Truth, truthiness and balance

by John Quiggin on January 13, 2012

Arthur Brisbane, Public Opinion editor for the NY Times, has copped a well deserved shellacking for a column in which he asked whether reporters should act as ‘truth vigilantes’ in relation to statements made by public figures.

Having observed the silliness of asking whether newspapers should (aspire to) tell the truth, the obvious question is: How should they telll it. Here are a some suggestions

1. Its unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words, such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc

 

2. If the approach suggested above, it will rapidly become apparent that Republicans lie all of the time about everything, whereas Democrats only lie some of the time about some things. A serious paper of record would acknowledge this, noting the partial exceptions like Jon Huntsman. That is, if the NYT were reallly serious about truth, it would gloss every statement by a Repub as (X, a member of the Republican Party claimed Y. Extensive studies by the NYT have shown that most statements by members of the Republican party are false. In this case …)

 

3. This is a sad state of affairs, just as its sad that Americans won’t have a chance to vote for a serious  Presidential candidate who opposes indefinite detention of innocent people. But that is the situation and organizations like the NYT have limited choices – they can either publish lies or be ‘truth vigilantes’.

{ 58 comments }

1

Watson Ladd 01.13.12 at 1:21 pm

JQ, you didn’t actually bother to read Brisbane’s article. The facts in question weren’t objective ones like is it cold today. They were about interpretations of flimsy excuses and tenuous readings of things. If a candidate said “Obama invaded Iraq” the Times would most definitely correct this. This is well covered in the responses to the update of the article, including a comment by Jill Abramson with some examples of the Times being really snarky.

2

Nibi 01.13.12 at 1:50 pm

I thought the examples provided in the article were poorly chosen. For example, do we give Romney latitude by allowing a metaphorical interpretation of “apology”? A gray area perhaps, but as some commenters to the original article noted a good reporter would press Romney by asking him to clarify what is meant by apology rather than mindlessly recording the statement.

Also, this distracts from the more serious issue of unchallenged repetition of falsehoods, that is the zombie lies JQ refers to. I can appreciate not having the time to do detailed research on all claims, particularly freshly manufactured nonsense, when operating under the deadlines of a fast news cycle. There is no excuse however for continually repeating without qualification long refuted nonsense.

3

Jeffrey Davis 01.13.12 at 2:08 pm

Truth vigilantes? What does that even mean? What is a newspaper supposed to do for its money?

If the Sulzbergers and their co-investors aren’t interested in printing the truth, they should sell their shares and buy Exxon or something. If telling the truth isn’t their idea of something to do with their lives, nobody is insisting that they continue to publish the NYTimes.

4

straightwood 01.13.12 at 2:11 pm

Once you understand that the NYT is a large media corporation that is operated to maximize the short-term gain of its stockholders, you will understand why it puts its financial results ahead of its “journalistic” responsibilities. For example, the NYT does not call abuse of American captives torture, because it would not be good business to upset the White House.

If you want, accurate, honest, and well-documented information and commentary on public affairs, you read CT, not the NYT. The reason intelligent people have shifted their consumption of news and analysis from traditional media to the blogosphere is that the integrity of (most) blogs has not been destroyed by morally defective money-grubbing “managers.”

5

David Blake 01.13.12 at 2:12 pm

The shellacking is not well-deserved at all. The critics all sem to think that news media should say public figures are lying. The current convention is that they don’t, they just set up a “he said, she said” debate by funding someone to express a different view regardless of the facts. Brisbane his opened a serious debate by raising this and it
‘s a pity he has been subjected to such silly criticism.

6

Jeffrey Davis 01.13.12 at 2:13 pm

Hell, the whole issue is just mis-direction. After the Whitewater and the Judith Miller fiascoes, who the hell cares about the New York Times. Truth vigilantes? Vain schmucks.

7

otto 01.13.12 at 2:26 pm

This is a very tough one. At the limit, JQ’s suggestions would be highly anti-pluralist. I say that even accepting that much of what is in the newspapers is the laundered/euphemized claims of welfare-reducing narrow interest groups.

There’s also the problem that some outlandish claims or policy proposals do turn out to “work”. JQ’s suggestion could have been used to justify requiring that every newspaper discussion of the proposed EEC in the 1950s should have included the sentence “An international organization of the sort that Monnet is proposing has never functioned before and, in the view of most scholarship on international relations, should be considered a utopian dream”.

8

john b 01.13.12 at 2:33 pm

otto: current events don’t necessarily invalidate that hypothesis.

9

otto 01.13.12 at 2:40 pm

Okay, but the pre-Euro part of the EEC/EU history was clearly much more effective than 1950s IR scholarship based on the history of the reliability of treaty obligations would have lead one to believe.

10

icastico 01.13.12 at 2:41 pm

If the approach suggested above, it will rapidly become apparent that Republicans lie all of the time about everything, whereas Democrats only lie some of the time about some things.

There is no discernible difference in the veracity rate between the two parties. Both lie most of the time about most things at about equivalent frequency.

11

John Quiggin 01.13.12 at 2:43 pm

An inherent risk of factual statements is that you may be wrong. Is there a better alternative?

12

Rich Puchalsky 01.13.12 at 2:55 pm

Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing where someone asks how they can do better and the real answer is that they should just stop. The problem is not just that the NYT does stenography. It does a mixture of stenography and originally reported propaganda, i.e. Judith Miller. Becoming a slightly less obvious stenographer would just give its investigative journalism an undeserved credibility.

Maybe there’s another test taking prep company they can support the paper with a la Kaplan and the Washington Post. Then they could provide news in the form a multiple choice questions with little circles to be filled in with a #2 pencil. And everyone knows that those only have one correct answer. Truth squadding problem solved.

13

Salem 01.13.12 at 3:00 pm

Not only are the suggestions anti-pluralist, but they are:

1. Abdicating the newspaper’s own role as determiner of truth. We have seen a big move towards this over the last 20 years, and now the newspapers have duelling statements by “experts.” This is not an improvement, and has likely made things worse, as it has politicised academia.

2. Moving into a different marketplace. The partisan press exists. Not everyone likes it.

3. Not really about truth statements at all. Global warming is mostly a prediction about the future, not a description of the world right now. The Ryan budget is a policy proposal – it’s not at all clear what it would mean for it to be “false” or a “lie.”

14

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.13.12 at 3:05 pm

I don’t see why the newspapers should aspire to tell the truth. They may have the goal of advocating a particular point of view, or selling advertizement and making money. Newspaper is a business. Now, a journalist should, indeed, aspire to tell the truth.

15

Medrawt 01.13.12 at 3:06 pm

I agree that Brisbane, in part due to poor choices on his part, was asking a somewhat more subtle and specific question than the one he was initially taken to be asking. However, were I him, the fact that so many people thought I was asking that other, more obvious question, might inspire me to consider why so many people had that impression, and perhaps arrive at the conclusion that my organization wasn’t actually even doing very well in that regard.

16

Marc 01.13.12 at 3:06 pm

The New York Times is far, far better about these issues than the norm for the US media.

@12: I’m sorry, but we have politicians here in the US saying that climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by scientists to get grant funding. If you care about informing your readers you don’t just report that NASA faked the moon landing, and you don’t just report that the earth is six thousand years old.

The Times actually does this for many topics, and the request for them to extend the list is perfectly reasonable. If you just repeat what people say you’re just the Weekly World News.

17

Jeffrey Davis 01.13.12 at 3:16 pm

re:12 ” not a description of the world right now.”

[Sound of laughter like a balloon bursting]

Physics isn’t a description of the world right now?

18

Salem 01.13.12 at 3:22 pm

“I’m sorry, but we have politicians here in the US saying that climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by scientists to get grant funding.”

Very few say that in so many words. You mostly have pols spreading FUD by saying these are unproven hypotheses, scientists make mistakes, there are conflicts of interest, etc. Similarly, few say “evolution never happened,” instead they use weasel phrases like children should hear both sides, intelligent design, etc. In fact, it is quite hard to catch a politician saying something that is demonstrably false – precisely because the media would call them on it. Instead, they deliberately say things that individually have a certain degree of truth, but which overall add up to deceit.

I don’t know how you are supposed to do objective reporting in such a morass. Like RP, I find it disappointing that they have turned into stenographers, but I don’t see how JQ’s suggestion to make them into partisans improves things.

19

ragweed 01.13.12 at 3:39 pm

More importantly (and possibly, but only possibly, more dangerously) it would probably shift the framework of the debate. If the NYT and other MSM were to report on Repubs statements on global warming as JQ suggests, it could lead to Repubs to make fewer bat-guano crazy statements. On the other hand, there is the question of who would decide what their facts were and how. “A conclusion endorsed by every scientific body in the world” seems relatively easy, but what about orthodox economics? It is entirely possible that a policy of this sort could actually perpetuate zombie ideas if they appeared to be the orthodoxy in a field.

Of c ourse, the other possibility is that the Repubs would just label the NYT as biased liberal media. They might even gravitate towards some sort of hack news network that actually pandered to their bat-guano crazy ideas. I know – it seems unlikely that there would be a media outlet that would dedicate themselves to being a mouthpiece for right-wing hacks, but it could happen. . .

20

paul 01.13.12 at 3:47 pm

The fact that this question had to be asked is depressing.

Regardless of whether we believe it or not, this:

That is, if the NYT were reallly serious about truth, it would gloss every statement by a Repub as (X, a member of the Republican Party claimed Y. Extensive studies by the NYT have shown that most statements by members of the Republican party are false. In this case …)

seems like a trap. As Salem @ 13 points out, enlisting the newspaper of record as partisans instead objective observers won’t help.

As I wrote to Mr Brisbane (my sternly-worded letter to the Times?),

I quibble with your proposed example, as quoted here:

“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.”

Rather than defend the President, defend the facts. Your reporter should ask for a transcript or recording of the remarks they take exception to: report those, if there are any, and let the facts lead.

Newspapers aren’t supposed to take sides, simply report the facts, but nor are they required to prop up argument in the interest of fairness. Kerry gets pilloried over a reference to arcane Senate procedure, Obama is “quoted” as saying there are 57 states, Al Gore invented the internet, all of these get extensive play, but the fact that Sainted Ronald enacting the largest peacetime tax increase in history or that he raised taxes almost every year of his two terms is never cited in response to claims that he is the champion of low tax rates.

Senator Moynihan said it best: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

21

voyou 01.13.12 at 4:01 pm

“If you just repeat what people say you’re just the Weekly World News.”

You can criticize the factual accuracy of the Weekly World News on a number of different fronts, but I don’t think you can accuse them of being mere stenographers. Or if they are, that puts a rather different complexion on all the times they quoted Bat Boy.

22

jack lecou 01.13.12 at 4:08 pm

Instead, they deliberately say things that individually have a certain degree of truth, but which overall add up to deceit.

Absolutely. Which is why news organizations need to do a better job of reporting on implications and conclusions rather than simply “facts” or “statements” in a vacuum. Or at least try to present the facts in such a way as to avoid becoming themselves party to the formation of false conclusions.

In your specific examples, I don’t see why it would be problematic to juxtapose the “weasel phrase” against a statement of fact which, while perhaps not directly contradicting the “truthy” statement, destroys the false associations and conclusions which the pol is trying to create.

For example, “children should hear both sides” could be followed by a statement explaining the context: that “both sides” refers to, on the one hand, a scientific conclusion which is backed by mountains of evidence and forms the robust theoretical foundation for all of biology and medicine, and on the other, a transparently flawed “theory” whose ancestors/cousins have already been found in courts to be transparent covers for religion.

Hopefully a good editor could make that and the other stock responses a bit shorter and pithier, but you get the idea. The ‘lie’ in all of those statements is an implication. (In the above case, the implication that there is in fact a credible “other side” which is being unfairly excluded.) That implication can and should be countered by a simultaneous statement of fact crafted to prevent the reader from drawing any obviously false conclusions from the story as a whole.

The failure to provide such context allows those false implications to stand, and makes the paper complicit in the misinformation attempt.

23

politicalfootball 01.13.12 at 4:14 pm

Very few say that in so many words.

Actually, it’s not at all unusual for public officials to accuse climate scientists of deliberate fraud.

But anyway, surely you can agree that when this happens – or when politicians suggest there is a scientific controversy over evolution – that a proper journalists must point out that these statements are unsupported by any sensible reading of the facts.

24

Billikin 01.13.12 at 4:15 pm

Brisbane objected to the fact that the responses did not address his question. But it was a stupid question. His readers do not want truth vigilantes, they want journalists who check facts and report the truth. They do not think that the media in general or the Times in particular practice Journalism 101.

25

christian_h 01.13.12 at 4:38 pm

I am confused as to the direction the debate’s taking. The crucial failure of news media to me seems to me not to be their failure to call out partisan politicians on lies about their opponents (although of course they should). At least on those issues an alternate point of view is usually presented, if not in the same article. The crucial failure occurs on those issues where both parties agree (read, most issues); in that case no challenge is usually presented, not even in a he-said-she-said manner. This is not a problem of US media only, either, to be clear, although it seems more acute here than some other places. Another problem that to me seems worse than failure to call campaigners to account is the way the news media themselves concoct a story line and then fit the facts to it (cf. Bush vs. Gore, 1999/2000).

26

Barry 01.13.12 at 4:49 pm

Jeffrey Davis 01.13.12 at 2:08 pm

” Truth vigilantes? What does that even mean? What is a newspaper supposed to do for its money?”

It’s a Kinsley Gaffe (somebody said what they believed). There are two basic concepts in ‘vigilante’ – unlawfulness and illegitimacy. Brisbaine feels that pointing out facts is not a legitimate function of the press.

27

Marc 01.13.12 at 5:07 pm

@21: I read a wonderful article about the Weekly World News, and their particular genius was that they would simply write down what their subjects said. If a guy said he saw Bat Boy, or Elvis, or was a vampire…they just wrote an article taking them at their word. After awhile they didn’t even have to make things up.

Great for them, but this is not such a good model for news.

28

Marc 01.13.12 at 5:10 pm

@18: Rick Perry said exactly that, and he was running for president. If he had not messed up so badly in debates it’s likely that he would be the nominee. The denialist language has gotten really extreme here.

29

jack lecou 01.13.12 at 5:12 pm

Great for them, but this is not such a good model for news.

No, it really isn’t. I ran into Bat Boy at an Applebees in Minnesota once. He said most of those stories were wildly inaccurate. Even when they quoted him directly, they usually took it out of context.

30

CJColucci 01.13.12 at 5:30 pm

How did Bat Boy like the Applebees salad bar?

31

Salem 01.13.12 at 5:39 pm

“@18: Rick Perry said exactly that, and he was running for president.”

No, Rick Perry never said climate change was a conspiracy cooked up by scientists to get funding data. That is what he implied. What he actually said is (numbering mine):

“[1]I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized,” Perry answered. “[2]I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. [3]I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. [4]Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.”

There aren’t any provably false statements! Let’s parse:

1. True statement. False implication – politicised by scientists, when in fact it is he (and others like him) politicising it.
2. Weasel-worded statement, and accusation without target. What does it mean to “manipulate” data? For some value of “substantial number” and “manipulate,” this statement is likely true: there is both a conflict of interest and a publication bias just like everywhere in academia. However the false implication coming out of this statement is just huge. In particular, the conflict of interest works in both directions, and the work of some noted denialists has not been short on “manipulation.”
3. True statement: Perry would likely even name names if challenged. False implication, because few if any of these scientists are experts in the relevant field.
4. True statement. False implication: that the relevant timeframes are comparable.

It’s very hard to know what a is newspaper supposed to do with this. There’s no lie here, but it’s not exactly the truth. Moreover, it’s hard for a news article to get into the weeds of all this. If there were an easy response I’m sure the newspapers would have come up with it by now.

32

jack lecou 01.13.12 at 5:48 pm

Steered clear. (I don’t blame him, the sneeze guard didn’t really look very adequate.) He went after the spinach and artichoke dip pretty enthusiastically though.

33

jack lecou 01.13.12 at 6:10 pm

christian_h-

That’s an excellent point.

I think proposals like JQ’s are really the bare minimum that we should be expecting: not to print false or misleading completely without effective challenge (i.e., generally with, at most, dueling quotes, or an intermittent ‘fact check’ column in some other part of the paper).

The deeper issues are somewhat less tractable. It’s harder to see what to do about straight up bias – whether narrative or partisan – or how to change the method of selection of issues and stories reported on in a way that is less driven by what the powerful happen to want the press to talk about.

I do think that a genuine commitment to report more actual facts might at least mitigate these issues somewhat, so it’s not a bad start. For example, one could hope that reporting the facts about the Al Gore’s “invented the internet” meme in every story that mentioned it might have served as a form of self correction to the broader developing media narrative. Or constantly relating facts about the depth and nature of the budget deficit problem might tend to lead writers and editors to step back and ask questions about whether it was really the most pressing issue at the moment.

34

Steve LaBonne 01.13.12 at 6:19 pm

Let’s not waste time on nitpicking.There are plenty of provably false statements reported without comment by our “professional” “journalists”. Here’s an example. What reporter has called Romney on it?

35

StevenAttewell 01.13.12 at 6:32 pm

Watson Ladd @1 – Sorry, that’s not actually what happened. Brisbane first wrote “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.” He then got roundly mocked for this, then retreated to saying that “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.” Then even the current executive editor of the New York Times came down on him saying, ” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.”

Then he retreated to saying, “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” and gave the examples of Mitt Romney claiming the president apologized for America or Justice Thomas claiming to have misunderstood financial disclosure rules as if those were cases in which journalists should shy away from definite statements about who’s telling the truth.

The problem is that those cases don’t help him. In the case of Romney, it’s a straightforward lie – the president hasn’t apologized, so the paper should state that. In the case of Thomas, yes, a “reporter can[‘t] crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice,” but there’s nothing that stops a reporter from say, asking some tax experts how difficult it is to fill out a financial disclosure form, whether Thomas has done so in the past, or at a pinch just saying “Thomas said he misunderstood the forms. The New York Times cannot confirm or deny whether this is the case.”

@ OP: I’m a little hesitant about your idea of having a facts style guide without greater transparency to the public – in part because I think there’s some kind of this already in existence operating in unsavory ways. Your examples about climate change or the Ryan plan are all to the good, but what about the habit the New York Times has of automatically describing all welfare states as bloated, or that Europe can’t compete because of worker protection laws? These ticks are common across multiple New York Times writers, which makes me think there is an unofficial facts style guide full of zombie economics ideas.

36

Rich Puchalsky 01.13.12 at 6:34 pm

“which makes me think there is an unofficial facts style guide full of zombie economics ideas.”

There’s no need for a style guide when everyone thinks alike.

37

Hidari 01.13.12 at 6:37 pm

”@21: I read a wonderful article about the Weekly World News, and their particular genius was that they would simply write down what their subjects said. If a guy said he saw Bat Boy, or Elvis, or was a vampire…they just wrote an article taking them at their word. After awhile they didn’t even have to make things up.’

The main difference between the NYT and the Guardian (in the UK) and the WWN/Sunday Sport is that this ‘stenographer’ approach is used by both ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ papers but in the NYT/Guardian it is only the rich and powerful who are so treated. There are two differences between the loonies interviewed by the Sunday Sport and the loonies who run our world: the loonies who run our world earn more, and have more power than the ‘ordinary punters’ who are interviewed by the WWN/Sunday Sport, and the loonies who run our world tend to invent deranged incoherent lies that flatter or serve elite interests. It’s only if both these criteria are met that the ‘journalists’ at the Guardian or the NYT switch off the ‘skeptical’ parts of their brain. So if a poor person turned up at the offices of the NYT saying that a World War 2 bomber had been found on the moon, or whatever, proper journalistic caution would be used. But if a rich powerful person invents some demented story about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ held by Iraq or that ‘Iran is developing a nuclear weapon’ then, and only then, is the stenographer approach used.

38

js. 01.13.12 at 6:59 pm

Oh, but the Guardian is so much better than the NYT.

More generally, isn’t this whole thing a bit ridiculous, though? The writers and editors at the “Newspaper of Record” need help in figuring out how to tell the truth! That’s where we’re at now? I’m not saying that I’m either shocked or surprised that this is the state of affairs, but it’s a little hard to take it seriously.

39

Substance McGravitas 01.13.12 at 7:06 pm

NYT should formulate a standard set of words

They should have a Not So page on their site, and any time someone bullshits and they manage to catch it, they asterisk it, the asterisk leads to “Not so.” at the bottom of the item (which can be linked on the site). You don’t actually need to clutter up the story. Readers of the paper edition know there’s a reference they can have if they want it.

40

Tedra Osell 01.13.12 at 7:14 pm

The NYT (and NPR, and teachers everywhere, and and) has been thoroughly cowed by the “liberal media” meme. And many, if not most, Americans of all political bents have bought into the coordinating “you can’t trust the media” theory. Everything is “just a belief” now. It’s so fucking depressing.

41

Jeffrey Davis 01.13.12 at 7:15 pm

Lying is often confused with perjury, but a lie is a moral act, not a legal one. It’s an attempt to deceive. True statements are irrelevant to it.

42

Tedra Osell 01.13.12 at 7:16 pm

They should have a Not So page on their site, and any time someone bullshits and they manage to catch it, they asterisk it, the asterisk leads to “Not so.”

Like this!

43

jack lecou 01.13.12 at 7:20 pm

But if a rich powerful person invents some demented story about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ held by Iraq or that ‘Iran is developing a nuclear weapon’ then, and only then, is the stenographer approach used.

To be [over-]scrupulously fair, there is the issue of authority. If the above rich powerful person telling the story is, say, the director of a national intelligence service, then it’s not entirely unfair to start with a somewhat greater presumption that there is actually news to relate there.

Which is not to say that what they are saying should be taken at anything like face value either – journalistic caution should still be very much in play. Just at perhaps closer to the level you might apply to a professional astronomer reporting sightings of a lunar B-17, rather than a man off the street.

44

Steve LaBonne 01.13.12 at 7:22 pm

If the above rich powerful person telling the story is, say, the director of a national intelligence service, then it’s not entirely unfair to start with a somewhat greater presumption that there is actually news to relate there.

But they do it with politicians, who should always be presumed to be lying until proven otherwise.

45

Barry 01.13.12 at 7:34 pm

CJColucci

” How did Bat Boy like the Applebees salad bar?”

He’s half fruit bat, so he loves it. He did say that he never runs into Brooks there,
so Brooks is making it up.

46

Hidari 01.13.12 at 7:38 pm

‘But they do it with politicians, who should always be presumed to be lying until proven otherwise.’

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Lord Acton.

I’ve always thought it was significant that only the first para. of that quote is generally quoted: the part highlighted seems, to me, to be more significant.

47

Rich Puchalsky 01.13.12 at 7:55 pm

I think that process concerns would actually go further than fact-checking politician’s statements, per se.

1. No anonymous sources. If you want to be a stenographer, you can, but people need to know who you’re quoting. The only exceptions come when you actually are doing investigative journalism and have a source that would actually be harmed if identified.

2. No he said/she said about matters of fact. If you’re writing about global warming, then there is only one side insofar as atmospheric science is concerned. Costs / benefits, maybe not.

3. Stop pretending to be unbiassed. All remaining newspapers should be openly partisan newspapers. Either that, or stop insulting our intelligence by pretending that e.g. heterodox economics does not exist.

48

P.D. 01.13.12 at 8:23 pm

The ‘truth vigilante’ metaphor seems horribly malformed. As Barry @26 notes, it presumes that relating the truth is not the legitimate function of a newspaper. In order for ‘vigilante’ to work in a metaphorical way, there must also be some metaphorical ‘police’. Yet it is hard to know who the ‘truth police’ would be if not legitimate news organizations.

49

G. McThornbody 01.13.12 at 8:40 pm

The NYT isn’t the only source of information in the world, although people like to hold it to a higher standard than say, Fox or tabloids. I wouldn’t mind if they adopted some of the ideas from CJR like Story Repair:

http://remappingdebate.org/story-repair

“In this feature, we select a story that appeared in one or more major news outlets and try to show how a different set of inquiries or observations could have produced a more illuminating article. For repair this week, four Apr. 7 articles: “House Votes to Stop EPA From Regulating Greenhouse Gases” (Wall Street Journal); “Senate rejects measure to stop EPA on climate” (Reuters); “House Passes Anti-EPA Legislation” (US News); and “U.S. House Passes Repeal of EPA Carbon Rules Over White House Objections” (Bloomberg).

A reader looking at any of those stories would have little or no way to know that those supporting the legislation were: (a) denying scientific consensus on climate change; (b) presenting an argument about an “overreaching” Environmental Protection Agency that is apparently belied by the Agency’s existing responsibilities as determined by the Supreme Court; and (c) were largely unwilling or unable to support their talking points with evidence beyond a desire to assist local industries regardless of environmental impact.”

grismcthorn

50

L2P 01.14.12 at 12:20 am

“[1]I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized,” Perry answered. “[2]I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. [3]I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. [4]Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.”

“[1]I do believe that the issue of [blue skies] has been politicized,” Perry answered. “[2]I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated [“sky being blue”] data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. [3]I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that [the sky is blue]. [4]Yes, [the sky COULD be blue]. [The color of the sky has] been changing ever since the earth was formed.”

Perry’s statements really don’t seem to have a whole lot of truth value, do they?

51

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.14.12 at 2:47 am

I’m really, really, really contemptuous of the “Oh lord, the NYT may be portrayed as partisan, dearie me” arguments here when it comes to Romney telling porkies. Acronyns like “WTF” and “DIAF” and “NWGFFO” cross my mind.

On the one hand, reporting is meant to tell truth and reveal lies, as almost everyone seems to understand apart from Arthur Brisbane. On the other hand, since the Democrats are a center-right party as I understand, is “partisanship” the right word when you are seen to favor them over the far-right Republicans? On the gripping hand, if the NYT is worried about being too much in the tank for the Democrats, there should be things they could go hard on the Obama administration. Why has Eric Holder been so easy on Goldman Sachs these last three years?

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Alan 01.14.12 at 3:43 am

Finally a use for my university’s kind offer to provide a set of business cards.

Have Tongue, Will Prattle
Wire Truth Vigilante
Philosophy Department

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Jack Strocchi 01.14.12 at 9:00 am

Pr Q said:

This is a sad state of affairs, just as its sad that Americans won’t have a chance to vote for a serious Presidential candidate who opposes indefinite detention of innocent people.

I guess this implies that Ron Paul is not a “serious Presidential candidate”, although he has taken a principled civil libertarian stand against the suspension of habeas corpus for terrorist suspects. Paul’s candidacy deserves more attention from both pundits and populus because he is reality-based on quite a few key issues (civil liberty, border protection, national security, economic stability – he correctly predicted the causes and consequences of the housing bubble years before mainstream economists) and because his appeal cuts across party lines.

FWIW, I am in agreement with the Pr Q on the illegitimacy of the US kidnapping, torturing and indefinitely detaining presumably innocent people in an endless GWOT. Especially given the spread of democratic norms across the Middle East and the winding down of the US’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On utilitarian, libertarian and conservative grounds we should stick to the rule of law, as martial law causes more harm to the accused than good to the public, violates our headline liberal values and represents a sharp break in our civil tradition which might be difficult to fix.

The surest way of protecting freedom in general is to “do no harm” to our own freedom in particular. Respect other people’s borders and protect our own. Right-wing “corporals” should take a chill pill about Muslim gangs that can’t shoot straight. And Left-wing liberals need to become “truth vigilantes” towards the naive and delusional aspects of their “open borders” ideology.

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Kenny Easwaran 01.14.12 at 8:29 pm

I think one thing that Brisbane might have been thinking, which most people discussing the story haven’t, is that articles about politicians and major policy issues are just a small fraction of the news articles that the NYTimes publishes. I just pulled up a random article that doesn’t deal with those sorts of issues:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/14/nyregion/st-patricks-day-parade-in-hoboken-is-canceled.html

I found several quotes in there that make factual claims – which of these should the reporter have done an independent fact check of?

“She said [the door of her building] had survived the riots in Hoboken decades ago, but it did not survive Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day,”

Bill Coughlin, a spokesman for the parade committee, said the performers would be unavailable on a weekday. “The vast majority, these are people with regular jobs” who take time off only for the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan, he said.

The mayor countered that “they have to understand the parade brings people in from all over.”

“The city is dealing with the aftermath,” she said. “We try as hard as we can. Every single police officer we can, we have on duty — officers from the Port Authority, from N.J. Transit, the sheriff’s office, other municipalities. We’re a small town. We cannot handle the security measures that need to be in place.”

“It’s a business killer for us. No one who normally comes to our store wants to come. There’s fighting, people passing out on the streets, and everyone wants to use our bathroom, and they get belligerent when we don’t let them. It’s just a mess for us.”

I agree that the newspaper should do a better job of fact-checking misleading quotes from important politicians and business and academic leaders, but fact-checking quotes like the ones above would just be a pointless delay on the reporting of local news. Maybe there’s a principled way for them to draw the line of which people need to be fact-checked before being quoted. Maybe any time they quote the same person in more than one article in a given month?

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StevenAttewell 01.14.12 at 8:35 pm

I don’t think it actually would be a pointless delay. In the case of the woman, ask a neighbor in the building or the super. In the case of the mayor, call Port Authority, N.J transit and check. It’s a few minutes work.

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mike 01.20.12 at 12:24 am

Thanks for claiming that Republicans lie more than Democrats. As a (former) Democrat who actually knows the party’s history I found this quite hysterical. Utterly ridiculous, and a very blatant and easily disprovable lie, but extremely amusing. As far as the NY Times and other corporate media goes, no one should consider anything written in any publication that uses anonymous sources as anything but entertainment. No competent journalist or scholar would ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, use anonymous sources. It’s difficult to think of a more unprofessional or dishonest practice.

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Substance McGravitas 01.20.12 at 12:28 am

As a (former) Democrat who actually knows the party’s history I found this quite hysterical.

Doesn’t somebody here have some kind of tag-line to go with this sort of thing?

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Salient 01.20.12 at 12:39 am

I have to admit, I’m curious which sources mike relies upon and trusts. Setting aside the question of whether granting frightened whistle-blowers anonymity is under some circumstances competent and professional, I really would love to access some news reporting that almost always carefully cites its sources by name. It’d be interesting, at least.

Links, mike, or specific suggestions for where to find this offline?

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