Jan
12
2012

NYT to Readers: Can You Handle the Truth?

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane has a new column wondering if the readers of the Paper of Record want to know if the politicians the paper covers are telling the truth.

Seriously. It's right here.

He writes:

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.

He even has a pretty good 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?

I don't think Brisbane's trying to be cute here, though he might want to know that Krugman for a time was actually not allowed call a lie a lie: During the 2000 presidential election season, Krugman said the Times "barred him from using the word 'lying'" when writing about George W. Bush (Washington Post, 1/22/03).

Nonetheless, Brisbane even offers some language that a reporter might insert into a story about Romney's false assertion:

"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."

This would be an improvement over nothing, but it's still pretty tame–if Romney's making this up in order to generate a campaign rally applause line, is it really a "misleading interpretation" of Obama's actual words?

The fact that this question is even being asked tells you something pretty profound about the state of corporate media–at least when it comes to politics, that is.

I don't think sports reporters would be so baffled by the idea that facts matter. Let's say New York Knicks star forward Amar'e Stoudemire declared after a game that he was proud of scoring 40 points, and went on to brag that this was much better than the measly eight points that Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett scored, who sat much of the second half due to foul trouble.

Reporters who watched the game and looked at the box score would notice that Garnett wasn't in foul trouble, had actually scored 20 points, and that Stoudemire hadn't actually scored 40 points.

I suspect that his odd, wildly inaccurate boasting would find its way into the paper–and that a reporter wouldn't talk about how Stoudemire had "misleadingly interpreted" the box score.

Of course political arguments aren't always so clear-cut (though the Romney example is pretty straightforward). But it is very easy to imagine a kind of journalism that demands powerful figures document questionable assertions–and note when they are unable to do so.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.