Are journalists supposed to look for the truth?

It’s bad enough that so much 24-7 cable television deteriorates into an unfinished food fight between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, typically moderated by a “journalist” lacking the interest or will to  figure out whose facts are right.  But when the public editor of the venerable  New York Times publicly asks his readers if journalists should parse the B.S. to get to the truth, I’ve got wonder who blew up the principles of journalistic fairness.

Surely American journalists don’t need comedian Jon Stewart to tell them “fact-checking is a function of news.”  Or do they?

It’s been two years since Stewart took on the CNN denizens of “we’ll leave it there” in this long, funny and damning piece on the Daily Show (click link and move in to the 2 minutes, 29 second mark.)

Not a whole lot has changed since Stewart’s schtick, which shows correspondent after correspondent making next to no effort to shed light on false or murky claims.  At least nothing much changed until yesterday — when things got worse.

Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, in the spirit of contemplative interactive news, asked his readers in so many words, “How should we cover the news?”

He began his column like this:

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.

Huh, what?

Did he really need to ask readers what reporters are supposed to do for a living?  Brisbane, according to his Times bio, has been in journalism for well over 30 years.  Surely, he’s heard the old journalism saw, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Facts — yes, “true facts” is redundant — are his profession’s lifeblood.

Or maybe not. Here’s more of his column:

… 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 answer, Mr. Brisbane, is this. Reporters should make clear that the president has never used that word and then characterize what he has said. That’s called context, a longstanding journalistic concept. But that context can be provided without characterizing Romney’s words as misleading, which is an opinion.

Contextualized facts allow readers to sort through disagreement and reach their own conclusions.  It’s a long way from the spin passed off as news at places like Fox.

This is hardly new to American journalism; the abject weakness of “he said, she said” objectivity has been well known at least since  Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s reign of anti-communist terror in the 1950s. Then a know-nothing press abetted the Wisconsin bully by printing his accusations about “card-carrying communists” without checking the facts behind his charges. Instead reporters merely ran the accused’s denials, allowing McCarthy to ruin lives on the basis of innuendo and falsehood.

Is that the kind of journalism Mr. Brisbane admires? I can’t imagine.  There’s a vast middle ground between reporters promoting their personal views in news and reporters acting as empty ciphers of information.

No, reporters are not supposed to share their personal views. But they also are not supposed to leave it to the public to figure out what’s true and what’s false.

Surely, the public editor of The New York Times doesn’t need my lecture to realize this. But why then is he skirting close to an advocacy of “know-nothing journalism” in his column?

I do take heart in the robust response of his readers.  Media blogger Jim Romenesko catalogued some of it and linked to reaction on Twitter that was lively and harsh:

“When did truth-telling and fact-checking become novel ideas?” tweeted “blogdiva” Liza Sabater. “This is your job.”

Tweeted Glenn Greenwald, “This post from NYT Public Editor should be put on the wall of a museum to explain contemporary US journalism.”

And “Calvin,” whose Twitter handle is  “aurosan,” wrote, “Is the NYTimes kidding? Are they really asking people if they should act like journalists or not. What a disaster.”

Even after the fact, Brisbane, in a response to Romenesko, seemed flummoxed. He wrote:

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.

Really? What’s so difficult about the concept of context? Without it — without measuring statement against background and fact — the news is little more than a rolling firing range. For that, we only need a megaphone, not paid journalists.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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