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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 11:48 AM ET, 01/13/2012

New York Times’s only fact-checking problem: It isn’t loud enough


Jill Abramson: We’re already checking facts, Art. (Evan Agostini - AP)
Following a Republican debate on Sept. 12, then-presidential candidate Michele Bachmann made some statements about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. She passed along the testimony of a mother who claimed her child had experienced mental retardation after receiving the vaccine, and she spoke of “dangerous” side effects.

The New York Times was having none of it. In a story on the debate over the vaccine, the paper cited Bachmann’s claims and rebutted them:

Although Mrs. Bachmann called the HPV vaccine dangerous, a report last month from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, found that it was generally safe. There is no evidence linking it to mental retardation.

That piece hardly concluded the factual pushback from the New York Times. A few days after the debate, the paper published a story on Bachmann’s record of misstatements, with her HPV quotes and their refutation sitting squarely in the middle of the presentation. Then came a contribution from the science desk pointing out that Bachmann’s false claims could “ripple for years” in terms of their impact on public health.

Consider the aggressiveness of that record-correcting effort against the hubbub over the posting yesterday from Art Brisbane, the New York Times’s public editor. The guy asked, right in the headline, whether the Times should serve as a “Truth Vigilante.”

In the manner of a reportorial mob boss, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson watched as journalism critics publicly edited the public editor, then delivered a final edit of her own:

In your blog, you ask “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.
We do it every day, in a variety of ways.

The back-and-forth between Brisbane and the rest of the world raged yesterday on fuel supplied by the ongoing Republican presidential primary. Over umpteen debates and umpteen thousands cable news interviews, the candidates spit out an uncheckable number of factual or counter-factual assertions.

Dick Stevenson runs the New York Times’s political coverage, and he’s quick to note that he wasn’t offended by Brisbane’s posting. However, he points out that the public editor’s “invitation” to readers on fact-checking “and people’s response to it did not take fully into account what we routinely do.”

The Times, says Stevenson, does a lot of fact-checking that’s “labeled as such.” Yet the pursuit spills beyond the four corners of the Times’s fact-checking postings. Asks Stevenson: “What are we doing when we go and invest a lot of time investigating Newt Gingrich’s claim to never have been a lobbyist?”

Here’s the lead from that story:

Newt Gingrich is adamant that he is not a lobbyist, but rather a visionary who traffics in ideas, not influence. But in the eight years since he started his health care consultancy, he has made millions of dollars while helping companies promote their services and gain access to state and federal officials.

Good material — but what about the “apologizing for America” problem? Both Brisbane and my fellow WaPo blogger Greg Sargent have flagged the Times for not rebutting this attack line from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney against President Obama. Contrary to Romney’s rhetoric, Obama has never publicly apologized for America.

Stevenson responds, “I have no problem at all with [Brisbane] raising the basic point that there’s a need to find better ways to address statements like the ‘apologizing’ assertion. In fact, I basically agree with him that it’s a real issue. What I don’t think is fair is for Art to make a sweeping generalization of the sort implicit in his blog post that we at The Times — and for that matter, other news organizations including the Post — do not already consider challenging the claims of politicians a central part of what we do. We do it most every day, and not just when it comes to politics.”

Ah, but this country specializes in sweeping generalizations, especially sweeping, lying generalizations. And people are tired of them, which explains why Brisbane’s posting yesterday was so popular. In terms of page views, of course. The headline and text of his little column were dumb, but they weren’t 278-frothing-comments dumb.

The cause of all that outrage isn’t just factual errors that occasionally leak into print. It’s not people making a mistake now and again. Rather, it’s insistent, willful and largely unpunished factual misrepresentations made by political candidates and, indeed, media figures. The agents of these lies repeat them more forcefully, it seems, every time they’re refuted. As if screaming them will make people believe them.

Against these top-of-the-lungs lies, the fact-checking voice of the New York Times and other media outlets comes off a touch muted. The Times’s debunking voice, after all, is like its other news copy — polite, well-mannered, and quiet. Vis-a-vis Bachmann’s claims on the HPV vaccine, for example, the Times wrote that there’s “no evidence” for the statement, not “The statement was a lie intended to smear a key opponent and endear her to vaccine-wary wackos.”

Of course, for those who look hard enough, there was more straight-talking in the opinion realm of the Times, where Frank Bruni mocked Bachmann’s claim as “ludicrous.”

By  |  11:48 AM ET, 01/13/2012

 
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