NY Times Public Editor Asks If Paper Should Publish Uncorrected Lies or Be a “Truth Vigilante.” Seriously.

No, this absurd piece is not (intentional) satire.  But the “headline could just as well be found at the Onion,” as one of the many exasperated New York Times readers puts it.

Obviously any paper, but most especially the New York Times, has little value to society if it knowingly prints lies — or if it fails to do the minimal investigative reporting and fact-checking needed to determine if a statement by a newsmaker or, say, a global warming denier, is false.

The public editor is “the readers’ representative,” which is to say he has no power whatsoever except the public platform to shame the paper of record.  That in theory makes him the “conscience” of the paper, but by not clearly stating the obvious here he has mostly provided cover for journalists to continue doing the lousy job they are doing.

This is not an abstract question.  We’ve seen the media described as “stenographers” by one of the country’s leading journalists in a major Harvard study — see How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics — “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has harshly slammed his fawning, stenographic colleagues in his piece, “Rotten to the press corps”:

[Fired Issa press aide Kurt] Bardella also disclosed contempt for reporters he described as “lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity.”

The issue of reporters simply repeating what they have heard with little or no fact checking is one of many flaws that go to the heart of the demise of modern journalism, of which climate coverage is but the most important subset.  There is a related flaw of getting that quote from a global warming denier to provide balance in a story when the reporter or their editor should know that the denier is a widely debunked purveyor of falsehoods, something that still happens at the Times (see below).

And the issue comes up with respect to columnists — see “The Washington Post, abandoning any journalistic standards, lets George Will publish a third time global warming lies debunked on its own pages.”

Now that would be an interesting topic for Brisbane — should the NY Times fact-check its opinion pieces?  Right now, like most other newspapers, it publishes the most absurd, error riddled nonsense that would hardly withstand even a few minutes of fact-checking online — see, for instance, “Small IS Beautiful”! Robert Bryce Pushes Nuclear Power by Quoting Famous Author Who Called It “an Ethical, Spiritual, and Metaphysical Monstrosity”

Brisbane tries to explain his original column as poor word choice in his weak follow-up, “Update to my Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes“:

I must lament that “truth vigilante” generated way more heat than light. A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth.

That was not the question I was trying to ask. My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut “facts” that are offered by newsmakers when those “facts” are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.

I don’t consider this a difficult question at all.  First off, if the NYT actually thinks that a newsmaker has made a false or misleading statement, then it has two easy options:  debunk it or not print it in the first place!

This second point is apparently something that never dawns on Brisbane at all.  Let me come back to it shortly.

First, Brisbane writes:

The second example I used in the blog post was Mitt Romney’s quote about the president “apologizing” for America. This one isn’t a slamdunk, either. It certainly isn’t being systematically rebutted in the paper’s news coveragenow. Maybe this is one that should be. My point is: the question is worth a reasoned discussion.

By the way, I should add that I did receive some thoughtful responses to the blogpost from people who recognize that the issue is timely and unresolved. Here is one from Greg Sargent at The Washington Post:

Sargent does acknowledge the issue is unresolved, but he doesn’t think it’s a very tough call:

But I think there’s a simple way to drive home to Brisbane why reporters should include info enabling readers to judge such claims.

The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Herehere, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.


Let me repeat that the Times is not under any obligation to print lies from anyone, especially from long-debunked “experts” whose profession it is to repeat long-debunked climate denier myths and generally make things up —  something the Times has done repeatedly in recent years:

If the public editor for the New York Times really thinks it is an open question as to whether the paper should do basic fact-checking and not print easily checked falsehoods, then imagine what your typical reporter must think when rushing to meet a deadline or get their piece online first.  No wonder journalism is in the sorry state that it is.

h/t Salon, which has a terrific piece on this, noting:

Basically everyone on the Internet is slack-jawed and stunned by this entire thing, because, man, “should we print the truth or not” is a hilarious question to just throw out to readers.

25 Responses to NY Times Public Editor Asks If Paper Should Publish Uncorrected Lies or Be a “Truth Vigilante.” Seriously.

  1. Joe easy on NYT – It’s tough to sort out that complicated truthiness thing.

  2. mesophyte says:

    Yeah it is sometimes tough. That however, perhaps naively, is what I thought they are being PAID TO DO!

  3. In the television series The Wire, the newspaper editor spoke of committing “an act of daily journalism.” The NYT should try to understand that concept.

  4. Ryan P says:

    Back when I worked in media relations, I was always amazed at how often my press releases would show up verbatim in the local press.

    Even when our GM would disavow the quotes I made up for him (which is what he told me to do and then regretted), they’d still run the made-up quotes without clarification.

  5. Susan Anderson says:

    Thanks for bringing this forward. Perhaps after the NYTimes has been told – twice! – they might begin to do a little self-examination about moving to the right of center in their effort to be popular with their advertisers.

    We could also hope that climate change denial, no matter how assertive might receive a bit more rigorous treatment as the not even wrong nonsense it provides.

    People in trouble looking for someone to blame should not be allowed to endanger their own and other’s future in a futile search for past glories (which, truth be told, was not so glorious).

  6. Susan Anderson says:

    OMG. They’ve closed the comments to that one too! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such unanimity of comments anywhere before!

  7. Tim says:

    I see that the NYT still doesn’t understand why Judith Miller was a disgrace.

  8. Paul Revere says:

    Isn’t there a wee bit of difference between “opinion” columnists such as George Will and the reporters on the primary news pages?
    The fact is that the majority of editorial page columnists at the NY Times and the Post are left of center; if none of them choose to take up the cause of climate change to present a counterpoint then that is their fault, not George Will’s.

  9. Tim says:

    As it happens, I’ve heard George Will quote his favorite Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, on several occasions. Mr. Moynihan said something that addresses your point, ‘You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.’ George Will repeatedly cites lies as though they are facts. As an opinion columnist, Will is of course entitled to state his opinion about climate change. He should not be allowed to support his opinion with lies masquerading as facts.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Wow. We have wandered into a Lewis Carroll nightmare. “A word means just what I want it to mean, nothing more and nothing less”, says Humpty Dumpty to Alice.

    In this case it’s the Grey Lady smirking over telling lies. If only it were a grey lady, instead of sharply dressed beancounters and ambitious junior editors, trying to prove their mettle by showing just how nihilistic they can be.

    New Yorkers used to make fun of our morals out here in California. Now, it seems, the great wealth from Wall Street has poisoned the souls of our once greatest newspaper.

  11. Erica says:

    If anyone wants to submit a comment and/or photo, the NYT cut them off about an hour after the followup piece was posted, but I’m collecting them here:

  12. Leif says:

    I sent a scathing comment direct to the public editor, by passing the “comment section.

  13. BBHY says:

    So what the NYT wants to know if it should be useful for anything other than lining bird cages? Gee, that is a difficult question.

    I guess they could save a lot of money by just leaving all the words off and just delivering blanks pages of paper. Or even better, just print the ads, since that is all the NYT is concerned about.

  14. a face in the clouds says:

    Why not apply the same standards to the sports section:
    “New York Astros Win Super Bowl 2-1 over the Seattle Knicks”

    Or the food section?

  15. Scrooge says:

    I don’t know. Living in a dream world is easy. Its reality that sucks.

  16. “Truth Vigilantes” sounds like a good name for some sort of activist group. Just add a nice catchy anthem and some sombreros and we’re all set.

    I am a proud Truth Vigilante. Are you? ;)

    — frank

  17. I wrote an email to Brisbane, and you can, too. Send it to

    Mr. Brisbane,

    I found the question you asked in the title of this piece truly horrifying:
    Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

    The fact that you even have to ask this question is an indication of just how far our political discourse has been degraded.

    If you don’t do it, no one else will, and our ability as a society to respond to real problems is hamstrung if
    outright lies go unchallenged. IT IS A LIE when Mitt Romney accuses President Obama of not giving people a choice of insurance company when giving people choice where they didn’t have it before is exactly what the new health care law does. He knows it’s a lie (and of course his own health care law delivers exactly the same choice), and if real journalists don’t call him out on this, our public discourse is the poorer for it. That’s your job, and there’s no one else who can do it. So please do it!

    Jon Koomey, Ph.D.

  18. john atcheson says:

    I would argue that we have become so inured to the press’s malfeasance that we can’t even see the real issue here: It’s no longer news when a candidate lies.

    Really, there was a time when a candidate would get raked over the coals for telling lies — now the standard is simply, “should we tell folks when they lie?”

    This is why we are headed toward an Orwellian society in which war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength.

  19. Susan Anderson says:

    Yup! Thanks.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The MSM is a propaganda system designed to further the interests of the ruling class who own it, principally by brainwashing the public. It works hand in hand with advertising, which attacks the individual psychologically. ‘Journalists’ are paid to toe the party line, which is so blatant that denying it takes real audacity and contempt for the truth. To buck the system means falling off a very comfortable gravy train.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Miller was not a disgrace to those very powerful interests in the USA, who control politics and the MSM through naked money power, who wanted Iraq destroyed, and who now desire Iran to be destroyed. She was a loyal and faithful partisan. The MSM is behaving over Iran (and Syria and Libya) with precisely the same absolute uniformity of opinion, and the same shameless peddling of lies and propaganda, that it did over Iraq.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ideological policing of Comments in the MSM, plus their being swamped by astroturfers and Rightwing trolls, is a disgrace, but utterly predictable. These people are totalitarians, and ‘thought crime’ is not tolerated. And every now and then they let slip some little story that these Comments pages are being monitored, in case ‘terrorist sympathisers’ are lurking there. Never forget that, for the kleptocrats, environmentalists are ‘watermelons’ and terrorists, threatening their ‘precious’-their money.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    John, we are not ‘headed’ towards Big Brother’s world-we have long lived in it. Every day I see literally scores of assertions made in the MSM that I know are either audacious lies, or signs of ignorance and stupidity of terrifying proportions. When I comment on these at the Government run ABC, or in a newspaper, my comments simply do not appear. The ABC has a variant where they appear, stay for a while, then are ‘disappeared’ down the ‘memory hole’. I assure you I’m never abusive, so it’s simply the opinion and the demonstrable facts that are unacceptable. The Rightwing thugs who do the culling of ‘thought crime’ undoubtedly garner some obscure psychic rewards from exercising the power of life and death over the facts. Orwell didn’t know the half of it.