Should the New York Times Tell the Truth?

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Nah! That’s Not in Their Job Description

Here’s how a definition gone wrong can lead to a debilitating public controversy. But hey, controversy drives traffic, so what the heck, right?


The Big Picture
by Glynn Wilson

It’s been a long time, but the New York Times is back in the business of pumping up the traffic to its Website with news about itself.

Predictably, once again, it is doing the news organization’s reputation more harm than good in the long run. Will they ever learn from their own history? The documents are right there under their noses.

The problem is, it might cost them a massive amount of corporate advertising to tell the truth, and they would lose a few Republican readers in the process.

An explanation is in order. You came to the right place for this one.

On January 12, the new public editor at the Times, Arthur S. Brisbane, ran a column under the headline: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

That was followed up pretty quickly by a scathing piece in the UK Guardian under the headline: The New York Times public editor’s very public utterance.

The lede?

‘Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?’ asked Arthur Brisbane. ‘Yes,’ came the resounding reply.

In Brisbane’s column, he said he was looking for reader input “on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Duh, right?

He cited an article on the Supreme Court in which a court spokeswoman said Justice Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. A Times reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood.”

The other example cited came from the Republican campaign trail, where Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Times columnist Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

In the Guardian piece, a couple of readers’ responses are quoted:

“Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”

“If the purpose of the NYT is to be an inoffensive container for ad copy, then by all means continue to do nothing more than paraphrase those press releases.”

“I hope you can help me, Mr Brisbane, because I’m an editor, currently unemployed: is fecklessness now a job requirement?”

You should look up the meaning of fecklessness, because apparently, it is and has long been a news business job requirement, precisely because of the argument about objectivity I am about to make in the end.

But wait, there’s more.

According to the Guardian, Brisbane had clearly not been expecting this excoriating and one-sided a reaction. He has since tried to clarify his views.

“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.”

“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.”

My response is don’t report it if you know it’s false. So what if you get beat on the story by Fox News? They have a million viewers. You have a million readers. It will all come out in the wash.

But according to the Guardian, which just had to get in on the traffic boom too, “This only added fuel to the fire.”

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post had a new, young liberal blogger weigh in.

What are newspapers for?

Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, has posted a remarkable piece that’s generating attention on Twitter, because it gets at a core question: What is the role of newspapers in a political world that’s awash in distortions and lies?

Greg Sargent points out that the Times itself amplified Romney’s false assertion about Obama three times without any rebuttal. And he concludes that “any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing … in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.”

The American Journalism Review has also weighed in on this in a piece under the headline: Real Time Fact-Checking.

All of this controversy caused Mr. Brisbane to come back with another post, in which he laments that his piece “generated way more heat than light.”

Here’s the Light

As my regular readers will recognize, this is a long-standing theme of this Web publication. I recently addressed the key question here in this piece: Rethinking Objectivity in American Journalism.

This is exactly the core problem we face not only in the news business in this country, but in the constant struggle to even attempt to have a coherent, informed public dialogue about politics, public policy or anything else. And here the guy who is in a position to potentially shed some serious light on the question is totally ignorant of the early history of the New York Times for which he writes, even though he has the prerequisite degree from Harvard to get hired by the paper.

It’s not his fault. Apparently there’s no one at the Times who actually knows what the term “objective journalism” was supposed to mean, because during the last half of the 20th century, the original meaning was lost and it was converted into a money-making device like snake oil was in 1898.

If this is the kind of inane conversation we are going to be subjected to at this late juncture in our history, we might as well all go bathe ourselves in snake oil.

I mean, what good is a college education if you don’t comprehend the point?

To reiterate my argument here in as simple a way as possible: Objectivity is a term from science. The idea is to come up with theoretical questions to test with hypothesis by gathering evidence and subjecting them to testing.

It is not the average daily newspaper reporter’s job to do this as the “business” is structured today. As the Ben Bradlee character said in the “All the King’s Men” movie, the film about Watergate, “It is not our job to print the truth. It is our job to print what people tell us.”

Therein lies the rub.

Readers want newspaper reporters to tell them the truth. But it takes a lot of brains, hard work and experience to be able to pull this off on deadline. So readers should rightly seek out people with the brains and experience who are willing to work at it to actually find out what the truth is and tell it like it is.

In fact, there are documents that if unearthed and written about could show that the original idea for objective journalism, at the New York Times no less, was about science, not capitalism. We are decades down the road from this and living our entire lives based on one big gigantic meme. It is a virus that plagues our culture and pollutes every conversation we have.

If we do not come up with a great big antidote for this, and soon, it could literally kill the world, or at least the human species. In my view this bad information is a bigger threat to our health than cancer or heart disease. If we form public policy on the basis of someone’s opinion that “there is no such thing as global warming,” for example, then we are freaking doomed.

The way I handle it is to deride the liars when they say something wrong and stupid, and the news organizations that report the lies, like I did the other day talking about the Republicans in Alabama. Of course the Birmingham and Huntsville papers cannot do this. They would have been out of business a long time ago if they even tried.

But if more news organizations would do that, perhaps politicians and others would not be so willing to tell lies in public. Liars like Mitt Romney know that whatever they say will make it onto television and be reported in newspapers too, because that is the nature of competitive capitalist news.

The unstated motto is: “Give people what they want, and let every moron decide for themselves what to believe.”

In this world, all opinions are equal — even if they are based on false community gossip, or a book written before there was a field of inquiry called science.

We used to say, “You have every right to your opinion, but not your own set of facts.”

I don’t know if they teach this at Harvard or not, but I learned in Philosophy 101 at the University of Alabama that there are “matters of opinion,” and there are “matters of fact.”

It seems to me that if President Obama never once in any speech actually apologized for America — and believe me if he did we would know it, because it would be all over Google – then for any news organization to report that without immediately pointing that out as a lie is not serving its audience well, only its advertisers. These days, that means corporations for the most part. And these days, the corporate CEOs lean Republican, so it serves their interests to have lies printed in newspapers like the New York Times. From there, they can be picked up by cable news commentators, bloggers and local politicians who repeat them to even win seats on the local school board.

Thus the vicious cycle of lies continues to destroy us.

As it happens, before I learned about this story last night, I happened to catch the movie Quiz Show on cable. If you want to become totally cynical about America and the media, watch that and see what happens in the end.

Kill the Meme

I have said this before and I will say it again, and again, and again, until enough people finally pick up on it and it becomes the antidote to the information virus. The only way to stop a meme is for someone who knows what they are talking about to post the truth online and let it travel around the Web until it kills the bad disease and destroys the career of the person willing to spread it.

I think it is pretty safe to say at this juncture that we pretty much destroyed the reputation of George W. Bush in this way, even though it was not in time to prevent his reelection in 2004.

As long as President Obama stays on course and keeps telling the truth, we will destroy his competition in 2012. We have that power now on the Web Press. We are about to eclipse Rush Limbaugh on radio and Fox News on TV. In fact, I think we have already.

Anybody want to bet me a 12-pack of Sweetwater Georgia Brown on that? I’m still looking for one or more takers for the presidential election of 2012.

These changes might not come about in Alabama just quite yet, but give it time. We will prevail in the end — unless they kill us first.

© 2012 – 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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