Torturing the Truth Vigilantes

“WHAT ELSE ARE WE ON THIS EARTH TO DO???,” Dan Froomkin tweeted as he contemplated the NYT’s Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, asking for reader input on whether or not its reporters should correct false statements made by those they report on.

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.


[Including a paragraph correcting false claims] 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?

I responded to Froomkin, “I believe ‘Gin up wars for the Administration’ is high on NYT’s list of ‘what else they are on this earth to do.'”

Now, I’m just as interested in how Brisbane framed this. The whole article was titled, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Admittedly, it’s possible Brisbane didn’t come up with the headline. Nevertheless, the choice of the word “vigilante” suggests violent, mob action. This, from the foremost member in this country of what used to be known as “The Fourth Estate,” professionals who, by virtue of their training, are believed not to operate with the same blindness of a mob. The headline could have asked, “Should NYT’s journalists act like journalists?” but that would normalize the apparently radical idea of fact-checking. Instead, Brisbane (or the NYT’s headline writer) treated the simple act of telling the truth as something only the rabble might do.

Just as troubling, still, are the examples Brisbane cites. First, there’s a reader’s suggestion that the NYT ought to weigh in to say that Clarence Thomas did not in fact “misunderstand” his disclosure documents, but chose not to comply with them. I would hope an experienced journalist would also understand that we can’t know what Thomas does or does not understand, and while it’s appropriate for an experienced law journalist to note where Thomas’ understanding of precedent and law deviates from past practice, it’s probably not appropriate to talk about what he does and does not understand on issues where “understanding” is not engrained in the law. (I do, however, thoroughly support the NYT’s opinion pages from questioning whether a guy who doesn’t understand disclosure forms ought to be one of this country’s nine arbiters of the law, or while we’re at it, whether a guy who misuses TurboTax to avoid paying taxes ought to be entrusted with overseeing this country’s financial system).

Brisbane’s second example is when it took Paul Krugman, an NYT op-ed columnist, to call out Mitt Romney for accusing Obama for apologizing for the United States.

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?

I’m appalled by this statement because of the way it repeats the earlier logic of the NYT: in which its opinion page made fun of GOP candidates that didn’t call waterboarding “torture,” in spite of the fact that anyone getting their “facts” from the NYT’s news page would have learned that waterboarding was simply harsh interrogation.

But here’s the problem. The institutional position of the NYT maintains that whether waterboarding constitutes torture or not is a matter of opinion, not fact. And using the NYT’s own institutional logic (logic I strenuously disagree with), would mean the GOP candidates are entitled to their opinion that waterboarding is not torture, regardless of how long it has been “classified as torture.”

And particularly given that some of the best reporting on the country on waterboarding–that which appeared in the NYT–has refused to call it torture, NYT can’t really fault the GOP candidates for their “opinion.” After all, when the NYT presented “the facts” about this country’s use of waterboarding, it informed their readers that waterboarding is no more than harsh or brutal treatment, not torture. If these candidates read the NYT to get their “facts” about the world, they would have every reason to hold the “opinion” that waterboarding is not torture. Effectively, the NYT editorial page is either arguing that readers should not treat the paper’s factual reporting as factual anymore, or that they would be immoral for doing so.

The NYT says it honors the nation’s moral standing to treat waterboarding as torture and act accordingly. It says it degrades the nation’s reputation not to do so.

So why isn’t the NYT’s editorial page concerned about what the NYT’s news page is doing to this nation’s moral standing?

As the NYT appears to understand it, only the mob, not professionals, would do something so gross as fact check newsmakers. And the only place where truth may–should–be revealed is on pages labeled as “opinion.”

28 replies
  1. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    YES, they should rhetorically string up liars from the nearest tree, and leave them to twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

    Perhaps, after a decade of getting all vigilante on the liar’s asses, we’ll forgive them for their Iraq war propaganda. Perhaps.

  2. Peterr says:

    Apparently Brisbane has decided to remove any NYT content from future consideration by the Pulitzer committee.

    From the Pulitzer’s official bio of Joseph Pulitzer, with emphasis added:

    James Wyman Barrett, the last city editor of The New York World, records in his biography Joseph Pulitzer and His World how Pulitzer, in taking hold of the Post-Dispatch, “worked at his desk from early morning until midnight or later, interesting himself in every detail of the paper.” Appealing to the public to accept that his paper was their champion, Pulitzer splashed investigative articles and editorials assailing government corruption, wealthy tax-dodgers, and gamblers. This populist appeal was effective, circulation mounted, and the paper prospered. Pulitzer would have been pleased to know that in the conduct of the Pulitzer Prize system which he later established, more awards in journalism would go to exposure of corruption than to any other subject.

    Two thoughts:

    (1) Brisbane is appealing to Wall Street to accept that his paper is their champion.
    (2) Pulitzer was shrill.

  3. lying with your mouth closed says:

    In order to treat torture as a matter of opinion The Times has to ignore a lot of facts, such as precedent and doctrine from human rights and humanitarian law. As one of the peremptory norms, the law on torture is very well defined. But The Times’ ultimate raison d’etre is official impunity, for war, for torture, for piracy or terror, and all the other crimes of our state.

  4. PeasantParty says:

    Besides what the reporter says, what does this say about the NY Times?

    Well, GOOD GAWD, Y’ALL!

    Whatever happened to, “Just the facts, Ma-am.”?

    Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How? Are those no longer taught in schools of Journalism?

    Maybe this will begin to change the government reporter/dictation mentality. I certainly hope so!

  5. Arbusto says:

    Reading, listening to or viewing news coverage, but especially interviews, the difference between American Reporters fawning over their interviewees, and hard nosed, fact based q@a with British Reporters is stark in contrast. While the BBC is a quasi governmental entity, all others are corporations, so why US fawning vs more honest though tough British questions under a corporate umbrella. More to the point why the fuck is Brisbane even asking such a dumb assed question instead of stating the NYT is rededicated to fact based journalism.

    The 4th Estate marked down to 2.95.

  6. Benjamin Franklin says:

    In defense of Brisbane, there is the goal of objectivity. That just means ‘dsipassionate’, not a vacant look as they spout ‘he said; she said’.

    Walter Cronkite used to editorialize with an arched eyebrow as he read the daily Nixon lies. Today, we have ‘Readers’ who have no idea what the context of the story is.

    A straight news story doesn’t have to be an Editorial, but it takes skill to write copy in which the story is self-told. That skill still exists, but is more rare.

  7. Peterr says:

    @Benjamin Franklin:

    In that link above from PressThink, Jay Rosen notes the editor of the Voice of San Diego has this in his guidelines for new reporters:

    Three things to remember for each story:

    * Context
    * Authority
    * Not just what is happening, but what it means.

    There is no such thing as objectivity.

    * There is such thing as fairness.
    * But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
    * We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
    * We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.

    Brisbane is giving up on the third thing to remember, and as for what guides him and the NYT, words like “clearly assess” and “plainly state” appear to have been tossed on the trash heap.

  8. Benjamin Franklin says:


    I agree, but I said objectivity ‘goal’, and that is unreachable for imperfect humans. The legal departments have
    given the directives as an over-reaction to libel danger by making the term an absolute, fearing a jury might
    find malice.

  9. Steve Dew says:

    I once posted a comment to a warmongering Roger Cohen column asking him, essentially, if the war he thought was so important to fight was really worth fighting, then why weren’t his four children helping to fight it. The NYT did not publish it, probably because it violated someone’s conception of their posting guidelines.

    The NYT has always had an uneasy relationship with social media and what it means to be, essentially, an online media outlet. They don’t really like or trust their readers. In other words, I doubt very much that the correct answer to Brisbane’s headline question was ever “yes.”

  10. William Ockham says:

    I thought that the word vigilante in the headline perfectly captured the attitude of the NYT and the traditional press more generally. The basic notion of a vigilante is that he sees an apparent crime and “takes the law into his own hands”. The vigilante, by definition, is misappropriating a societal function (the punishment of crime). This is perfect for the NYT because it allows them to wring their hands and generically decry “those lying politicians” while taking no responsibility for amplifying their message.

    My response is that we aren’t asking you to be a vigilante, we are asking you to stop laundering the lies. Just like a money laundering is wrong because it enables criminal behavior, lie laundering is wrong because it enables the corruption of the entire public sphere including politics, religion, and economic activity.

  11. Peterr says:

    Brisbane: “My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others.”

    That’s a good question, Art.

    Once upon a time, there was a newspaper in the metropolitan New York area that came across documentary proof that the President of the United States “had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” That matter was about the path to war. The paper faced that question, and its reporters called the systematic lies for what they were: lies.

    My how things have apparently changed at the NYT since 1971.

    I guess the NYT will be returning their Pulitzer for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and apologizing to the nation for sullying the reputation of President Johnson.

  12. blueskybigstar says:

    Marcie, I’m so glad you are back from vacation. I found some of bmaz’s arguments very specious and suspicious. I come to you for truth, impeccable logic, and your vigilant efforts to catch every story that no one else is paying attention to.

  13. Gitcheegumee says:

    My immediate reaction when I read the title of this thread was to recall the O’Keefe “Pimpostor” story-and the unwillingness of the the NYT to correct the record for a very long time.(The pimping of the specious “Pimp” tapes led in great part to Congress defunding ACORN.)

    Brad Blog was a truth vigilante on THAT matter,and IIRC, EW did some threads on this issue ,also. BTW,here’s O’Keefe’s LATEST malfeaseance:

    O’Keefe Pals Attempt Voter Fraud in New Hampshire, Could Go to …

    19 hours ago … Yesterday in New Hampshire, O’Keefe had the bright idea of getting some of his lackies to … Tags: voter fraud, New Hampshire, James O’Keefe ……/okeefe-pals-attempt-voter-fraud-in-new-hampshire- could-go-to-jail-for-it/

  14. Greg Brown says:

    That Brisbane asked this question makes it clear that he should not be allowed to work anywhere near the field of journalism lest it be contaminated by his moral/ethical bankruptcy.

  15. Gitcheegumee says:

    Well, if torturing the truth vigilanties doesn’t work, there’s always character assassination.

    Ever wonder WHY we see so much less of Seymour Hersh,lately??

    Seymour Hersh and the men who want him committed – Media …

    Feb 28, 2011 – A venerable publication launches a ridicule campaign against one of America’s top investigative journalists.

    (And just for the record, the NYT is NOT the “perp” in this Salon piece.)

  16. pdaly says:

    If the NY Times is afraid of getting in the way of taking stenography for a lying liar, perhaps the NY Times Public editor could try appending “truth scores” after any quoted person in the NY Times.

    A truth score could be a simple number, akin to a constantly revised FICO score, depending on past behavior/lies.

    What to do for an anonymous quote? A truth score of “unknown” would be about right.

  17. P J Evans says:

    The dollar store version of reporting: the customer has to be aware of what’s being sold to them.
    And hell, yes, the NYT ought to be truthful in its reporting, or they’re no better than Fox or the NY Post.

  18. Bob Schacht says:

    I think what we’re seeing here is the legacy of post-Modernism. One of the “lessons” that many people seem to have “learned” from Po-Mo is that objectivity is not possible. The conclusion that often seems to be drawn from this is that there is no “right” and “wrong,” and that “truth” is a canard. From that perspective, journalism is reduced to stenography, leaving the reader to judge for him/herself what is true and what isn’t.

    This attitude is so common that it has become folk-wisdom, unsourced and unassailable.

    Bob in AZ

  19. liberalrob says:

    The correct answer to Brisbane’s question is another question: “Do you want to be taken seriously as a news organization?”

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