So much for the news

>> Friday, January 13, 2012

I'm late to the party, I realize, but if you somehow missed it: the funniest and most surreal item of the past week may have been a New York Times staffer asking his readers whether or not the Times ought to print the truth. No, seriously. The improbably-named Arthur S. Brisbane (I swear that's the name of a Monty Python character, but Google and YouTube keep failing me), the Times' public editor (i.e. the guy who has to answer the crank mail), basically raises this question in a January 12th column titled "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?", and then, after being mocked by the collective might of Twitter and The Whole Entire Internet, cluelessly doubled down later in the day with, "Update to my Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes".

Mr. Brisbane, in a nutshell:

...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.

Brisbane offers two examples of the thorniness of this issue, which, taken together, pretty much illustrate how his approach explains a good bit of what's wrong with the mainstream media these days. First, he points to an article written about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' claims that he failed to disclose his wife's earnings from a conservative lobbying group on financial disclosure forms because of a "misunderstanding". Thomas' claim is, frankly, improbable, but of course there's probably not an objective way to prove he isn't telling the truth, and in the absence of any hard evidence, logic and decency require us to concede that Justice Thomas might be telling the truth despite our justifiable skepticism. Brisbane asks if a Times journalist ought to call out Justice Thomas as a liar, and of course the answer is negative; if nothing else, a claim that Justice Thomas is lying might be libelous and the Times legal department would probably be happy to avoid that. (By way of a further pragmatic consideration, I'm sure the journalist filing the article would prefer not to field a bizarre phone call from Ginni Thomas before breakfast.)

Unfortunately, the second example Brisbane cites involves demonstrably false claims made by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has repeatedly said that President Obama has made speeches apologizing for America. Nevermind that America actually has some apologizing to do, the fact is that you can go through the President's speeches, analyze the language used, and come to a reasonably objective conclusion that Romney's claim is factually untrue and Romney's spin on it is, as put by one analysis, "ridiculous".

The real problem here, I hope you already see, is that Brisbane thinks one of these things is just like the other, when, in fact, they're utterly incomparable. I may be skeptical of Justice Thomas' "misunderstanding" given the circumstantial evidence, but I do not have enough proof to say I disbelieve him beyond any doubts raised by reason and common sense (to liberally paraphrase from the time-honored courtroom standard). I might say, subjectively, "I don't believe he is telling the truth," but I cannot reasonably and objectively say "He is being dishonest." On the other hand, all I have to do to test Romney's claim is hit up Google; a few minutes' research confirms that Romney's claim is demonstrably false, a point that absolutely should be reported by anybody expecting to be taken seriously as an honest broker.

You know, this is why people end up saying The Daily Show is a better source of news than most newspapers and news programs. Much of the well The Daily Show goes back to again and again involves running the clip of what Mr. Politician said yesterday and then following it up with the clip of Mr. P. saying the exact opposite thing six months ago, followed by Jon Stewart's exaggerated performance of Everyman's reaction to the obvious hypocrisy and dishonesty--the spit-take or the comic pantomime of a man whose head is about to explode from all the cognitive dissonance. TDS exploits this for comedy, but underneath the sarcasm an important news function remains: the audience sees clip A and then clip B, and is thereby informed that the clip's subject can be trusted about as far as he could be thrown out of a deep well. TDS, in short, finds unexploded petards and detonates them under their hoisters' asses.

Pointing out this kind of inconsistency--with oneself, with easily observable and demonstrable facts--isn't opinion journalism or partisan, it's simply reporting what is. Fact one is that Mitt Romney said the President went on tour to apologize for America, fact two is that the President has never actually done that. Draw your own conclusions, then, about what this says about Mr. Romney. Fact one is that the Bush Administration insisted that the Hussein regime in Iraq had an advanced WMD program that justified an American military response, fact two is that no such program was found after the invasion; that the Bush Administration lied, or made an honest-but-tragic mistake, or behaved foolishly, or should have known better, or did know better and went along anyway--these are indeed opinions and you may choose whichever explanation suits you; what is not an opinion is that the Bush Administration's pre-Iraq War claims were inconsistent with reality. It is a fact that there is overwhelming evidence to support the majority scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring and it is a fact that the most vocal critics of this consensus are those who would be directly or indirectly injured by efforts to control or eliminate carbon emissions.

Now, it ought to go without saying that sometimes facts make somebody look bad. Facts are unfortunate things, and they have a bad way of often making somebody look like a liar or at least a fool. Going back to Brisbane's Romney example: somebody who repeatedly says something that is untrue even after it has been widely and publicly reported that the statement is untrue is at best reckless with his speech and at worst indifferent to the truth due to some defect of character or reason. Neither, of course, is an attractive feature for a man auditioning for the Presidency Of The United States. It should not, however, be the job of the press to save public figures from themselves, least of all when doing so requires a reporter to lie by repetition. As others have already pointed out, repeating someone's untrue comments without appropriate comment as to what the truth actually is may well misinform the reader, who perhaps doesn't realize what the untruths are. (Reporters and their editors ought to also remember that a cynical subject might take advantage of the situation if he thinks he can knowingly make false statements without fear of being corrected or called-out by the press.)

It is beyond baffling that anyone working at America's unofficial paper-of-record doesn't already get all of this, and has to ask if he's doing it wrong. If you have to ask, you are. It's beyond-the-beyond that he then, apparently, doesn't understand why he's being routinely mocked for, in effect, asking if his paper ought to report the truth or should it go on misinforming the public by routinely failing to report facts when a news subject goes on record with contrafactual statements. And then, no doubt, he'll wonder why nobody believes newspapers anymore, and I expect he'll blame bloggers and comedy shows.

I'd feel remiss if I didn't point out that Steve Buchheit posted a fine response to Mr. Brisbane, here. I also owe a hat tip to Salon's Alex Pareene for the item that brought Brisbane's post to my attention in the first place. Another hat tip to Balloon Juice for a piece pointing me to Brisbane's ill-advised update (and a hat tip to whomever it was that got me to Balloon Juice, a blog I rarely get to on my own).


Almaz,  Friday, January 13, 2012 at 3:13:00 PM EST  

As our pal Sarah Palin says, fact-checking violates her First Amendment rights.

Warner Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 8:08:00 AM EST  

I actually had no trouble with the question, assuming he was asking it as a reporter doing a story on something with some depth, rather than what percentage of the trains ran on time yesterday.

Take another week to find out that Clarence Thomas had no trouble understanding the reporting rules, until his wife developed income which might be in conflict of interest for him, it is important and not immediate.

I want to know what percentage of trains ran yesterday, and I don't want to wait a week for you to check with Straphangers, although a phone call is indicated.

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