Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor of the New York Times, has a piece today asking, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” The piece is generating some spirited discussion, so I thought I’d weigh in with my own answer to the question.
As Brisbane sees it, the underlying issue is whether journalists — more specifically, beat reporters — should “challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
[O]n 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.”
This comes up quite often, in large part because major media outlets have embraced “forced neutrality” — it’s a newspaper reporter’s job to tell the public what both sides are saying. If you want to know which side has the facts on their side, go somewhere else. (The Washington Post‘s Paul Kane is one of the more enthusiastic advocates of this style of journalism.)
The subject is admittedly well-traveled ground, but so long as Brisbane is sparking some discussion, the larger question is pretty straightforward: what is the purpose of a newspaper article? If it’s to serve as a conduit, passing along talking points from political figures to voters, then the status quo is working beautifully. “Mitt Romney today said two plus two equals five; Democrats and mathematicians disagree.”
If an article is supposed to provide news consumers with the something more meaningful — offering context, scrutiny, and analysis that helps make sense of the arguments, giving the public a sense, not only of what the arguments are, but whether they’re accurate — then media professionals, including beat reporters and their editors, have a broader responsibility to help the public separate fact from fiction.
And more often than not, they don’t even try.
This generally draws howls from the right, in part because Republicans seem to lie more frequently and shamelessly, and in part because reality has a well-known liberal bias. Indeed, the constant, baseless accusations about “the liberal media” helped create the forced-neutrality dynamic in the first place.
But the result is a media that fails the public. By publishing falsehoods without scrutiny, for fear of being accused of “bias,” the media is effectively leaving news consumers with the impression that lies and the truth deserve equal footing, which is ultimately untenable. Indeed, as Jamison Foser explained very well this morning, he-said/she-said journalism makes matters worse through neglect.
When reporters omit reality from their stories in order to avoid being seen as “involved” or “taking sides,” they are taking sides. And they are taking the wrong side. When you treat two statements — one true and one false — as equally valid and equally likely to be true, you are conferring an undeserved benefit on the false statement.
To a certain extent, Brisbane poisons the well a little with the headline, suggesting that critics want the NYT to serve the role of a “vigilante” — a word with a clearly negative connotation. But vigilantism isn’t at the heart of the debate; accuracy is. If there’s an objective truth, and media professionals know when policymakers are trying to mislead the public, why in the world would journalists deliberately pass along claims they know to be false?