Truth vigilantes?

Arthur S. Brisbane, Public Editor of The New York Times:

Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

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.

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18 Responses to Truth vigilantes?

  1. The first black president killed American journalism, and no truth vigilante can resurrect it.

  2. votermom says:

    The media has turned into a propaganda machine. Therefore it only has 2 modes – “fact-check” when it is talking about the boat-rockers and “fan-wank” when it is covering up for The Man.

  3. DeniseVB says:

    Prez giving one of his “with or without Congress” speeches right now, wonder which “journalist” will tell me what’s wrong with that ? Oh wait, nevermind.

  4. Get your “free your mind” mushrooms right here.

  5. yttik says:

    I took an English class once, poetry and perceptions, and I swear that teacher caused me permanent damage. For years I couldn’t answer a yes or no question without feeling like I was lying. To this day I would probably fail a lie detector test, no matter what the questions were. Is the sky really blue or is that only how you perceive it? Is it possible the sky is something else entirely and you’re just incapable of seeing it? She encouraged us to challenge our own belief systems and consider all the times we had been totally wrong.

    Truth really is subjective and that’s never been so evident as it is today with politics and the media. Even facts are all about how they are perceived and spun. The truth shall set you free, but first you have to find it. Good luck with that because even if you do find it, nobody will believe you anyway.

    • DandyTiger says:

      And that doesn’t even include the problems of communication from one person to another. Even if you think you are getting to some truth in your head, it turns out there is no way to truly communicate anything. When I say the sky outside my window is blue, that blue word and what I perceive as blue may have nothing in common with what meaning that word elicits in you and what your concept of blue is. What thoughts one person has in their head may have little resemblance to the thoughts another person has in their heads, even if they use the same words and think they’re taking about the same thing.

      Yep, I was similarly ruined in school. In my case it was a hermeneutics philosophy class. Damn you schools. Damn you to hell.

      I need a drink.

  6. yttik says:

    Did anybody see Stewart’s Civil Disservice? Funny stuff. Sometimes the truth just sails right over your head.

  7. Three Wickets says:

    Obama *was* apologizing for America. They can’t even get that straight. Probably because their Op/Ed page spent half its time also apologizing for America. NYTimes liberalism has always been Manhattan below 125th Street liberalism. Don’t know why it pretends to be a national paper or why it still directs the mainstream newsmedia.

  8. DandyTiger says:

    Vanity Fair has a funny response to the NYT’s op-ed. Though they take the assumption the NYT issue is with their own facts vs. outside reporters “facts” as well.

    Just as New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane is concerned whether his newspaper is printing lies or the truth, we here at V.F. are looking for reader input on whether and when Vanity Fair should spell “words” correctly in the stories we publish.

    One example: the word “maintenance” seems like it should only have one “a” in it. It should be “maintenence,” right? But it’s not. So is it our job as reporters and editors to spell it correctly?

    Another example: who decides “Michele Bachmann” should be spelled with one “l” in “Michele” and two “n”s in “Bachmann”? I’ve never seen it spelled like that in any other circumstance, so should we print it just because that’s how she spells it? I don’t know.

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