Arthur Brisbane of the New York Times isn't a train wreck. He isn't a dirigible explosion. He is the fracking incarnation of the exploding Planet Krypton itself.
Jay Rosen watches the trans-galactic horror:
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.
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 posed 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 about it, and let that stand as my own 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 truthelling 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 (“truth telling 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 (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 tell 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! “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.