NY Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane posed an interesting question in his column today: should the Gray Lady point out when politicians and other officials are clearly lying to us? To figure out whether the "newspaper of record" should report truth in addition to parroting bullshit, they decided to crowdsource the question: "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."
After citing several examples—including misunderstandings by Clarence Thomas and outright lies by Mitt Romney—Brisbane says many readers fed up "with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight." But even so, he worries about reporters remaining objective while becoming "truth vigilantes," which makes them sound like Robert De Niro's character in Brazil:
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?
It seems the Times is having a hard time understanding that there is a middle ground between manhandling facts and patronizing readers. The column was successful in one regard: sparking a conversation online. It has led to hundreds of angry comments on the Times, as well as all over Twitter and other sites, expressing outrage that such a question was even asked to begin with.
Slate wrote, "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." As Paul Myers tweeted, "Is the NY Times "the paper of record" or just the paper of "Press 'Record' then press 'Play' and transcribe..."?" One such commenter sums up the general mood:
I'll join the chorus here: it's stunning that the New York Times would ask this question. And do it in a slightly negative way: vigilantes are people who take justice into their own hands, often with very unjust results. Reporters don't need to be vigilantes -- they need to be journalists. I've been around a long time, and remember when a reporter's job was to find and present facts, not talking points, and certainly not his or her own opinions or attitude. Is there now a class in journalism school to fine hone snarkiness? I find the debased state of journalism these days to be deeply depressing and dangerous, and the fact that this is even a question at one of the world's better newspapers is a sign of a deeper debasement than I thought. No wonder candidates aren't afraid of lying. And newspapers wonder why people are flocking to the internet?
It doesn't surprise us that they feel the need to engage with their readers on the subject—more and more, reportage has become polarized into he said/she said soundbyte confrontations with little in the way of clarity. The question is: isn't this exactly the kind of issue they should have confronted years ago, like after the Judith Miller debacle?