Times public editor smashes himself with boomerang
New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane made a huge mistake in his morning blog item titled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” for which the Web has been punishing him all day. Brisbane’s mistake wasn’t to bring up the topic of how much time, space and effort reporters should commit to truth-squadding the iffy stuff that oozes out of the mouths of politicians, other notables and their spokesmen.
It’s a worthy topic. Brisbane’s mistake was to pose the topic as question — as if a journalist with his sort of experience didn’t know what the correct answer is — and then to stupidly ask and re-ask the question in the final paragraphs of his item, as if he were Phil Donahue with microphone in hand, rushing up and down the carpeted stairway eager to collect comments from the studio audience.
The awesome stupidity of Brisbane’s blog inspired prominent citizens of Twitterville, as well as Salon’s Alex Pareene, HuffPo’s Jason Linkins, Poynter’s Craig Silverman, New York University’s Jay Rosen, and Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza, to take up their keyboards. “Should the New York Times — America’s ‘newspaper of record’ — print the truth?” is how Pareene restated Brisbane’s question in his lede. “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them,” tweeted Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega.
Brisbane sought to quell the fury sparked by his 500-word post in correspondence with Jim Romenesko, who asked Brisbane what the hell he was getting at. He responded:
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. …
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.
Stimulate a discussion! Well, yes, Arthur, not even Phil Donahue could have stimulated a more intense discussion of how bulky and numerous the knots in your skull are today.
Brisbane deserved the abuse for writing without thinking, but those who think Brisbane prefers stenography to journalism should seek his back pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met Brisbane, but I recall reading his work closely when he was a Metro reporter for the Washington Post in the mid-1980s and I was editor of Washington City Paper. Brisbane was a skeptical, thorough reporter, and his coverage of Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry often sharpened the knife that we at City Paper would use to slice Hizzoner up. Instead of climbing the Post ladder of success, he returned to Kansas City and climbed the ladder there, eventually becoming editor of the Kansas City Star. I’m not familiar with his work as editor, but it’s safe to assume that he didn’t publish press releases as news.
Part of the outrage against Brisbane is theatrical. It’s fun to excoriate the Times. I’ve made a career out of it! But Brisbane has no power outside of the bully pulpit that the paper gives him. He speaks for himself, not the Times, as the paper endlessly reminds those who ask. But because editors and reporters generally don’t have the guts to take abuse directly from readers, they employ ombudsmen and public editors like Brisbane as their shields: The ombudsman exists primarily to take in the face whatever rotten fruit, bean balls and shards of broken glass that angry readers want to heave at the editors and reporters who produce the newspaper. The ombudsman is a safety valve that prevents reader fury from exploding, a way for the newspaper to say “we listen.” And today, as the gashes on his face prove, Brisbane is earning his pay.
At the risk of being the ombudsman’s ombudsman, what he was trying to ask his readers was how much time and effort the Times should put into refuting or contesting every flawed expression of “fact” that they come across when writing about newsmakers. Of course, Brisbane did himself no favor by labeling the aggressive refutation of squirrelly facts as “truth vigilantism” in his headline.
But to be fair to Brisbane — and I promise not to make this a habit — I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact — assuming that that’s possible on deadline — the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that? There’s a longstanding joke among journalists about what an infinitely vetted wedding announcement would look like: “A couple representing itself as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith say they hosted a reception Saturday, to commemorate what they claimed was the marriage of their son, in an apartment on Park Avenue that they assert they own.” As Edgar Allan Poe once put it, we crave “journalism in lieu of dissertation.”
Then, late today, Brisbane dug himself in a little deeper with a new post, claiming that his stupid questions had been misunderstood. I’ve read this post a dozen times and can’t figure out what he’s trying to say other than that he’s still looking for “reasoned discussion.” I urge Brisbane to forget about the reasoned discussion and start over with a blank screen — and not to ask stupid questions he doesn’t have the answers for.
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