They get more letters
Jim Romenesko got a response
from New York Times
Public Editor Arthur Brisbane on his awkward previous question on whether the Times should be a "truth vigilante"
in their reporting. That response
I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and
I think perhaps it was assigning the rather demeaning or rebellious-sounding label of "truth vigilante" to the basic concept of reporting whether someone was flat-out lying to the American public.
What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question.
Why would that be a difficult question? Why would it require "nuance"? What imbecile would suggest the contrary view, for that matter?
To illustrate the difficulty, the first example I cited involved whether Clarence Thomas “misunderstood” the financial disclosure form when he failed to include his wife’s income. No doubt, many people doubt that he “misunderstood” but to rebut this as false would be difficult indeed, requiring knowledge of Mr. Thomas’s thinking.
All right, I think we are coming to the central point here. Apparently, the public editor of the New York Times, one of the most influential papers in the world, does not understand what "facts" are.
Let us suppose Clarence Thomas says he "misunderstood" how to fill out a tax form. By jove, I do believe that the public editor is correct when he supposes that it would be "difficult indeed" to probe the great Clarence Thomas' robust and all-encompassing mind to determine whether he did or did not understand the nuances of the tax code at the time he scribbled numbers on a form. You might instead examine the likelihood of the statement, by asking tax attorneys how difficult a question it is, or by wondering how commonly or uncommonly top-level interpreters of the law do not understand basic tax forms, but no, I think all humans above a certain intellect are largely on the same page, here: We lack the ability to definitively read Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' mind.
The second example the public editor gave, on whether reporters should observe that Willard Romney is a dirty rotten liar for stating that Obama has repeatedly "apologized" for the United States, is considerably more airtight. Those apologies never happened. It is checkable. It is an element of recordable, and recorded, history. It is a fact.
Neither of these is nuanced cases, which is perhaps why observers took the premise of these being "difficult questions" rather damn poorly. Both would seem to be the sort of question that you ought not get out of your first journalism class without being able to answer, and easily, and to have the paper of record pondering it aloud as if it were an existential fucking thing ... well, that does not exactly sit well. Newspapers are obviously supposed to "print the truth, when it can be found" (possibly excepting the Onion and the New York Post, both of which suffer from extenuating circumstances).
I was also hoping to stimulate a discussion about the difficulty of selecting which “facts” to rebut, facts being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective.
Holy icicled hell, no they most certainly are not. "Facts" do not shift depending on perspective. You are thinking of opinions, or observations, or hypotheses. Facts are the things that do not shift depending on perspective. There is no legitimate and useful "perspective" that says the surface temperature of the sun is less than that of a wet dog, or that World War II did not happen, or that fish tacos were first created by William Henry Harrison during one of his trips to the forest moon of Endor. No! Bad newspaper editor!
On the contrary, the seeming question being asked was whether a fact-checking sidebar for fact-checkable facts was good enough, or whether that fact-checking of checkable facts should be a part of the reporter's piece itself. I say that because the original piece had a fucking question mark, right there, right at the end of the statement "Do you like this feature, or would it rather be incorporated into regular reporting?" Now, I am no New York Times-level genius, but I have always understood the question mark behind a statement to mean "this statement is a goddamned question."
Many readers, in my view, would be skeptical whether The Times would always take a fair-minded approach to rebutting the right “facts.”
Yes. Yes they would. So what?
Challenging the fairness of newspapers and reporters is old hat, at this point. People also challenge the fairness of science textbooks, and umpires, and religious edicts, and there is I am sure a lively debate to be had over ethics and fairness in fish-slapping dances as performed by Monty Python cast members many decades ago in that one scene that everybody remembers. Not a day goes by that someone, somewhere gets challenged as to whether or not they are any damn good at their job. Newspaper editors are the only people who seem to believe the natural response to that challenge is to stop trying so nobody will complain.
Perhaps people will cry foul when their preferred "facts" are challenged. Perhaps people will decide that certain reporters or certain papers are just plain bad at it, or are ridiculously inconsistent at it, as with any number of recent debacles involving PolitiFact. If this is to be cited as a reason to not check facts at all, then forget having reporters or factual news at all, because I can fill your entire paper, every day, in every section, with whatever made-up contrafactual drivel you would like.
If one of the duties of reporting is to report accurately, then yes, there will be judgment calls. Neither of the cases above involving Clarence Thomas or Mitt Romney are anything close to difficult cases, so if those are the sorts of things that keep editors up at night, I fear for the nation.
I often get very well-reasoned complaints and questions from readers, but in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking.
I have no idea what question was supposed to be answered, and I still don't. I had presumed it was, as I said previously, the things followed by goddamned question marks (that being the commonly understood English convention, unless you are trying to be the e.e. cummings of the question mark, in which case good luck to you). These included "Is this the prevailing view?" and "Do you like this feature?" along with "Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?" (Answer: If there is more than one falsehood being stated, I would hope the reporter would muster the energy to correct each of them) and "How should The Times continue a function like this?" (Answer: Were you considering not doing it, or toning down the fact-checking once the debates were over and candidates were making false statements in more varied locations?)
According to the explanation above, the actual question being asked, as opposed to all the ones with the goddamned question marks, was "whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing." This is confusing as well, since the answer would seem to be "of fucking course, and I can't believe anyone would seriously ask that," but I think all the depth of the question is supposed to be encapsulated in the word dubious, which is supposed to set us back on our heels a bit, shuddering at what havoc we might wreak by asking reporters to fact check even scary, difficult to check things.
To be honest, I think most of us would be so giddy at having even basic facts checked that we would probably be too drunk with happiness to care whether the difficult ones were not. Mitt Romney's Obama-apologizing-for-the-United-States would be a fine example of the former; a reporter could first be blindfolded, be spun around in an office chair for twenty minutes, and then asked to memorize the first three chapters of Twilight and they could still probably knock off a two-sentence refutation of Romney's ridiculous claim without breaking a sweat. As for things that are more difficult to prove the truth of: Yes, yes, we are all familiar with the issue. Perhaps statistics may suggest different things to different people. Perhaps a number might be different based on who you ask: Perhaps we could start off by recognizing that an ideological think tank with a vested interest in fudging the numbers is not the go-to place to go for those assertions or those refutations to begin with. No, I think most of us would settle for the simple cases first, and go from there.
So to answer the questions posed by one of the world's most influential papers: No, your reporters should not pretend to read minds. Yes, your reporters should report the falsehood of statements that can quickly be proven false. And no, you do not get out of the responsibility of making judgment calls in more nuanced cases just because it is hard or because people might get angry with you.
Reporting the factualness or fraudulence of statements made by political figures should be a prime function of political reporting, and not something shoved to the editorial pages as if plain facts were controversial things. To do otherwise is to act merely as accomplices to propagandists, which renders such reporting valueless at best, and concretely damaging at worst. There is a tremendous amount of this pseudo-reporting already—so much so that fact-checking is seen as a tiny, novel subculture of the media landscape, and not as an inherent duty of daily reporting.
If people are behaving badly to the question of whether reporters should rebut false information being put out by political figures, it is because many of us are alarmed that it is even considered a question worth asking, and because it confirms our worst suspicions: that checking the plain factual validity of nationally broadcast, politically motivated statements is, indeed, seen as a challenging or controversial thing for the nation's press to engage in, and one that will only be done if the editors of the world are goaded into it by the likes of their own readers.