Today in Incompetence: The New York Times Asks, Do Reporters Have a Responsibility to Call Out Lies?

January 12, 2012 — 7 Comments

Every now and then I read something that completely takes the wind out of me. Usually these involve harrowing stories of amazing individuals, or truly unbelievable events. Other times I am amazed by the utter stupidity and incompetence of people in the modern world. Here I was, pleased with my blogging output for the day, ready to continue reading the first book in my 50 Book Pledge, and then I see this tweet from Norm Wilner:

The link is to an opinion column on the New York Times website entitled ‘Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?’

Look, I have a great deal of respect for The New York Times. It’s generally a fine organization dedicated to putting out quality, well-written journalism. At least, I used to have a great deal of respect for them. Now, maybe not so much.

As Norm says in his tweet, FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I am sorry, but you are fucking journalists. It is not your job to reprint press releases and quotes from politicians and spin masters. Your job isn’t to be an ongoing feed of shit people claim. It’s supposed to be a contextualization of the day’s events.

What does that mean?

Well, let’s start with the basic idea of events. Good journalism doesn’t just tell you the bare details of what happened at a given moment in a given place. It contextualizes. It gives a sense of how that event fits into the world and related goings on. It gives a perspective to the world. That’s not the same as bias, mind you. Being as objective as possible is important, but then that leads me to my next point.

FACTS ARE OBJECTIVE!

Sure, you can interpret facts in different ways, but when a politician gets up in front of the public and makes false statements, lies in the face of the electorate, it’s not the job of the press to simply print those quotes without comment. The comment is the whole point! The editorial in question lays things out thusly:

[P]erhaps 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.”

I don’t understand why this is even something that needs to be discussed. It’s supposed to be part of your duty as a journalist. What the fuck are they teaching journalists in school these days? No wonder journalism is a failing profession. Reporters are apparently a bunch of impotent morons.

Explaining to the readers that comments made by public figures are in fact lies (or untruths?) does not make you a ‘Truth Vigilante’ of any kind. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard in ages. Pointing out when somebody like Mitt Romney is lying as a way of getting the electorate to trust him with the presidency of the United States is not vigilantism; it’s your god damn responsibility as a reporter. You are there to report facts and then offer a context for those facts.

Yes, the quote itself is part of that, in that he said it and so it is a fact that he said it. Good, print it. But why let your newspaper be little more than an avenue for spin and lies? If you don’t offer that counterpoint of fact, then all you’re doing is acting as a tool for an agenda. You are officially part of the problem. Maybe if you actually called out lies, politicians in Washington would actually be forced to be honest and do their jobs properly.

There is a very good reason why people go to The Daily Show for their news. It’s not that Jon Stewart is a journalist. He’s nothing of the sort, and holding him to that is, in my opinion, ridiculous. But people watch him, myself included, because he is one of the few people out there (often for the sake of comedy) who actually has the balls to point out when public figures are lying and being complete hypocrites. He’s not a journalist, but he’s doing at least one thing journalists are failing to do.

Worst of all, this one crucial thing that journalists are failing at? It’s perhaps the most important thing they should be doing. If you got into the reporting game to be nothing more than a trained chimp, doing little more than putting press releases into your own words, you are a fucking waste of space. The reason the United States has freedom of the press as part of its constitution is because the framers understood that authority needs to be held accountable, including the government itself. Holding authority accountable includes pointing out lies and hypocrisy and contradiction. Doing that is the whole reason your profession matters.

“Should the Times be a truth vigilante?”

You’re damn right you should, and it’s absolutely shameful that an editor for a publication as venerable as The New York Times should even ask such a question.

Update: I originally referred to the NYT piece as an editorial. In fact it is a column by public editor. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the difference is, and my point remains the same. That anyone employed by the Times would ask such a question is completely idiotic.

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7 responses to Today in Incompetence: The New York Times Asks, Do Reporters Have a Responsibility to Call Out Lies?

  1. 

    Well, when you do get a media entity like factcheck.org that is designed to call people out on their lies, it ends up labeling things the Democrats say that are true as lies just so they can rest safe in the knowledge that they call both sides on their lies.

    • 

      The thing that bothers me about factcheck.org is that it still isn’t journalism. It treats journalism and facts like two things that dont necessarily depend on each other. Separates them out. Fact checking sites and organizations are a good thing, but every time I see an anchor on CNN reference something as having been verified by factcheck.org I flip my shit a litte. Why the hell are you paid to be a journalist if not to also check facts for yourself?

  2. 

    Holy monkey shit, do I agree with this rant. More need not be said.

  3. 

    That’s a strange question to ask and completely agree with your opinion, why would you not challenge people on the things they say and report on the facts, not what someone tells you.

  4. 

    Actually, there is a bit more to be said…Here is the Public Editor’s follow up post that tries to put a bit more context around his initial question. I don’t think he states it very well, but I think I got the jist of what he was saying. If I’m reading him right, the example of calling out Clarence Thomas on whether he actually “misunderstood” that financial disclosure form or whether he purposely filled it in wrong is at the heart of things: can they question Thomas’ intent within the confines of a factual news story? How can you get the truth about that? Sure the editorials can call bullshit on Thomas (and they should), but should a reporter question that in their article when it’s hard to determine Thomas’ real intent?

    I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but I think the Public Editor was trying to get at the more difficult cases. If you read towards the bottom of that follow-up post, you’ll see a response from the Executive Editor that takes great pains to state how their journalists DO indeed do fact checking on a constant basis.

    I agree with much of your rant – the race to be first and the need for cost cutting are the two biggest sources of why there is less actual “journalism” (especially on TV – granted The Daily Show pulls out the worst offenders) – but looking at the follow up post, I don’t think the NY Times is being as incompetent as that initial blog post might indicate. I think it’s just a poorly expressed question by the Public Editor. However, it does certainly show the frustration of some of the public at the level of real journalism that we perceive is out there.

    • 

      The follow-up is interesting, and much more acceptable. Though I think there’s still a laziness inherent in asking the question. The thing is, people don’t expect journalists to editorialize in anything other than the editorial section. When it comes to those more difficult cases, it is obviously a matter of judgement, though I think the aim should always be to err on pointing out false statements when possible. For example, the issue of Clarence Thomas is brought up, and while the specific statement in question is a grey area, the fact of his wrongdoing despite intent should be investigated and reported on more thoroughly.

      Also, as is pointed out, obviously the NYT and other organizations do point out false statements, but I think if they did it more often and with more force it would be better. They really should be holding these people accountable for their words and actions. It doesn’t do much to bury a correction to a statement in the middle of an article on pg 28, especially when the tone is so “politically correct”. The NYT doesn’t need to be activist to do any of that, but in an age when you have a slate of Republicans making bold lies to an electorate on a regular basis, reporters should be really holding their feet to the fire. And not just on silly scandals.

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