Dinner.

It’s all one big cozy club now, and it’s impolite to speak negatively about your friends.

David Parsons says:

Who cares what NYT prints? The NYT is of the same crowd that moderates political debates with obsessive questions on sex (homosexuality, “gay rights”, etc.)
For the MSM to pretend to have any standards is a joke.

Given the official party platform and speeches of Republicans, it’s not just the press who are obsessed with sex.

May I ask what line of work you’re in? And are you as ignorant as you appear?

What ever happened to Judith Miller. I remember vividly that infamous week where she was forever connected to Dick Chaney and Tim Russert.

Robert Weiler says:

She got an ‘adjunct fellow’ position at a right wing ‘think tank’ and supposedly does pieces for right wing propaganda site newsmax. The right takes care of their foot soldiers in their never ending battle against truth, justice, and the American way.

Somewhere H. L. Mencken is laughing.

I like the suggestion that this was a put-up job, that Brisbane asked the question in order to get the 100-1 response that he got, in order to convince his management that the Times should actually do reporting, and not just repeat buncombe. (He quotes the example where the Supreme Court spokesthing said Thomas “misunderstood” the reporting requirements; that should only have been in any story as a signal of Thomas’ desperation.)

But that does mean that it’s not just one stupid paper, it’s a general problem.

Cate Morrison says:

Brisbane argues that, given limited time, partial views, chance, change and choice, determining truth is hard.

Welcome to the human condition, New York Times!

More seriously, all investigation into the world involves a choice: 1) engage in the hard work of figuring out how well our speaking stands in for the matter at hand, or 2) simply take what is said as self-evident. The former is inquiry, and it is hard. The latter is repetition, and it is easy. And to forestall the choice is to choose nonetheless.

Martin Donovan says:

This is a narrow framing of the role the establishment press plays in protecting the powerful. It’s much more pervasive and insidious than calling out political hacks on their lies. And I’m having trouble identifying a time (40 years ago? really?) when respected press outlets were truth tellers to power. When and where did this fairyland exist?

Everyone cites Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein. This is nonsense. Nixon had been long despised by much of the political class including Katherine Graham and her crowd. It’s terribly naive to say it was two cub reporters going after power. Graham and Bradley called the shots. Nixon handed them a gift by breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters. This combined with liberal establishment circles having abandoned the Vietnam war (which they started) as a fiasco gave them the opening they had long wanted to finish him off. His Cambodian invasion, lies, enemies list etc. only made the job of destroying him easier. This was elite internecine warfare not noble journalism. The liberal establishment press was behind the Vietnam war until it turned sour and deemed unwinnable.

I highly doubt there’s a case to be made that the NYT would have published the Pentagon Papers prior to ’71 had they had them. In ’67 the NYT scolded MLK when he had the audacity to suggest the U.S. was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” linking poverty to the fraud, waste and savagery of militarism and empire. I will grant that things have been made much worse by the corportization of news. But to claim that some time ago in the misty past the establishment press served as a true monitor of the corridors of power and called the powerful out on their lies (unless the revelation was of no serious threat to establishment power) is to conjure a time that never existed.

“But to claim that some time ago in the misty past the establishment press served as a true monitor of the corridors of power and called the powerful out on their lies…. is to conjure a time that never existed.”

Who claimed that? Got a quote?!/jayrosen_nyu/status/157571435357933568

Martin Donovan says:

Jay: you started your piece with this: “Somewhere along the way, telling truth from falsehood was surpassed by other priorities to which the press felt a stronger duty” and later “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.” Perhaps I am guilty of over reacting here but that felt awfully close to the line I described in my post namely that there was a time when journalists had higher standards and worked more diligently and fearlessly in their quest for the truth. Your 40 year timeline also falls on or about the Watergate era. Since this reading of journalism history is practically standard narrative stuff I think I can be forgiven for jumping the gun here. I have tremendous respect for your work and my qualms over this are minor and hope you’ll see it in that light.

2012 minus 40 years is 1972. The Watergate burglary happened in 1972. The Watergate episode unfolded in 1973 and 1974.

Martin Donovan says:

Not sure what your point is. We agree on the timeline, yes? 40 years puts it in the era (Pentagon Papers ’71) and Watergate as you say 72, 73. This is what the standard narrative says was a golden age of journalistic nobility. This yarn was so compelling it spawned the explosion in schools of journalism. Which by the way is a piece of this puzzle which I’d like to learn more about. I only have a vague understanding of the impact of journalism schools. Maybe you could shed some light on their impact?

Looking at the names owners decided to give newspapers says something about how they felt about objectivity. “The Whig” “The Republican” “The Union” “The Democrat”

My favorite is “The Citizen” which clearly puts the news organization with the people and not the government. I bet that’s not the feeling most readers get from their news organizations these days. Mileage will vary.

oh for god’s sake, any working journalist in the past 50 years would claim it. As would any critic of the press who isn’t a captive of the digital revolution.

This sort of ahistorical nonsense has become so dominant in contemporary discussions of the media that it is verging on the conventional wisdom of the moment. But any such wisdom is ephemeral, and one can only hope that a new respect and awareness of journalism’s role in American history will emerge in another generation or two.

Mike Kretzler says:

Yes. Put truth-telling up on top. I’m much less worried about reporters lying to me than public figures doing the same thing. As a matter of fact, reporters are lying to me when they act as stenographers for lying public figures.

Truthtelling and objectivity are indeed closely related values. Objectivity and balance, however, while widely confused with each other, are very different.

Cate Morrison says:

Yeah, that’s the crux of it. I think the mistake is in opposing objectivity and judgment. Brisbane thinks that if one evaluates, then one is involved and no longer objective. That sort of objectivity would make the world a desert, a no man’s land.

A journalist can still be objective and impartial and still point out when someone is not stating fact.

If Senator Smith says that “the sky is green” a reporters job is not to report: “Senator Smith says the sky is green” but to write: “Senator Smith claims the sky is green, but this not the case. All scientific evidence concludes that the sky blue”.

If there’s a corporate interest in people thinking the sky is green, count on the press to “report the controversy” and talk radio hosts to rant about why atmospheric scientists are lying about worldwide colorimetry results.

What is even newsworthy about Mitt’s saying the president has been apologizing? Only the fact that it is not true!

Kimberley says:

I understand the nuance in Brisbane’s question. Using the Justice Thomas example, editorializing with something like “claims to have misunderstood” wouldn’t have helped.

We all read the same thing and pretty much agree that Justice Thomas lied.

If a reporter indicates that she deems it a lie, Justice Thomas will simply make a big show of being offended and (correctly) insist there’s no way for the reporter to back up her assertion. The reporter and her paper wind up playing defense while Justice Thomas gains sympathy in the affair. It’s a losing strategy.

On the other hand, if a reporter merely repeats what Justice Thomas said the pressure that appropriately builds around a Supreme Court Justice casually lying to reporters, and the rest of us, remains nebulous. Unresolved, that pressure hints at systemic corruption.

If a sitting Justice on the highest court in the land can use highly implausible excuses for improper conduct and absolutely nothing gets done about it, what are people to think? The results are predictable: people become cynical and feel bitterly futile.

People wanted, and deserved, a follow up. Maybe requesting comment from folks sitting on judiciary committees in Congress would have been a productive way to harness the pressure?

John Ballenda says:

Please, no more Luke Russert.

Keith Crossley says:

Another odd thing is happening that I don’t see commented on. NPR News is (or at least was when I turned it off) over compensating in a sycophantic sop to the Rs. It seemed that they turned into the Mitch McConnell show for a while.

McConnell soundbite:
NPR guy: “in response some black guy didn’t agree”.

No more NPR News for me.

Keith Crossley says:

ha! Don’t put stuff in “” brackets. Was intended to be “Irrational diatribe against Obama”.

Ignoring readers’ pique at what-you-meant-when, his post contains terrific examples of what could be considered a complex journalistic problem. Nevertheless, my answer is a slam dunk, “Yes! Do check and correct the ‘facts!'”

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.

What began in the Reagan era as an effort to marginalize the fourth estate has developed into a rich industry, where polling and sociology is combined with public relations savvy to turn falsehoods into facts.

“Death panels,” “climate change,” “traitor” and “organic” are but tightly-packed atoms of this insidious effort, which has wheedled its way into our public discourse and now, called us even to question ourselves.

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.

This basic question is all part of the Culture of Revolution we are seeing all over the world. About f***g time! It can only happen when people no longer want to subscribe to the Culture of Fear.

Undergrad student journalist here. I almost breathed a huge sigh of relief after reading Brisbane’s column, not just because of my own understanding of ethics but also because of what it means for the future employment of the current crop of student journalists.

At my J-School, I’m getting mixed messages about this. Professors teaching reporting who grew up in the post-Agnew age mentioned in the comments are strong advocates for the blinding objectivity, and when I’ve heard questions about “opinions” or “ideology” in class I’ve sometimes been told to purge any form of ideology from reporting. That’s a valid idea, but there’s also an implication that we should avoid making judgements about the validity of an argument in our reporting.

Then, when I hear professors or other community members make comments similar to what Brisbane was arguing in his column–that we should be transparent with our views, let people know what our biases are, etc–I enter a little ethical identity crisis. How am I going to get a job with a serious organization when I’ve written columns that suggest liberal/progressive views? What about the tweets I’ve written when I say that something a liberal or conservative politician is misguided or disturbing? According to the old crop of instructors, I’d be crazy to say anything that would implicate me for believing in anything political, but according to the new crop I should embrace whichever ideas I hold and make them public so readers understand my point of view as a reporter. I prefer that approach.

Brisbane’s column was refreshing for that reason. It’s good to hear a message like that come down from a major news organization, because journalists are constantly concerned about being cast negatively by readers. It’s been disappointing to see commenters ridicule Brisbane for actually saying something meaningful (and relieving).

Ryan, I think you misunderstand the disappointment of the commenters. The problem is that Brisbane was, first, asking the question at all. It should be the bedrock assumption, not a question to be raised.

Second, the way he asked it implied that he didn’t think the answer was yes.

We commenters who ridiculed him feel that the answer is so obvious that both those things could only be responded to with derision.

He didn’t actually “say” this is what journos should do, he asked. The point is: why on earth would a real reporter need to ask? Truth is the whole point. Within that is calling out falsehood.

This does not bode well for journalism, that you had to explain this basic logic, to a journalism student.

If it’s so obvious then why is it one of the the the most contentious themes of discourse happening in the journalism community?

There are obviously many “real” reporters that disagree.

Ryan is exactly right about Brisbane. Everybody’s a media critic these days but unfortunately most of them are riding a wave of ignorance about what reporters actually do, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

You wrote: “That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies.”

To stretch the metaphor: It doesn’t seem like doctors or journalists are much concerned with the evidence that backs up claims. It’s in the best interest of the general population if both were more open and transparent about the options they present to their readers/patients.

David Westphal says:

Jill Abramson’s closing lines of her response to Art Brisbane were: “Could we do more? Yes, always. And we will.”

OK, but this gets to one of the big questions here: How much more? She points to legitimate ways the Times has dealt effectively with the issue of calling politicians on errant assertions, but really the question is whether the Times and other news organizations are doing anywhere close to an adequate job of setting the record straight.

Thanks to Jay’s work and others’ too, the pendulum is now swinging the other way on the broader issue. 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.

Thanks, David. I agree about the direction things are going in.

I tried to point the way to that more thoroughgoing revision of the presentation of news with this diagram:

The Republicans have been working on this for years and years. They call the press liberal so that the press has to prove that they are balanced so when they say the Republicans are holding the country hostage they have to say sosmething about the Democrats even though it doesn’t compare, to keep it even. They have been doing this because it works.

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history”

That should be sufficient… The next sentence in Brisbane’s hypothetical note — “Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”–is not truth-telling, it’s truth-deciding, and an attempt to rhetorically manipulate the reader toward a political opinion.

That should have been obvious to Brisbane. Was he merely trying to stir up controversy?

I disagree.

To me, a deliberate lie like that used to be, and should be, a story in itself. It is much more important (and interesting, frankly) than how the crowd around him reacted when he said it, or whether the White House would release a statement about it.

But it is much, much easier to simply wait for someone else to make him look bad.

Breaking stories is hard for journalists to do, unless they have the explicit support and encouragement of their employers.

If a response makes someone in power look bad, it will be ignored, or it will be controversial. Either way, if a journalist is on their own they’re not likely to stay at their job.

Brisbane seems to me to be asking whether a newspaper should support their reporters when they challenge the powerful. My gut reaction is of course. However, Judith Miller went to jail to defend the powerful, but we haven’t seen an example of the reverse from the NYT in quite some time.

@TD, but is it really a lie? You can apologize for something without using the word “apologize”. And if Romney thinks that some of the content in Obama’s speeches represents an apology for American actions, that’s his understanding of what that content means. Other people might disagree. Neither view is “true”, in the same sense that simple facts can be true or false.

Moreover, I have the sneaking suspicion that the NYT will insert these cute little rebuttals to comments by Republicans a lot more frequently than it will to comments by Democrats — not because a given comment is objectively true or false, but because it will more often side with the Democrat’s view.

addicted44 says:

Its not that hard. In a situation such as this, where the claim does not sound believable, a “journalist” as opposed to a “stenographer”, would ask Mitt Romney’s office for a speech or statement of Obama’s where he “apologized”. If the office does not get back, they note this in their coverage, and state that the reporter themselves could not find any such evidence. If they do reply with evidence, they print that Mitt Romney provided that evidence. If the “evidence” seems like a blatant lie, well, the reporter calls it out. If not, then its not a story anymore.

But here the real issue is revealed. Reporting is hard and takes time. Ergo, no reporting for newspapers anymore.

miller picked the wrong sources, and was burned by them. she wasn’t trying to “defend the powerful.”

Comments were closed on the Public Editor followup piece about an hour after posting.

I am inviting any comments/visual expressions readers may have here:

All will be collated and shared with the Times.

You can also, of course, send some opinion to [email protected]

After reading Jay’s post, the comments thread, and mention of Jon Stewart pointing out lies and backing it up with archived video proof, I’m wondering: What if someone produced a news program that used Stewart’s same tactics, but without the satire/comedy? Would people watch? Probably. It would be experienced either as entertaining (lying politicians and CEOs getting humiliated by real journalists instead of comedians) or causing outrage.

What do you think? Would a mashup of The Daily Show and ABC News fly?

I’ve been waiting for it. Hasn’t happened yet.

They have already lost the crdibility battle. They just don’t realize it yet. I cannot think of anyone I know who would read an important NYT story without cross-checking it against the blogs and news aggregators to find out what “really” happened. inevitably it is always the NYT story that is more manipulative and left stuff out.

I don’t see it like that. I think the Times does a very good job of gathering the facts, putting them in context, and framing it all with a narrative/story.
Blogs are important, yes, and informed critical commentary even more so, but I look to journalism to help me aggregate an understanding over time of how all of the moving parts work together. It’s that understanding constructed over time that allows me to sniff out the government’s party line in the Times, or see where its vested interests seem to influence the tone or tenor of a piece.
I’m surprised that ‘truth’ – as distinguished from fact – hasn’t come in for more suspicion in this discussion. I don’t expect any media to give that to me. I’ll construct it for myself, thank you very much.

One of my dearest friends is a very successful reporter and writer that I respect greatly. While we were out at dinner one night a while back, my friend took a call from a fellow writer, who was debating whether or not to publish a piece.

The writer was struggling with whether or not to report everything said on a campaign plane and was calling to find out if my friend had heard the same ground rules (they were both on board), which was ‘no pictures on the plane.’ The campaign manager was saying the rules were ‘no reporting on what’s said in the plane’. My friend agreed that ‘no pictures’ was what they were told and the story ran.

The writer was intensely concerned about the ethical issues of publishing the story. At first I thought the concern was over losing access, but that wasn’t it at all. It was about honoring a code of keeping secrets when asked to do so.

What struck me the hardest back then was how odd it was to have a fascinating story that detailed what insane beliefs the politician held, but the ethical conundrum was over what a soon-to-be-unemployed campaign manager would say to others in the political/media world after the story ran. The damage to the writer’s reputation for being “unethical” was much more of a concern than the dishonesty and damage that could be done by concealing the truly frightening beliefs of the politician.

It was a terrific story, and I’m glad it ran, but it revealed to me how little I, as a non-insider, understand what makes journalists follow their current codes of conduct. My friend, on the other hand, was surprised by my confusion, and appeared to chalk it up to my not being part of that profession (only a rabid news consumer).

It seems the opinions of the subjects in the story matter much more than the story’s audience. It would be very hard to write anything worthwhile at all under those constraints, and in my opinion is the primary reason newspapers are losing reader. It’s not the internet, there’s just hardly any point in it.

I think the headline alone spoke volumes through the choice of the word “vigilante.”

A vigilante is someone who acts without appropriate charge or legal sanction. I guess I should be heartened that, at this late date, so many people are outraged that the so called “paper of record” could have any doubt that shining a light on falsehoods and distortions is central to its reason for being.

Yes. The word “vigilante” was an extraordinary–and revealing–choice.

One more comment. Both Abramson and Brisbane are being a little disingenuous when they say that this is about fact-checking. It’s not; it’s more about fact-defending.

Most reporters are smart and very informed. They have to be. They know when people are telling the truth. The Clarence Thomas example is irrelevant; there’s no way to tell whether someone misunderstood a form or lied on it, no matter who it is. But that’s not what we’re missing from the news.

Abramson points us to the Times’ fact-checking blog to show that they do this, but that is exactly the opposite of Brisbane’s question– he asked if it should start being in stories.

But it will not, at least for now, because it is too hard for reporters, especially at large orgs like the Times, to amass enough protection from the attacks that come from purposefully calling out a lie. Their employers will simply drop them like they’re Dan Rather.

It’s why there are feeding frenzies: Everyone knew, for example, about Ron Paul’s racist newsletter, but no one could risk pushing the story as a reporter, or to ask him about it. But when it became known, suddenly everyone starts writing what they knew all along.

That’s why it’s so sad (or promising?) that this is coming from the Times. It’s the main outlet that legitimizes stories in the eyes of the other news orgs. For example, when my close friend broke a devastating story about the Bush white House, the Times editorial board commented on it a couple times. But until the Times (or perhaps the Post) printed it as a news story–and they did not–other mass media would never touch it. In fact, not even that network’s own news shows would touch it.

It wasn’t worth the effort to them.

Should news reporters function as propaganda police? Dumb question. Uh, no, they should just spit out whatever they’re told, like they do….

I’d like to see some evidence that 40 years ago news challenged false statements in ways that it does not now.

For example, show some articles covering Kennedy or Eisenhower and how, when they said something untrue, the Times or other papers, corrected this — in a way they don’t do now.

I didn’t say they used to do this all the time and they don’t now.

My point was that these “other” priorities I mentioned–“we don’t take sides,” remaining objective, reporters must avoid judgments–began to seem like virtues and gradually became more important than truthtelling.

“Evidence-based journalism” deserves more emphasis, more analysis and discussion, and more development in detail. The intention is straightforward (even if apparently alien to the occasional public editor) and still the practice requires real work, and… practice.

Beyond that, I tend to think this issue taps into something very deep and fundamental that is going on in society, as we move from the world of hundreds of years ago, in which the “truth” of many matters was essentially socially determined (there being no alternative available), into a new age in which science provides a complicated but profound guide to robust truths.

In the physical realm, implemented through industrial technologies, the emergence of science has made possible an accelerating material accumulation (as well as increasingly sophisticated means of mass distraction and deception).

With climate change as a poster child outcome and issue – one which the MSM are still far, far from coming to real grips with – it is urgent to work out major upgrades of our journalism and our governance systems both, into forms that can sift out real evidence-based facts from the noise of social impressions.

There seem to be both timeless and significantly new dimensions to the question of truth in journalism.

““truth” of many matters was essentially socially determined (there being no alternative available), into a new age in which science provides a complicated but profound guide to robust truths.”

The postmodern turn put an end to that, didn’t it, upending received histories and old narratives? Complex and instrumental they were, from the omniscient newsreel narrators to the cold misstatements of the Pentagon and, always, the sins of omission of the media. The sins of commission seem to be of more recent vintage, however – hence the heat of the Brisbane post comments.

I will disagree with the socially-determined vs. science binary, though. Science has done a pretty good job of separating fact and fiction since the Renaissance, and yes, that pace is picking up quickly. Science has coexisted with state violence, coercion, and more subtle forms of social control then and now. Our tools to debunk the latter afford us a new perspective on the voices from on-high.

Why is NPR not mentioned more often here? They are the prime-time channel for communicating the imperial talking points, and is worthy of our attention here.

Edwin Herdman says:

Ironically, I think it was Bill Moyers as President Johnson’s press secretary who got the “you need to be on our side to get access” ball really rolling. And access leads to horse-trading on important stories (little facts for big facts) and to placing “neutrality” ahead of getting out the whole story. To be sure, having to deal with one gatekeeper to the stories is troublesome. (I could be horribly wrong on this in even mentioning Mr. Moyers, though; it’s been a while and I don’t remember exactly what I read. I don’t blame him for the trend.)

Please count me in the “tell the truth first, second, third….and always” camp.

Shining a light on the truth should be the primary function of journalists, and journalism, period.

I see this in both the Kantian sense–tell the truth because it is the right thing to do, and let the chips fall where they may–as well as the Utilitarian sense: the press telling the truth is often the only thing standing between nefarious actors who would do harm to people, and the people being harmed. If anyone doubts this, there are a few wars I’d like to point out to them.

Thank you for this, Mr. Rosen.

This question, i can only presume is quite deliberately tongue in cheek, right?

observer says:

I believe it is absolutely possible to find individuals and different media that point out the blatant lies that are often told in politics these days.

But more importantly, what this discussion – which I believe long overdue and very needed – should show everybody, particularly those in the news business, is how people feel about the news these days. They feel that despite the overflow of information and “facts” in the news, there is no watchdog over politicians’ spins any more. Facing this perception, it is no good pointing out single authors (some even in specialised blogs) or media that in a particular instance did question a specific government policy etc. To deal with this perception, even your average farmer in Iowa needs to be able to open his / her morning newspaper and find the truth.

For the sake of the political system, which has abused this situation continuously, as well as the people who really want to make good choices in elections, journalists should be aware of this problem as well as of the obvious craving of people for the real, absolute, and untarnished truth.

MF Lehman says:

Actually, in my experience the average Iowa farmer stands a better chance of opening his morning paper and reading the truth from the political reporters at the Des Moines Register or the Cedar Rapids Gazette than the average reader of the Times or the Post. There is a lot less agonizing over balance and less coverage of spin and counterspin from politicians. Maybe it’s the space constraints. Or perhaps Iowans have less tolerance for foolishness. By the way, I am not an Iowan. I am an Easterner who has worked on two political campaigns in Iowa.

William Ockham says:

Perhaps we are all missing the point. The time to do fact-checking is before you repeat a statement. Think how different the world would be if the New York Times decided that they simply wouldn’t print the statements of politicians and other public figures if they couldn’t verify them. Take the Clarence Thomas case. The NYT has no business calling him a liar when he makes this lame excuse. They just shouldn’t print the statement at all. The fact is that he was supposed to do something and he didn’t. End of story. Literally.

If you have to do a story about a false or misleading claim, then the story should be about the fact that someone is making a false or misleading claim which is always more salient that the bullshit that is spewing. The specific claim shouldn’t be repeated or, at the very least, should be buried deep inside the story, long after you emphasized the truth.

If his opponents start spreading stories about Obama being a Muslim, the responsible thing to do is just to run stories about Obama’s Christian faith (something that probably shouldn’t be a story until someone makes an issue of it). The press would have to pick sides sometimes. They can’t just ignore climate change. The editor would have to decide who to believe. Somebody claims the new health care law has death panels. No one should repeat that unless the law actually says the words “death panels”. Write a story about the substance of the issue. If the death panel propagandists keep it up, then write a story about the smear (without repeating it). Ignore the Democrats when they say the Republicans want to end Medicare as we know it and write a story about what the proposed changes actually do.

I don’t think this would make a perfect world, but I truly believe it would make a better world. I wouldn’t be easy. Liars could still pay to spread their lies, but at least they wouldn’t get a free ride.

“The press would have to pick sides sometimes. They can’t just ignore climate change. The editor would have to decide who to believe.”

This is what I meant when I said that other priorities became more important than truthtelling. To use William’s phrasing, suppose in order to put the Times on the side of truth it has to pick sides sometimes and suppose that it simultaneously feels that the one thing it cannot do is pick sides. In other words, what has to be done cannot be done. What’s the normal human solution in that kind of predicament? Denial, rationalization, some sort of fudging that will reduce the agony of decision.

Now multiply times ten thousand and spread it out over decades. Little by little, truthtelling falls out as the number priority but the people responsible for this demotion don’t see what they have done… Until Brisbane’s column.

That’s how it happens.

Or make the story the assertions. Why are they being made? Who’s behind it? There’s your story.

Jay, good analysis, but for one point. You wrote, “No one knows exactly how it happened, for it’s not like a policy decision came down at some point.”

However, that is not true. It overlooks the by now well-documented, if perpetually ignored subornation of the press by the CIA and the Pentagon. Carl Bernstein certainly laid this all out in an article at Rolling Stone now decades ago. The controversy over the “ex” military “analysts” used by the Pentagon to steer opinion and POV on the news channels and shows is more recent.

If you put this together with the issue of access, which is prized above all else, then you have the situation we have today, where the nation’s top newspaper can ask whether truth should be a priority. Nothing could more perfectly reveal the degradation of consciousness of role, indeed the full perversion of that role, than this recent “controversy.”

Dear Jay,

I like your posts regarding this subject, and I largely agree with your point of view. Nevertheless, I think there can be some nuances to this question—whether these are the nuances that Brisbane had in mind, I cannot say.

It’s best to use an example. Many on the Right have been issuing statements about the 50% of Americans that pay no taxes. As constructed, it is obviously false. The Times and any other news outlet should insert a statement to the effect that “though they pay no federal income taxes, that they pay other taxes.” But there are other instances where the Right has been more specific, saying “50% of taxpayers pay no federal income tax.” Now, the statement is technically correct, but it is primarily used to distort the debate about tax policy. Should the press now say, “This is a deliberate distortion.”? Perhaps they could add something like, “while true, those taxpayers pay payroll tax, state and local taxes, sales taxes.” Whether a statement like this should be added depends some on context. In most contexts, I imagine it should; however, there are circumstances where it may be unnecessary.

It’s more than a little funny to hear James Fallows and others like him echoing incredulity at Brisbane’s comments given that Fallows and the Atlantic are very much part of the problem. The Atlantic, of course, refused to print the “Israel Lobby” paper by Walt and Mearsheimer.

The question regarding the overwhelming, vast majority of press outlets is not whether they act as willing mouthpieces but when, as Glenn Greenwald makes clear. “What is the pattern”? Not: “Is there a pattern?”

Most reasonably well-read, reasonably skeptical news junkies know that standard array of sacred cows for the Times or NPR or CNN: Israel, Wall Street, the Pentagon, mainstream politicians, industry leaders.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the people whose views are invariably taken as false or ridiculous — Occupy Wall Street, Arabs, Muslims, critics of the US or Israel, critics of capitalism.

Bob johnson says:

In my opinion, Greg Sargents comments on the WaPo web site completely puts the lie to Abrahamsons argument that the Times DOES point out lies in its coverage. How does she respond to this?

Great post Jay. I remember reading the headline of that Brisbane post and thinking that somebody from The Onion had sneaked into the NYT and written the laughable headline.

More concerning is that it isn’t a laughable headline. I suppose cultural references within journalism make it a real question for some.

The history/context you put this in explains that.

For 40 years newspapers amplified the assertion that it was unproven that smoking caused disease. This was the PR goal of the tobacco industry, and newspapers were stenographers for the industry.

You can go back now and review thousands of stories and not find one that says “of course that’s nonsense; smoking causes horrible diseases; there’s no scientific controversy about that, contrary to the tobacco industry’s PR; you couldn’t find one scientist in a thousand who disagrees with the facts”.

This stenography was a direct cause of some percentage of 14 million dead Americans.

THAT is one cost of the news business telling the truth.

Of course, as Philip Hilts found out at the Times, the news business didn’t have the guts.

The result of

Anna Haynes says:

(please view this as written in pencil, subject to change…)

> “should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?”

IMO, providing value to the reader should be #1. And in some contexts this priority will involve merely passing along an assertion without factchecking it. (However, writings in the NYTimes are unlikely to be in that context.)

To maximize value to the reader, ideally, we’d have transparency – there’d be an icon(s) akin to the Report An Error Alliance’s, to distinguish information the host has fact-checked from info it hasn’t – or, in cases where the info’s just being propagated, to say what entity has fact-checked it.

In the “best as enemy of the good” dept – since fact-checking has costs, we do need to consider the trade-offs posed in different contexts. If the social contract should change such that you’re expected to fact-check any information you pass along, IMO the web info system would degrade – since it’d give a massive edge to violators who don’t take the time to fact-check.

Situations where IMO it’s legit to not fact-check include –
1) Getting someone on the record asserting X, when the truth value of X can’t yet be nailed down. (Needless to say, “X” must be of legitimate public interest. Also it’d be nice to get the statement marked as not fact-checked.)
2) Cases where info’s just being propagated to a small readership, & so the fact-checking is more efficiently done further upstream along the info food chain.
3) Cases where readership is small, import of the assertion’s accuracy is minimal, and cost of verification is high. (We need to carve out an exception here since otherwise such cases can become sand in the gears of journalism – smaller than sabots, yet effective.)

Always worth considering: how a general rule can be gamed to subvert the larger goal, because some interests will try to do so.

Anna Haynes says:

(italics font screwup, sorry)

Anna Haynes says:

A Preview button?

For case#2, I’d also stipulate that the info’s being propagated from a reliable source.

François says:

This is based on nothing more than my own hunch, but I’ve often imagined (perhaps falsely) that in the past news reporters were often of working-class backgrounds. Gumshoe journalists, so to speak. And they brought with them a healthy skepticism about the well-heeled elites who blathered at them.

Then at some point, I’m not sure when, journalist changed. Reporters were, increasingly, from wealthy backgrounds, elite schools. They grew up with and went to school with the people they were reporting. They had a natural tendency to see things the same way and to give greater credence to what they said.

I have no idea if this is true or not but it’s a thought.

It is true, and I think you’ve hit on another reason for the shift, one that has been noted before.
Check out Ben Hecht’s memoirs, or H.L. Mencken, or even Russell Baker. Until the late ’60’s, reporters were among the majority of Americans who never went to college. They started young, as copy boys, then maybe police beat reporters, and moved up. In those days they weren’t paid all that well, either.
With college degrees came better pay, and yes, more sympathy for the PTB. They were now “us” rather than “them.”

Culture War: Media vs. Institutions

Ever since 1963, the institutions have been the villains of the media liberals. The police, the armed services, the courts, political parties, multinational corporations -when things go wrong, they are the usual suspects. In my media liberal days our attitude to institutions varied from suspicion to hostility. From our point of view, the view from below, they were all potential threats to human freedom.

Can you give some examples of specific pieces of newspaper reporting that illustrate what it was like before truth-telling moved down the list of priorities?

I ask mainly because I’m not sure what you mean by “truth-telling” in this post.

Dan Cobb says:

European media always will call a public official on a lie or fabrication. I think in the U.S. the corporate media is rather inclined to NOT expose lies and exaggerations because they rely on these social delusions to make big bucks.

Dan Cobb says:

ROB C: Here’s an example: When Cheney and Bush were “sexing up” the dossiers on Iraq with the intention of getting Americans to support an invasion of that country, the press completely rolled over and printed exactly what the White House told them to print. In fact, there are probably literally millions of column inches that were not published because of the White House’s casual use of the “national security” ruse for coercing media outlets not to publish information that would have revealed the true status of events in pre-war and post-war Iraq. The NYT (with its editor Mr. Keller –whose father was Chairman of the Board of Chevron Corporation) was a huge cheerleader of the war. Ditto the WaPo. What the WaPo did was to write a lengthy article highlighting all the scare tacits used by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfled/Rice cabal to invade Iraq, and then at the very end of the lengthy article, in the second to last paragraph, there appeared a few sentences of actual reporting. I remember reading many aritcles about the “aluminum tubes”, about the “yellowcake uranium”… about the “mobile chemical labs”…and 95% of those articles stressed the dangers of such “weapons”… and in each case, the very last, or second to last paragraph contained the information the reporter got from serious experts, who, in each instance indicated that the tubes, the yellowcake, etc. posed no threat to us.

To clarify, I wasn’t asking for recent examples of crappy journalism (those are everywhere, and easy to find). What I’d like to see are examples from before the shift 40 years ago, when according to Jay truth-telling was more of a priority in newsrooms. I wasn’t alive then, so I’d really like something I could compare to the reporting coming out of today’s newsrooms. Or even something from today that was more typical of the reporting before the shift.

Brisbane asking if truthtelling should be returned to #1 is a based on a lie, or more kindly an institutional myth.

Rosen’s 40 year timeframe for truthtelling taking a backseat to other priorities is also wrong, but deserves more thought based on the institutional changes that have occurred in news journalism since the early 20th century and the survey data available available in the latter half of the century.

I’ll offer Thomas Jefferson’s advice before Rosen’s other modern priorities were a journalistic concern (recommend reading thread at link, but you can search for Jefferson for full quote):

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies.

I would also recommend thinking about Rosen’s other priorities given the (anthological) record of journalism’s decline.

What a lovely nostalgic story, other than Crikey being quoted and hence planting the implication that it/they are some kind of honest brokers of the news in Australia. You need to get out and meet a wider class of people in Australia Mr Rosen. Apart from their partisan position on almost everything they supplied the Essential Media Study on Trust in the link you make. Mates? Anyway the most entertaining insight for me was the statistic that only 10% of Australians don’t use ABC Radio news and current affairs. Just over 30% of Australians listen to any ABC Radio once a week or more. Do the sums.

Anyway to have journos saying what he/she said wasn’t true on our public broadcaster would start WW3 in Australia, or perhaps I should say escalate the argument to WW3. Let me share a fun example with you in case you missed it. Gerard Henderson (for those who don’t know him a well-respected journo/opinion writer of the right) made a statement of fact and 2 journos said he was wrong, he hadn’t told the truth. He called them on it. One got back with, sorry, checked you were right, though not in print I think. The other, a prominent ABC news reporter replied along the lines of, you are of the right, and even though I don’t have any evidence of you being a liar, well the right just does lie, so I am not going to enter into any correspondence with a liar. Furthermore you may not tell anyone of this exchange.

Then we have our minority government beholden to The Greens. Hence a media enquiry, another in a long line and concurrently with already running media enquiries, because, the News of the World, and the Murdoch Press are the “hate media” The Greens want it mandated that commercial media are balanced and provide equal time. In other words that they get to say what, and being the Greens at some length, the news is that Australians should hear and who from. Apart from the fact that they are inclined to making Chavez and Castro seem to the point I think it would be like living in a version of the Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Australians would stop reading the news ever.

And anyway, Australia like the US has a very strong leaning to the left of our journos and not much connection in the ideas and values of the masses and the gatekeepers. That there is an erosion of trust in Australia doesn’t tell us why it is so. Whose truth are we to here, as some others have alluded to. If I don’t trust then I can fact check for myself.

Pippa Norris describes what has happened over the last 40 years or so a little differently I think. She says that with the advent of TV came the movement of newspapers away from partisan position towards news based on commercial logic.

Her consideration does not conjure up a utopian news world in the past I think.

The Times (and the Washington Post) used to have a great reputation. They don’t anymore; they just pretend. The question really is, do they want to reestablish their reputation? And the answer is, they are not yet sure, they are just putting a toe in the water. The sad truth is that the toe-testers will not make great reporters.

I believe that the lies being told, the motivation of the liar, and the reason for the particular lies chosen, ARE the story. Otherwise the news serves no greater purpose than dissemination of selfishly motivated deceit. “He-said-she-said” may make great theater, but in a NEWS paper, “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The model is broken. You had 10 years to call out the 911 commission report is a lie and not one paper has done so. Journalism is dead. The Guardian’s campaign against phone hacking a notable exception. Even if you knew the truth you haven’t got the guts to print it. You suck.

interview question…

[…]So whaddaya think: should we put truthtelling back up there at number one? » Pressthink[…]…