"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.”
Brisbane (who, as public editor, speaks only for himself, not the Times) referred to two recent stories: the claim that Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial reporting form when he left out key information, and Mitt Romney’s assertion that President Obama gives speeches “apologising” for America. Brisbane asked whether news reporters should have the freedom to investigate and respond to those comments.
The reaction from readers was swift, voluminous, negative and incredulous.
"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?"
Brisbane had clearly not been expecting this excoriating and one-sided a reaction. Brisbane has since tried to clarify his views twice. The first was on the media blog JimRomenesko.com:
"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."
The second was on the NY Times site:
"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."
This only added fuel to the fire.
Now, it’s worth noting that Brisbane’s question makes perfect sense, considered from the newsroom’s perspective. Romney’s claim that Obama makes speeches “apologising” for America isn’t readily amenable to fact-checking. Instead, Romney relied on what are sometimes called “weasel words”, in which an allegation is alluded to, without being made head-on. (Romney, for instance, never quotes any of the president’s speeches when making this assertion.) For Brisbane, the open question was whether a hard news reporter should be calling out those kinds of statements, or should simply quote the source accurately.
This is what was so extraordinary about his original question: he is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.
If the Times were to commit itself to challenging deliberately vague political language, it would have to express skepticism about some huge percentage of utterances made by public figures. Newspapers, at least in their US configuration, are simply not in the business of broadcasting skepticism about mainstream political speech.
This is partly because centrist publications enjoy more uniform access to politicians than partisan ones (even if the partisanship is simply an intolerance for hogwash). It’s also because treating readers as political participants rather than spectators would be frowned on by advertisers, for whom the relative neutrality of the mainstream press is a prized part of that platform’s value.
The immediate fallout from Brisbane’s question will be minor – no paper in the United States, not even the Times (as its editor partially concedes), has enough staff to express continuous skepticism about political speech – but there may yet be a lasting effect to be reckoned with. Having asked, in a completely innocent way, whether the Times should behave like an advocate for the readers, rather than a stenographer to politicians, the question cannot now be unasked. Every day in which the Times (and indeed, most US papers) fail at what has clearly surfaced as their readers’ preference on the matter will be a day in which that gap remains uncomfortably visible.