Arthur S. Brisbane, Public Editor of The New York Times:
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.
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.
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. 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.”
The blogosphere is having lots of fun with Brisbane’s column, but the answer is somewhat nuanced. Journalists should prize truth as a primary value, but who decides what truth is? Where does “fact” stop and “opinion” begin? When is someone wrong and when are they lying? What do you do when there are conflicting authorities?
In law the solution is to give all sides an opportunity to present evidence and then leave it up to a jury to determine who is telling the truth. But how does that work when both sides are lying?
Ironically, Brisbane provides an example of what is another commonplace problem – selective fact-checking. Notice that his examples challenge the credibility of two Republicans. We see this on a regular basis where the words of Sarah Palin are carefully parsed for accuracy while Obama’s gaffes and lies are ignored.
The answer is fairly simple but messy – free speech. Shove it all out there and let people sift through it for themselves. No one should be the sole arbiters of truth.
Individuals and entities like the New York Times have to police themselves. They should only publish what they feel confident is accurate and publish retractions and corrections when they are wrong. If you want to be a hack for one party, group or candidate, go ahead. It’s your credibility you’re selling, not mine.
It seems to me the truth is out there, you just have to look for it. Unfortunately, too many people self-edit their sources of information. The problem isn’t FOX news, it’s “only FOX News.”
Free your mind.