The New York Times Asks: “Should We Be Truth Vigilantes?” Ethics Alarms Answers: “No, Because You Can’t Be Trusted.”

Should Times reporters be like Wonder Woman's lasso of truth?

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.

9 thoughts on “The New York Times Asks: “Should We Be Truth Vigilantes?” Ethics Alarms Answers: “No, Because You Can’t Be Trusted.”

  1. If I say “I’ve potentially made a mistake with my driving,” that’s not the same as saying “I’m sorry I ran down your mother.” Claiming that those two things are in practice the same, as you do in this post, is ridiculous.

    If you redefine “apology” so it no longer means what it always means, but instead means expressions of regret, admissions of “potential” mistakes, or criticism of predecessors, then it’s true: Obama has apologized for the US a lot.

    But that’s not what “apology” actually means. That’s not what apology has ever meant.

    I know you claim not to be partisan, but you have to admit that 99% of people making the “apology” critique of Obama are on the right. This is the sort of partisan criticism that encourages stupidity and shallowness, rather than actual thought, engagement and depth.

    For instance, the first quote you bring out of context to claim that Obama apologized is from a speech in which Obama was making a policy argument. In the passage you quote, he was arguing that a particular policy (the Guantanamo prison) was harmful to US interests. His listing of the harms of the policy is what you’ve chosen to interpret as an apologetic statement, even though in context it’s obviously no such thing.

    In a Democracy, it’s important that politicians be able to explain why they think a policy is harmful to the U.S.. If they’re deterred from stating the harms of bad policies for fear of being quoted out of context to make them sound apologetic, that’s bad for everyone.

    Romney’s “Obama apologizes” line is exactly the sort of argument that makes American political discussions painfully stupid.

    It is, in fact, exactly the same as reading that Mitt Romney says he likes to be able to fire people in the context of discussing health insurance, and taking it out of context to falsely claim (or imply) that Romney has said that firing employees is fun. Not only is it dishonest, but it means that rather than discuss Romney’s actual policy statement — which merits a lot of criticism — people are discussing something he didn’t really say.

    * * *

    Regarding the original question, I don’t think the Times or anyone other legitimate news source should flatly call Romney a liar when he delivers the “apology” line. Nor should they refuse to report what Romney said.

    But every time they report Romney making the “Obama apologizes” criticism, they should also report that Romney’s claim is based on a subjective interpretation of Obama’s statements, not on Obama literally using the words “apologize” or “sorry” on behalf of the US. That’s just the truth, and there’s no reason not to report it.

    * * *

    Incidentally, in general, I don’t see anything wrong with a US president apologizing, if the US genuinely did something wrong. I had no objections to Bush’s apology, for instance. But note that it was a genuine apology,

    • Barry:
      1. I agree about “I’ve potentially made a mistake with my driving.” I don’t think it’s accurate to equate ANY of the Obama statements with that equivocal statement, so I can’t accept your claim that I wrote that those two things are in practice the same. In fact, I don’t affirmatively declare that any or all of Obama’s statements constitute apologies. I’m saying that we can argue about it, and Times reporters have no business settling the argument, which is valid, based on their biases.

      2 “If you redefine “apology” so it no longer means what it always means, but instead means expressions of regret, admissions of “potential” mistakes, or criticism of predecessors, then it’s true: Obama has apologized for the US a lot.”
      I don’t think its a redefinition…I think that many, if not most Americans, take such statements as apologies—and so do you. If I say to you: “Look, I shouldn’t have called you an idiot; that was wrong of me,” you mean you would not regard that as an apology? You’re lying! Wait–I regret saying that. No ethics blogger should ever say that to a sincere commenter; that was bad. Sometimes I get arrogant and doctrinaire and disrespectful—I have to learn to stop that. You deserve better.” NOT AN APOLOGY????

      3. “I know you claim not to be partisan, but you have to admit that 99% of people making the “apology” critique of Obama are on the right. This is the sort of partisan criticism that encourages stupidity and shallowness, rather than actual thought, engagement and depth.” The fact that the accusations of apology all come from the Right only means that the Left may be biased, in denial, or protecting its own, as I think is the case. Both the left and the right use this argument (meaning yours): “only the other side is arguing this, so it must have no legitimacy.” That’s a fallacy. Do I think the term “apology tour” is way over the top and unfair, a partisan smear? Sure. Do I think saying Obama has NEVER apologized for the US, as Krugman does, borders on a lie? Yes, absolutely. Do I think much of the divergence is explained by partisan motives and confirmation bias? No question about it.

      4. “For instance, the first quote you bring out of context to claim that Obama apologized is from a speech in which Obama was making a policy argument. In the passage you quote, he was arguing that a particular policy (the Guantanamo prison) was harmful to US interests. His listing of the harms of the policy is what you’ve chosen to interpret as an apologetic statement, even though in context it’s obviously no such thing”

      Barry, I did not claim that each of the statements were in fact apologies; I listed them (and there were many more) to make the point that no reporter/reader/ombudsman had any business saying there was no factual basis for Romney’s claim. Anyone can disagree, or say its overstated, but objectively false? Nonsense. Don’t act as if my post was about whether Obama apologizes–it wasn’t. But do I think he apologizes a lot? Yes, I do. Honestly.

      5. “In a Democracy, it’s important that politicians be able to explain why they think a policy is harmful to the U.S.. If they’re deterred from stating the harms of bad policies for fear of being quoted out of context to make them sound apologetic, that’s bad for everyone.” A valid point of view. I’m not arguing with it. I can even see apoint of view that says that POTUS should apologize like the Dickens, at the drop of a hat. Do this for me, though: find 5 statements by any other President like any of those in the list of Obamas. Use Reagan, Carter, and Bush 1. I bet you can’t, but I haven’t checked. Maybe all of them were apologetic as much as Obama.

      6. “Regarding the original question, I don’t think the Times or anyone other legitimate news source should flatly call Romney a liar when he delivers the “apology” line. Nor should they refuse to report what Romney said.
      But every time they report Romney making the “Obama apologizes” criticism, they should also report that Romney’s claim is based on a subjective interpretation of Obama’s statements, not on Obama literally using the words “apologize” or “sorry” on behalf of the US. That’s just the truth, and there’s no reason not to report it.”

      I agree 100%, as long as they also note that many regard the substance and tone of the statements as apologetic, regretful, or critical of past US actions and policy. Which is also the truth.

      And the reporting was the point of the article, not to defend Romney, or to criticize Obama. As a matter of judging leadership skills and technique, I don’t care for Obama’s whatever you call them—I think they pass the buck, undermine US credibility, pander and are weak. But I wasn’t writing about that.

      Later.

      * * *

      Incidentally, in general, I don’t see anything wrong with a US president apologizing, if the US genuinely did something wrong. I had no objections to Bush’s apology, for instance. But note that it was a genuine apology,

      • You claim that none of the statements you quoted are similar to “I’ve potentially made a mistake with my driving.” But I deliberately constructed that sentence to be similar to the extremely equivocal “Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes” that you quoted.

        In fact, I don’t affirmatively declare that any or all of Obama’s statements constitute apologies.

        Which is good, since none that I’ve looked up were actually apologies, in context. The problem is, you’re pretty much admitting that not interested in considering whether or not not facts contradict your opinion.

        If you accuse Obama of apologizing all over the place, you should be able to come up multiple unambiguous apologies. In that whole long list of quotes, there is not even a single unambiguous apology. Many of them, in context, are clearly not an apology at all.

        I’m saying that we can argue about it, and Times reporters have no business settling the argument, which is valid, based on their biases.

        Ideologues whose views aren’t subject to being changed by evidence can argue about anything. They can argue that global warming isn’t happening; they can argue that evolution is a myth; they can argue that communism has never killed anyone; they can argue that the WTC was taken down by something other than airplanes; they can argue that we can have huge tax cuts, not cut spending and lower the deficit; etc, etc..

        Just because something can be argued doesn’t mean it’s not a lie, and doesn’t make it unreasonable for the news to point out the lie.

        If evidence can’t change someone’s mind on a factual matter, then they aren’t one side of a “valid” argument. The “Obama is constantly apologizing for the US” people are in that category. ” I don’t affirmatively declare that any or all of Obama’s statements constitute apologies” isn’t a fair or reasonable statement if what you’re trying to do is craft your opinion in response to facts, rather than spin facts to support your opinion.

        * * *
        Regarding “many regard the substance and tone of the statements as apologetic, regretful, or critical of past US actions and policy,” what does “regretful or critical” have to do with it? Everyone agrees that Obama has made some statements that are critical/regretful of past US acts/policies.

        The issue is that leading conservatives, mainly our likely next president Mitt Romney, are claiming that Obama has been apologizing for America. That’s because Romney isn’t going to whip up any votes by saying “How dare Obama criticize past US policies,” but he thinks he can whip up votes by saying Obama apologizes for America.

        How about: “Many regard some of President Obama’s statements as apologizing for past US actions and policy; many disagree. President Obama has not literally used the words “apologize” or “sorry” on behalf of the US.”

        I think it would be an improvement if the Times and other news sources said that every time they quote someone repeating the “Obama apologizes” story, because it would mean that more readers would understand that the controversy is not over if Obama was right to apologize so much, but rather if he has apologized at all. What do you think?

        • If you want to argue that that particular quote isn’t an apology, I won’t argue —I probably should have left it out, as there were other more unequivocal ones. That changes nothing. I think your assertion that none of those statements amount to apologies is the result of bias and wishful thinking, straightaway, and if you can find me any neutral, English-speaking party who wouldn’t agree that many, if not all are apologetic, I’d be impressed. You are really arguing that apologetic statements aren’t apologies, and that is silly. Regretful statements to those supposedly wronged are apologies. Do we really have to look up the word? APOLOGY: 1. …regretful acknowledgment of a fault or offense. Look it up! There’s nothing in ANY definition of apology that requires the use of “sorry” or “apologize.” So you are demanding a technical accuracy that isn’t even correct, and worse, saying that applying the word to statements that explicitly meet the definition is lying!

          The rest of your argument is an ironic condemnation of ideological spin that itself is ideological spin. You want to ignore the actual, recognized definition of apology and rest your argument on the claimed motive for Romney calling colorable apologies what they are, or at least arguably are. No fair and rational person, or person willing to be fair and rational, can claim that the assertion that Obama has apologized for American policies and actions is a lie, rather than a debatable, supportable, legitimate opinion. Whether that is right or wrong is something else.

          You ask: “How about: “Many regard some of President Obama’s statements as apologizing for past US actions and policy; many disagree. President Obama has not literally used the words “apologize” or “sorry” on behalf of the US.”

          As I have said, you don’t have to use those words to make it an apology, except in the Times reader’s convenient lexicon, where Obama’s actions can be conveniently made to fit benign definitions. And Obama plays it both ways as well—he has many supporters who LIKE the idea of him apologizing for past policies, give him props forapologies, and regard what he said as apologies, but just reeeeeally clever apologies where he has a plausible denial. Or do you deny that too?

          If you admit that he has expressed regret, then the Dictionary says you have lost your own argument.

          • if you can find me any neutral, English-speaking party who wouldn’t agree that many, if not all are apologetic, I’d be impressed.

            Polifact interviewed three people with expertise about rhetoric and apolgies about Obama’s alleged apologies.

            • John Murphy, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies presidential rhetoric and political language. He said Obama is using conciliatory language for diplomatic purposes, not apologizing. […]

            Lauren Bloom, an attorney and business consultant, wrote the book, The Art of the Apology […] She said Obama’s words fall short of an apology, mostly because he didn’t use the words “sorry” or “regret.” […]

            Obama’s remarks are really non-apologies, and they’re not good in business or personal relationships, Bloom said. The one area where they can be useful: international diplomacy. […]

            • Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, a professor who studies international human rights, maintains the Web site Political Apologies and Reparations, a database of documents on apologies. […] “To say the United States will not torture is not an apology, it is a statement of intent,” Howard-Hassman said. “A complete apology has to acknowledge something was wrong, accept responsibility, express sorrow or regret and promise not to repeat it.”

            Obama’s Cairo address in particular was a means of reaching out to the Islamic world, not an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, she said.

            So there’s three English speakers for you; I’m sure that you will immediately accuse them all of being biased and partisan. They also found one person who said Obama was apologizing; he works for the Heritage Foundation, a far-right think tank.

            If you want to say that Obama hasn’t actually apologized, but sometimes expresses regrets or uses an “apologetic” tone, you can certainly make a stronger case for that. But that’s not what the Times article you were criticizing talked about, and it’s not what Romney has been saying in his speeches. Romney says that Obama has flat-out apologized. (In his book he used more measured words — but millions more people see him on TV than will ever read his book.)

            If you don’t agree with Romney that Obama has been apologizing — not “regretful statements” or an apologetic tone but apologizing — then you should have no objection to the Times or any other news source pointing out that Romney’s lying when he says Obama has apologized for America.

            • 1. Good job. Of course, I have no idea if those sources are neutral, just that they have written about apologies and diplomacy.(So the guy who says its an apology is biased, but the people who argue otherwise are just, you know, right.) I teach negotiation, I’m NOT biased, and I agree: in negotiation, things are said that are borderline insincere for persuasion purposes. But real diplomacy and negotiation usually doesn’t take place in public, because others hear and see the “diplomatic code.” What these people re arguing is that what would be an apology in other settings isn’t in a diplomatic setting. That itself is arguable, but a good point.
              2. Their argument, you knw, is that Obama’s regret is “for show,” or even insincere. That’s a Hell of a defense.
              3. They are still at odds with the dictionary, as are you. If Romney’s accusation is consistent with the definition, then it’s no lie. How can you argue otherwise, Barry? If he’s expressing regrets, the dictionary says that can be called an apology. This is all semantics, and you’re the one playing Clinton.
              4. I didn’t cite the torture comment. Obama should have apologized for waterboarding, and to the American people. Has he?
              5. Your last paragraph makes no sense whatsoever. If we’re having this discussion, then the Times has no business unilaterally claiming that Romney is lying, which would mean that he agrees with YOU. He doesn’t, and he has legitimate reasons. The Times should quote the President, and let people get their dictionaries, or read their favorite ideologue.
              6. Politifact, by the way, is as biased as they come. Collecting opinions has nothing to do with determining “facts”…it’s exactly what’s dishonest about the fact-check fad.

  2. We agree again on the merits of reporters seeking the facts, and the potential effect their personal biases could have on a story. A significant part of your response dealt with Obama as an apologist. And here, is the grey area that you described. With the benefit of hindsight, we should apologize for some things. I happen to believe that in situations where a party feels wronged, an apology, even a half assed one, goes a long way towards solving the issue. I also believe that apologizing does not make you weak, but can garner information that might never have presented itself but for the apology. Obama has had the luxury of looking back on a previous administration that took an extreme position: “we’re always right. Period”. That’s worse than constantly apologizing, no? had the Bush administration apologized a little, perhaps Obama would have been able to apologize less. Either way, we must never be scared of the truth. And while having spirit of your convictions is admirable, it also is not inconsistent with reconsideration, reaching a different conclusion, or saying I screwed that one up…..

    • Roger—I think those are all excellent points, and the issue of apologizing is a complex and fascinating one. I have never agreed with Mark Harmon’s character in NCIS that one should never apologize. I agree that sometimes an apology is strength, also honesty, fairness, graciousness, and accountability. I think a President has to be careful, however, and also should not often unilaterally throw previous Presidents under the bus.

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