The Times appears to be unclear on journalism

With apologies to Fire Joe Morgan, I present to you possibly the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in The New York Times (well, at least since last week’s Yoga article): this stunning blog post by public editor Arthur Brisbane.

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.

[jaw drops all the way through the floor, continuing through the earth's core to China. After reaching China and startling a couple in the middle of conceiving their first-born son, my rage at reading that sentence tenses every muscle in my body, whereupon my jaw returns home and on the way back accidentally hits my wife]

Great, now my wife’s pissed off about this too!

You need reader input on whether or not journalists should engage in journalism? Do go on…

One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

How is Adam Liptak supposed to know what Clarence Thomas’s spokeswoman really means about any given word? That poor spokeswoman has a rough enough life; I don't think Clarence Thomas even knows what he means most of the time.

Anyway, of all the whoppers that newsmakers tell to choose from, you go with this as an example? You couldn't find an example of people saying things that are lies? It happens a lot! Let's take a sampling of recent "Pants on Fire" posts from Politifact:

All of those things are actual lies, said by actual newsmakers. And I dug those up in 5 seconds of Googling. I’m going to call myself a journalist now.

Another 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.

Well, anyone, not just Op-Ed columnists can do that. Although I suppose it does’t hurt to be a Nobel laureate with research and facts and other things that are useful for saying that something is a lie.

My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

YES. DUH.

If so,

OHMIGOD YES. DUH.

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.”

First, Politifact has covered this claim of Romney’s many times.

Second, this is another astoundingly dumb example. "The president has never used the word ‘apologize’"? You didn’t look for the word ‘sorry’ as well? Here are a few other ways the president could apologize for his country without actually saying so in a speech:

  • Via a skywriter over the National Mall
  • A banner on an aircraft carrier
  • A little wave after cutting someone off in traffic
  • With an interpretative dance to Bryan Adams’ “Please Forgive Me”

That approach is what one reader was getting at in a recent message to the public editor. He wrote:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications),

Like the Clarence Thomas example you used above.

shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

So, should a filing from the field immediately call someone on a lie in that hard news brief instead of in a separate article? Well … actually, that’s an interesting question.

Wait, is that what you actually meant for this article to be about? Because that would be vastly less stupid. Who taught you how to write a lede?

This message was typical of mail from some 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.

Whoa now, we don’t want reporters imposing their judgment! What if they got all crazy and started imposing their judgment on other things? Like the order and choice of words that they are writing.

Is that the prevailing view?

Do we want reporters to report? YES. DUH.

Would I be OK if they applied their expert knowledge and set the record straight when they’re able to? YES. DUH.

And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair?

Since when is it not objective and fair to say that something that is demonstrably not true is false? Sounds pretty fair to me!

This reminds me of senior year AP Government. We were doing debates. I don’t even remember what my topic was, and it doesn't even matter because I just made everything up. But I made things up with style. I shouted, I pounded, I clichéd. I lied my ass off. Everyone ate it up. Cheers and applause when I stepped down from the front of the class.

Then my adversary, Megan, a quiet and very smart lady, stood up and softly refuted everything that I had said with well-researched and well-presented facts. She was objective, fair, and totally devastating. She didn't even yell or question anyone’s patriotism.

Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?

I hope so! How about you guys try correcting some things that aren’t facts and report back?

Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Well, are you admitting that you don’t employ any fact-checkers? Because that’s a problem.

Here’s another from commenter John Hines, Jr.: “When some political figure lies, the fact that they lied should become the story.” Yeah! Why isn't it?

Look, I understand how slippery things like “the truth” can be, and how difficult it would be for time-starved and space-limited reporters to adequately debunk an off-hand comment. Politifact’s look at whether or not Obama goes around apologizing for America runs over 3,000 words. That’s not going on the front page. I get it.

But if you’re asking, "Would our readers like us to be better than that aunt of yours who keeps forwarding you chain emails?", well, now I’m not sure that I trust your judgment.

(Via Eric Meyer)

Featured comments

Tim McMackin:

I had a similar reaction. The @nyt wouldn't need 3k words, just "Romney declined to offer examples and we couldn't find any"

Lee says:

That'd work for me!

Am I doing it wrong?

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