They get letters
The Public Editor of the New York Times
(not as glamorous a position as the title might suggest) asks how deeply reporters should delve into whether or not the subjects of their reporting are baldly lying to them. The title
Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?
I have heard of Truth Squads, and Truth Posses, and Truth Seekers, and Truth Commissions, and Parliamentary Committees for Truthiness, and Truth Truthers, but this is the first time I have ever heard the term truth vigilante. The image I have is of a drunken man on horseback, waving a pen in one hand and an almanac in the other, riding over the range in an angry stupor, hot on the trail of some truth that nobody else in the town gives a damn about, but a truth that killed his cousin's sister-in-law's daughter, and so he is a man on a mission. A Jack Daniels-fueled, New York Times-sponsored mission.
But the question posed by the Times' Public Editor is considerably less colorful.
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.
He goes on to explain that an opinion columnist, like Paul Krugman, clearly has the "freedom" to call out untruths in a way that mere, factually-based reporters somehow do not. His example is Mitt Romney constantly claiming that Barack Obama has been "apologizing for America" when in actual fact that has never, ever happened, as the Public Editor himself points out.
Now if you reflect for a moment, you may come to the conclusion that this is a Hell of a Thing, as the kids say today (where "kids" means your grandpa, and "today" means several decades ago). The writers of opinions are free to check facts, but the writers of facts are largely prohibited from it. This only makes sense if you consider facts to be opinions, and opinions to be facts, which in turn seems to make the whole point of reporting on either rather pointless: You might as well go to a palm reader and report whatever comes out of that as God's honest truth. It'd be the same damn thing, yes?
In any event, this leads to the grand question of the day, which is whether reporters should bother to check what spews from the primary face-orifaces of their subjects, or whether that is a separate job that should be done apart from the main article so as to not upset the cadence of the bullshit-spouting person in question:
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), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”
Mind you, this is a novel fucking thing. It requires contemplation. If a candidate states a flat lie—not something dubious or ambiguous, but a clear, flat lie, on the order of my opponent eats puppies—ought a reporter, as part of reporting, report that the lie is a lie? This would seem to be all fine and good, except that it conflicts so greatly with the conventions of modern political reporting as to make it a daring-sounding thing. Convention dictates that you should just report "so-and-so says his opponent eats puppies," and ignore the obvious bullshit of the thing; if someone else in America wants to object and just happens to have their very own opinion column in one of America's top newspapers, they can feel free to take a stab at it, but otherwise convention dictates that we drop the whole thing because doing otherwise might insult the fellow who is declaring that his ideological rival eats puppies.
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?
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign debates, The Times has employed a separate fact-check sidebar to assess the validity of the candidates’ statements. Do you like this feature, or would you rather it be incorporated into regular reporting? How should The Times continue a function like this when we move to the general campaign and there’s less time spent in debates and more time on the road?
We have to give some credit here (yes, we, you and I both, you cheapskate): A fact-checking sidebar was itself a bold leap in the annals of political reporting. At first glance it would seem to solve the problem nicely: Allow the candidate to spew their very earnest but factually vacuous bullshit, but allow readers who desire it a separate location that tells you whether the candidate might in fact be remarkably full of crap, a liar extraordinaire, and a general insult to freedom and democracy alike. Give it a little colored border so that truth-not-care-abouters do not accidentally stumble into it, and you are done.
But dare we dream bigger? What if—and this is just crazy, drunken brainstorming on the part of Times readers who are too imbecilic to truly grasp the implications of the thing—we incorporate the factual truth right in the fucking article? We have the fact-writer-downers themselves write the actual facts, as opposed to leaving the actual facts for the opinion section, and the unsubstantiated opinions in the fact section?
That thought is so bold it should come with a warning label, but there it is. That is the question at hand. I am not sure how you would train an entire generation of reporters to fact-check their own reporting when reporting it, especially at the crappy wages of modern reporting, but at least the silly and out-there notions of readers are getting a good hearing.
That said, some of those readers may eat puppies. Just throwing that out there.