"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: Here, here, 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:
- In yet another front-page journalistic lapse, the NY Times once again equates non-scientists — Bastardi, Coleman, and Watts (!) — with climate scientists
- N.Y. Times and Elisabeth Rosenthal Face Credibility Siege over Unbalanced Climate Coverage: One oft-quoted communications expert calls this attack on the IPCC, “the worst, one sided reporting I have ever seen.”
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.