Times public editor smashes himself with boomerang

January 12, 2012

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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Following this line of argument, Judy Miller’s reports on Iraq were fine because, gosh, how was she supposed to know “how fully to tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers”? One side tells you one thing, another tells you another, it’s enough to make you just throw up your hands and take their word for it! As I’ve posted elsewhere, the parents and loved ones of 5,000 dead American servicemembers are probably most sympathetic to the Times’ dilemma.

Posted by MaddogM13 | Report as abusive

It’s easy to pick on politicians, who never seem to find the line between truth and propaganda, but most reporters, in all major newspapers, contribute their bit to the “truth gap” when they write slanted and fact-thin pieces on certain issues, like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Middle East conflict, Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, climate change, Iran, and a host of other “hot” topics. Reporters become nothing more than secretaries before these issues. In today’s America, the press is just as untrustworthy as the Congress.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

Leaders lying IS the news. The fact that this is a question shows how far away from actual reporting the media conglomerates have gone. When a leader bases his policies on lies then why even continue discussing the policy. WMDs and the invasion of Iraq. Extraordinary rendition. If the lies were known early these stories would have had a very short life so there is no reason for the media to seek the truth unless they want to bite the hand that feeds them. How long a paper can keep the story alive is what sells papers. The truth doesn’t sell one square inch of advertising space nor does it add one more subscription.

Posted by Brave_SIr_Robin | Report as abusive

Holy moly, we better re-think our whole premise. We thought we were the only serious news site to mock other news sites and big swinging you-know-what businessmen (business women rarely make fools of themselves), but now Mr Shafer here is giving us a run for our money.

Tell you what, we’ll fold and go back to insider trading if Ol’ Jack and Reuters make a full time go of NY Times mocking. If you get on those ultra lib guys at the Guardian, we’ll forget insider trading and come sharpen pencils for you.

You tell ’em, Jack. The whole Public Editor thingie is well past its use-by date. There’s nobody out there who remembers Jason Blair or will Google his name after reading it here. We think you should just fire this Aussie chap, Brisbane, and put Dowd, Krugman, and all the rest of your blathering columnists back behind the full-pay Orange Curtain. Then we’ll think about coming back. Until then, it’s Reuters and you-know-who’s WSJ, not necessarily in that order.


Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

Why do you need to be “fair” to Brisbane and try to interpret what he was asking? He asked a very specific question that he had time to think about. No where did he mention the difficulty of a reporter having to “tweeze every utterance” of a politician. In fact, Brisbane cited specific example of major political claims that were easily determined to be false.

The least the NYT should be expect its reporters to do is add the following statement at the end of every article. “Although Politician X’s statements may or may not be true, we at the New York Times have decided not to bother making the determination of the facts of the matter. Please be advised that the reader is on his or her own when it comes to discovering the truth.”

Posted by JeffreyME | Report as abusive

Somewhere along the line journalism conflated skepticism with fairness and went even further, by redefining fairness with the proposition that assertions should never be challenged.

Apologizing for this is ridiculous. When fact checking becomes too hard you have your sign it is time to go write novels for a living.

Posted by golfpapi | Report as abusive

I don’t know what he meant either, but …
might he be talking about whether a reporter should weigh in on the the truthfulness of whether the Ryan plan would “end’ Medicare and whether Obama “apologizes” for America. It is silly to assess their truth or falsity depending on whether the Ryan Plan would eliminate the word Medicare or Obama has used the word “apologize,” and the world is a stupider place when reporters and hacks frame the issue that way. I also don’t think it is practical or helpful for a report about a Dem campaign commercial saying that Republicans want to destroy Medicare to insert the opposing arguments about whether the proposed changes would so fundamentally change the government’s commitment to health care for the elderly as to “end” Medicare (or, more importantly, whether those changes are a good or a bad thing). There is a time and a place for framing and opining on the controversy, but not as part of daily reporting.

Posted by sklein | Report as abusive

You would expect that as the “newspaper of record” the NY Times had actually *reported* on the facts of nearly every topic that politicians bloviate about. We’re only asking for Times reporters to check with their colleagues who did the on-the-scene observing. Or is what we’re seeing the final exposure that even the NYT is simply a rewriter of press releases, just like nearly every other “news outlet”.

Posted by g3e | Report as abusive

the truly corrupt know you don’t have to censor or edit what a reporter says………

…….keep the pay low, keep out people with experience.

…….keep the workload high, they’ll never have the time to get beyond superficial details on any single story.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

I think a much more important point here is that statements by senior government statesmen, such as Vice President Joe Biden and secretary of State Hillary Clinton, previously could be taken pretty much as fact, which, when attribution was added, became unimpeachable reporting.

Now, they All lie, All The Time.

So how the hell is a poorly staffed newsroom suffering budget cuts and public abuse supposed to wade its way through the daily sludge of crap that consitutes public utterances, itself a basis for news these days?

THAT is the point. We are surrounded by lies, uttered by liars, and are simply out gunned by them.

And if, by remote and exceptional circumstance, the truth does actually manage to put in a respectable showing surrounded by all this dross, it gets hounded out by the liars. Who always seem to have lawyers on the payroll, and only a cellphone call away.

Posted by SueSueSue | Report as abusive

Proactive fact checking by journalists will no doubt ruffle the feathers of those on the wrong side of truth, and, yes, it might also bring charges of bias. What do newspapers really have to lose though? Most people already believe that newspapers are biased either to the left or the right (depending on who you ask) anyway. Moreover, most people already do not trust newspapers. Additionally, the increasing popularity of fact checkers like FactCheck.org and Politifact shows, if nothing else, that the public wants a clear answer when such an answer exists in the first place.

If journalists do choose to change their practices and routines, it will have to be a committed change. They must shed constraints of their traditional he said/she said approach that live within the walls of academia and newsrooms today, taking on a greater responsibility of actively searching for “the truth.” At the same time, though, newsrooms must know that their vigilantism must be tempered by an understanding that truth is so very often elusive.

Read more: http://lippmannwouldroll.com/2012/01/17/ political-pinocchios-fact-checking-and-j ournalist-responsibility/

Posted by matthewschafer | Report as abusive