Puzzling questions from the New York Times's Public Editor, Arthur S.Brisbane:
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.”
The first example is terrible. So terrible, in fact, that Brisbane invoked it to accuse readers who justifiably lampooned this stupid question of "misunderstanding" him (here is my favorite).
I have appended a note statement from Jill Abramson, the executive editor, responding to this post.
First, though, 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.
To illustrate the difficulty of it, the first example I used in my blogpost concerned the Supreme Court’s official statement that Clarence Thomas had misunderstood the financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings.
If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.
His incompetence is his own defense. In this case, the most charitable interpretation of Brisbane's query makes him look like a moron. This less charitable interpretation makes him look incompetent. For I don't think anyone would consider the first example an appropriate example of fact-rebutting. As Brisbane notes, no one can rebut it. If no one can rebut it, then why is he asking the question? The question, on its most charitable interpretation, seems to regard whether New York Times reporters ought to point out when what people say is at variance with well-established facts. The second example (about Romney) captures that perfectly.