NYT public editor on reaction to Truth Vigilante post

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked this morning “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Reaction to the post came fast. I asked Brisbane if he was surprised by what people were tweeting. His response:

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. To illustrate the difficulty, the first example I cited involved whether Clarence Thomas “misunderstood” the financial disclosure form when he failed to include his wife’s income. No doubt, many people doubt that he “misunderstood” but to rebut this as false would be difficult indeed, requiring knowledge of Mr. Thomas’s thinking. I was also hoping to stimulate a discussion about the difficulty of selecting which “facts” to rebut, facts being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective. Many readers, in my view, would be skeptical whether The Times would always take a fair-minded approach to rebutting
the right “facts.”

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.

* Should the Times be a truth vigilante?
* Yes, NYT should definitely be a truth vigilante
* Props to Brisbane for bringing the issue to the fore
*
NEW: Brisbane updates his post on the Times website

Comments

comments

20 comments
  1. Mark Horowitz said:

    Now I think I understand–reporters should fact-check, just not report on the results of the fact checking if it’ll make conservatives mad. Can’t argue with logic like that!

  2. So what if people appeared to answer a question he did not ask? He should be grateful that he has received insight into what people really think of the performance of the mass media in their reporting of the political process. His reaction reads like a mixture of sophistry, whining and defensiveness. And I can think of a few good reasons why, most of them to do with the abysmal performance of the media in the USA over the last 25 years.

  3. Tiernan McCann said:

    um diverse and even nuanced, the question you asked, and i quote, “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” if you do not challenge the “facts” asserted by the newsmakers you wright about you are not a journalist, you are a publicist in the employ of the “newsmaker” and you are what is wrong with America. end of story

  4. Jonathon Dalton said:

    No, facts don’t shift based on one’s perspective. Facts are facts. The evidence for a given fact may shift, but that is an entirely different phenomenon, and one that depends primarily on how closely you look at a piece of evidence, or “investigate” and “report” it to others. You know, the kinds of things journalists are meant to do.

  5. Kim Davis said:

    I think everyone’s thinking would be a lot clearer (and Mr Brisbane’s question, even as revised, would be seen as nonsensical) if we were to stop putting quote marks around the word “facts” as if they’re so-called facts (except when we’re quoting it, as there).

  6. Lex said:

    Brisbane asked a simple question. He got a simple, clear answer from an overwhelming majority of respondents. And then he accused the respondents of having misunderstood his question.

    We didn’t misunderstand sh*t. And even if we had, it would have been his fault for not making himself clear. He’s the pro writer for the Times Almighty, after all.

    The frothy mixture of dishonesty, failed logic and inability to grasp a core tenet of one’s profession is overwhelming. Mr. Brisbane has just demonstrated himself fundamentally unfit for his current position.

  7. Joel said:

    So until we develop the Vulcan Mind Meld, it’s impossible to report that public figures are lying because we can’t know what is going through their brains.

    Brilliant.

    Arthur Brisbane has obviously never heard of “journalism,” by which a person called a “reporter” gathers pertinent facts and assembles them to demonstrate that they are or are not consistent with what the person being interviewed has claimed.

    I can very well understand why fewer and fewer people read The Times, since it’s obviously no more than stenographers to the powerful.

  8. It would be ridiculous to Romney’s claims that the president had a habit of apologizing for America with this:

    “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.”

    The reporter should write that Romney claimed that, and then do what reporters are supposed to do: Look for evidence of his claim and report it, and if none is found, report that fact. Contact his campaign and demand specifics about the claim and report them, and if none are given, report that fact.

    No, reporters should not report their own opinions. But when a “newsmaker” lies, and the reporter knows it, then he or she should dig up the facts that prove it’s a lie instead of just letting it stand.

    This shouldn’t be a hard call at all. Brisbane is hiding behind nuances that aren’t there.

  9. I guess in this brave new world of instant reporting of news, the adage “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” no longer holds true.

  10. “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” bloggers cry sometimes, but this reaction would not be appropriate in a mainstream newspaper.

    The answer is yes, but with some caution and subtlety.

    If it’s a young cub reporter, he should discuss the issue with his editor first, if possible. It is then the editor’s responsibility to determine if the approach they take is likely to run afoul of the owners’ and management’s worldview and values.

    At the end of the day, we have to presume that the powers-that-be would not promote those whose judgement is not confluent with their newspaper as an institution.

  11. Ryan Cummings said:

    Brisbane is an embarrassment to his profession. Saying that is not anonymous internet sniping; I would say this to his face and be doing him a favor. How is he an editor? Who is his boss, that doesn’t explain to him why so many people no longer respect the New York Times? The answer to his question is still YES.

  12. S. D. Jeffries said:

    Good lord. Forget viewpoints, opinions and perspectives. Just tell us when – and how – the S.O.B.’s are lying to us.

  13. Aldorossi said:

    “facts being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective”

    My God! it is difficult to type this while at the same time clutching my skull so that my head doesn’t explode. An editor at the New York Times wrote that phrase. We are, my fellow Americans, screwed.

  14. Fen said:

    If your stock broker lied to you about Enron, would you still use him? And yet, people still rely on information brokers like CNN and the NYTs.

    If information is power, you handicap yourself with the NYTs.

  15. Aldorossi said:

    Mr. Brisbane suggests:

    “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.””

    If a reporter stops at simply quoting a politician, and avoids deconstructing an assertion that, in this example, is quite incendiary, I would have to ask myself what value is there for me in reading the Newspaper in the first place? I can find political stump speak, unadulterated and “objectively” exhibited, on the internet sooner than it takes the New York Times to roll it off a printing press, or have it vetted by editors and posted to the pay site.

    Why do I need a middleman?

    If on the other hand editors decide that it is within the capability and resources of a Newspaper to report what a Candidate says AND deconstruct the substance of their claims in an informative and objective fashion, I have a reason to go there.

    The question Mr. Brisbane poses, I guess, is whether or not Newspapers will have any relevance as sources of information.

  16. Fen said:

    Brisbane: “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.”

    I can’t believe Brisbane is so stupid to suggest “never used the word apolgize” = “never apologized”

    I guess thats what passes for a JournoList these days.

  17. Fen said:

    Aldorossi: “If on the other hand editors decide that it is within the capability and resources of a Newspaper to report what a Candidate says AND deconstruct the substance of their claims in an informative and objective fashion, I have a reason to go there.”

    Why? Can’t you do that yourself?

    There was a time when only Priests were allowed to translate the Latin to the masses. Then somebody decided to learn Latin so he could read it for himself.

    This is the 21st Century. In 5 mins you can google both sides of the story and decide for yourself.

    For example, re Clarence Thomas: all I require from a journalist is: “Thomas claims he misunderstood the financial disclosure form”.

    Instead, they put “misunderstood” in scare quotes to imply he’s lying.

    Today’s journalist is nothing more than Winston Smith working at MiniTruth.

  18. moe99 said:

    “Thomas claims he misunderstood the financial disclosure form.” Next part should be: “Yet he correctly filled out the form for a number of years prior to this, listing his wife’s income accurately.”

  19. Fen said:

    Moe, that would be perfectly fine with me.

    The ease with which you did that shows just how far off the path journalists have gone.

  20. Fen said:

    And if the NYTs printed that, my first google search would be re whether that portion of the financial disclosure had changed significantly from the years prior.

    Thats how cynical I’ve become. I don’t trust the media to report accurately and fairly. I might as well use that time reading fiction.