In an appeal to New York Times readers that is at once alarming, naive, arrogant and ominous, Arthur Brisbane, the Times’ “public editor” (Translation: ombudsman) asks whether the paper’s reporters should be “truth vigilante(s)… should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
The answer is no, no, no, and for the obvious reasons. Times reporters are biased, and not inclined to challenge dubious statements they agree with or that come from political figures they like, and are inclined to find statements “non-factual” because of their own preferences and biases. Helpfully, the two examples cited by Brisbane are exactly the kinds of statements the Times, and most of the press, are completely incapable of handling fairly. Here’s the first:
“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.”
I think that too, but I don’t know, and it isn’t up to the Times reporters to state that Thomas is lying. For one thing, I trust a Supreme Court Justice, any Supreme Court Justice, over a journalist, and second, Clarence Thomas and only Clarence Thomas knows whether he misunderstood or not. It is up to pundits to opine about Thomas’s conduct, and, typically, those who like his opinions will say he’s an honorable man, and those who don’t will argue that he’s a liar. And the reporter? He or she should report. There is nothing definite to challenge, and I don’t trust reporters to judge which facts they should or shouldn’t question.
The second example cited is even more suspicious, as it evokes the “Fact-check” phenomenon, in which so often “false” means “not what the reporter thinks is the correct interpretation.” Brisbane writes:
“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.”
Great: let’s have all the reporters showing the same measured objectivity as Paul Krugman. The question of whether President Obama has apologized for America is not cut and dried, and Krugman’s claim that critics are lying is as over-stated as saying that Obama has been on “an apology tour.” What Obama has done, and certainly has done more than any president in memory, is express regret and criticism of past U.S. policy using words that while not including “apology,” could fairly be called apologetic. Such as:
- “There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America’s strongest currency in the world. … Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies.”
- “Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas.”
- Before the Turkish Parliament: “The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history. … Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.”
- Commenting on Guantanamo in France: “I don’t believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure.”
- Regarding management of the “War on Terror”: “Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. … In other words, we went off course.”
- At the G-20 Summit of World Leaders: “I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we’ve made, that you’re starting to see some restoration of America’s standing in the world.”
- At the G-20: “It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the (economic) crisis began in the U.S. I take responsibility, even if I wasn’t even president at the time.”
- Again at the G-20: “If you look at the sources of this crisis, the United States certainly has some accounting to do with respect to a regulatory system that was inadequate.”
- Before the Summit of the Americas: “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. … So I’m here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration. The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made.”
- To Muslims: “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect.”
- To France and Europe: “Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”
The argument that it is a “lie” for Romney to call such statements apologies reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Kramer demands payment from a bank when a teller didn’t say “hello!” as the bank guaranteed, but all the employees used some version of the greeting, like “What’s up?,” “Hey!,” “How ya doing?” and “Yo!” Many of Obama’s statements, if not all of them, are apologetic; they accept blame, admit mistakes, express regret, criticize predecessors, accept responsibility for misconduct—these are apologies in every respect but the word itself, which, no fool he, the President took pains not to use. When the President said, for example, “Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities,” it is disingenuous to call that anything but an implied apology, unless you think Obama’s meaning was, “…and we intend to keep on doing things just as we have been!”
Now, I happen to believe a President should do this rarely, and that Obama has been overly eager to be critical of his own country’s policies. You may disagree with that, and you may have some good arguments, but you may not fairly say that my assessment that such statements are tantamount to apologies is a lie, or an affirmative misrepresentation. Krugman’s column was far more dishonest than any over-statement by Romney. But as the ombudsman’s column proves, journalists at the Times apparently aren’t capable of making such distinctions.
Should reporters correct outright falsehoods? Of course: that’s their job. Should they ask for support of a provocative claim, like, for example, when Matt Lauer allowed Hillary Clinton to make the sweeping statement that the Monica Lewinsky story was the invention of “a vast right-wing conspiracy”? Certainly, especially since that statement was in the service of a larger deception, though even this is getting close to the line where bias makes objective reporting unlikely.
The question from Brisbane, he says, is prompted by readers who want the Times “to set the record straight,” he says, but that’s not what they really want. They want Times reporters to manipulate the news according to the biases of their readers, applying the biases of the reporters. Journalists do too much of that already.
The Times reporters are as good as any, and they still can’t be trusted to be objective in assessing what is fact for any question more nuanced than whether the sky is green or blue, or whether Abe Lincoln was born in Bailey’s Mistake, Maine. Let the columnists, bloggers, pundits and analysts debate the gray areas. The Times has no business being a “truth vigilante.” It has enough trouble just getting its facts straight.