Fourth-Estate Sale! Everything Must Go!

Our guest columnist is New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane, who asks New York Times readers whether the New York Times should get into the journalism business.

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

Another example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

That approach is what one reader was getting at in a recent message to the public editor. He wrote:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign debates, The Times has employed a separate fact-check sidebar to assess the validity of the candidates’ statements. Do you like this feature, or would you rather it be incorporated into regular reporting? How should The Times continue a function like this when we move to the general campaign and there’s less time spent in debates and more time on the road?

Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? [NYT, via @tomtomorrow]

It’s really come to this. God. The guy is equating fact-checking and source farming with vigilantism? Wow.

@FlyingChainSaw: Looking at the bright side, I’ve just learned what gobsmacked amounts to.

But…but…if we have to check facts, there won’t be time to get free food and booze from the campaign bus!

No, I want to read “reporting” along the lines of “Jews Responsible For World’s Economic Problems, Says Goebbels.”

@Dodgerblue: Thus showing the relationship between Dictator and Dictation.

Since Arthur S. Brisbane conflates his examples: A reporter can’t prove that Clarence Thomas didn’t “misunderstand” the disclosure requirement. But a good reporter can lay out the inherent absurdity in his claim without crossing the line. Although doing so requires a rare talent called writing.

On the other hand, Mitt on “apologizing”? Slam-dunk.

@nojo: @Dodgerblue: @FlyingChainSaw: The Sunday Times recently ran a lengthy piece on Colbert, and although generally good I remember being surprised that the writer talked about the 2006 Foreign Correspondence Dinner speech as a failure. Did it leave quite a few correspondents (and at least one Preznit) uncomfortable? Yes. Did it feature a nearly incomprehensible video with Helen Thomas? Yes. Was it supremely artful, ballsy and accurate? Absolutely.

Now I realize the Times is just re-writing history, because it fits.

@Nabisco: I read the same piece, and had the same reaction. Did it fall flat in the room? Apparently so. Did it secure Colbert’s place in the Pantheon? Damn straight.

Also, I liked the Helen Thomas video.

@Nabisco: Failure? The video recording of his address nearly browned out the Internet with fevered downloads. The event usually gets little or no coverage as it’s like fucking prom night in DC.

@FlyingChainSaw: And who did they choose the next year? Rich Little?

For a Sunday-mag profile, they really missed the color there. Colbert was so good at shaming everyone in the room, the WHCD went with the safest comedian possible after that.

@nojo: Asshole, of course you can’t reliably source a state of mind, but that doesn’t mean reporters should take Jeffrey Dahmer’s word for it that ‘it was only chicken.’

@FlyingChainSaw: For me, it was a cultural watershed. I hadn’t been home from my 15+ year exile abroad for more than a few weeks, and I watched it live on C-SPAN, jaw scraping on the floor.

@Nabisco: If you had an interest in media and public policy, it wasn’t a bad review of the contemporary politics of the Cheney Administration. It was a very precise comedic composition, with crimes, players, betrayals of public trust, all laid bare and examined in great detail. If you took out the farcical commentary, it would be potent and sober review of the administration’s crimes and the media’s journalistic nonfeasance and implicit complicity.


As I said at the time Colbert’s speech was meant to be a giant poke in the eye of the WH “Press” Corps and the people they allegedly reported on.

It gets better.

Brisbane is shocked — Shocked! — by the reaction:

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.

Here’s a nuanced response to a difficult question:


And the Web piles on:

Just as New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane is concerned whether his newspaper is printing lies or the truth, we here at V.F. looking for reader input on whether and when Vanity Fair should spell “words” correctly in the stories we publish.

Does anybody have a Wayback Machine? I’d like to show this to my Journalism 101 prof.

I was about to send this to you ,.. simply astonishing.

@blogenfreude: I am really and truly stunned. If a source lies, of course you call him on it. (Politely: There are long-practiced ways of doing this.) If Romney’s Tuesday-night speech is a pack of lies, of course your story is ten times as long as you set each claim in context. And if you don’t have the space, of course you report only the lies you can fit in.

In other words: If you’re not serving the reader, you’re a fucking hack. Period.

I know, it’s adorable of me to get upset about something that’s been developing for a decade or two. You should hear me fly off the handle about vapid feature stories.

The Times has just called Fox News, congratulating them on their overwhelming victory. Roger Ailes is expected to address his cheering supporters soon.

At the risk of sounding a “me too” vote, I am in complete agreement. I thought that was the whole point of having a staff whose pay nominally came from spending their time checking shit out.

I can hear Romney spew through the magic of recordings. What I don’t have time to do is suss out whether he’s lying or telling the truth, what he’s embellishing or diminishing, or what kind of context I’m missing. That’s your job, journos, and I kind of thought that’s why anyone was paying you. I’m over here making software, because that’s what I’m paid to do.

BREAKING: Times merges with PR Wire, nobody notices.

@nojo: I’m not sure anyone would notice, actually. That’s all the media has been for the last decade or so.

What ever happened to “if your mom says she loves you, check it out?”

The First Draft of History is now a press release.

T/J. My Stinqueria Mug has gone missing. I suspect my coworkers. Hey Nojo, do these things have an auto-destruct sequence like on Star Trek? I’d like to send someone a little present, I just don’t know who.

TJ/ A little bit of my incredibly bad mood (in relation to the frustrations and pressures of being unemployed for 8 months) went away. I found out in the beginning of Dec that an idiot clerk at my former employer put my severance number in the wrong box totally fucking my “unemployment” (here in Canada City it is called Employment Insurance) so I sat and stewed for it for 6 weeks with no benefits till it was approved today. Also, my crybaby housemate has finally confirmed he is moving out and saving me the headache of having to evict him. Now if I can only find a way so my mom won’t royally piss me off.

@nojo: Some people actually thought Vanity Fair was serious. WTF?

@IanJ: Exactly. They still think they’re informing the masses of events. That ship has sailed. You’ve gotten to the crux of the entire debate re the failure of old media.

This is my favorite story of the day week year decade. The blissfully oblivious huffiness of the editor person; the fiercely committed response of the other editor person; the hilarity of the comments; the astoundingly scolding tone; the complete cluelessness of it all. Heaven. All The News That Fits We Print indeed.

I’ve despised The Times for years. You know what really pisses me off? The way New Yorkers (you fucking know who you are) get all cutesy-poo when they boast of their addiction to the Sunday edition and confess – in excruciating detail – just how they read it, what section they like most (Arts and Leisure), what they throw away, how long it takes to read the mother, and how they couldn’t live without it. In fact, that sabbatical year they spent in Timbuktu, they found the one store in Mali that sold it and how they looked forward all week to getting in line at 5 am to buy it as it was being unloaded from the weekly direct flight from the States. I fucking hate that conversation. Almost as much as I hate it when Londoners tell you all about their ritual of going to this fabulous pub they know just off the Heath (it’s always ‘just off’ motherfucking Hampstead motherfucking Heath), and how they couldn’t possibly eat Sunday lunch unless they first drink some of the ambrosial beer (read: warm cat piss) that you can only find in that particular pub, The Assless Chaps, and how it’s almost completely unspoiled even though it was bought by Watney’s and how the publican is an absolute treasure and such a character!

The Times has no problem whatsoever publishing opinion as ‘news’ when it’s called a ‘review.’ The fact that these are almost always wrong about everything, being written for the most part by people who have no clue what they’re talking about, is a given. On the rare occasion they get something right (insert ‘stopped clock’ cliché here) it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Oh, and also, Judith Miller.

So yes, I have enjoyed this enormously. I went to report on it to the hubby who actually starts every day with reading the damn thing and he said to me “Why are you trembling?”

@nojo: When I get out to Stinque World Domination HQ I will personally show you gobsmacked. It’s been a staple of my ‘career.’ BTW, we do know that ‘gob’ in this instance means ‘mouth’?

See note above re ‘reviewers’ (we don’t call them critics. They write for the NYRB) and Colbert: it’s indicative of the complete ineptitude of the press that they should report that act of extreme comic audacity (“People say this administration is the Titanic. That is so wrong. This isn’t the Titanic. It’s the Hindenberg.) as if it was a failure. His chief target was the dreadful sleazy complicity of the Washington Press Corpse itself.

@Benedick: Hey! I’ve been to that pub off Hampstead Fucking Heath! You know what was so awesome about it? I was 19, and I could drink legally.

My Stinque mug magically reappeared this morning. I thought you’d want to know.

@nojo: I was on a call just now about an upcoming Sandy Eggo boondoggle and heard tell of a jazz club called “Dizzy’s.” What’s the word on this?

@Dodgerblue: I don’t get out much, but Dizzy’s events are regularly mentioned on the local jazz station, and…

…the joint looks classy.

Also, they’re doing a Piazzolla tribute this month. That’s cred in my book.

The transporter at Stinque World Domination HQ must be working overtime.

@nojo: You ever check out the Piazzolla solo cello literature? Saw YoYo Ma at the airport and am kicking myself now for not yelling at him to record more Piazzolla.

Add a Comment
Please log in to post a comment