Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?by ARTHUR S. BRISBANE, publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com
January 12th 2012
Readers provide advice for future public editor columns.
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.
One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.
Another 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?
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.”
That approach is what one reader was getting at in a recent message to the public editor. He wrote:
“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”
This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
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?
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign debates, The Times has employed a separate fact-check sidebar to assess the validity of the candidates’ statements. Do you like this feature, or would you rather it be incorporated into regular reporting? How should The Times continue a function like this when we move to the general campaign and there’s less time spent in debates and more time on the road?
Please feel free to leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: Readers Point the Way: Correcting Untruths. Please adhere to my comment moderation policy when posting.
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