Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, has posted a remarkable piece that’s generating attention on Twitter, because it gets at a core question: What is the role of newspapers in a political world that’s awash in distortions and lies?
Brisbane suggests it’s an open question whether reporters who are amplifying assertions made by candidates should tell readers whether those assertations are true or not. As Brisbane’s headline puts it: “Should the Times be a truth vigilante?”
...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.”
Should news reporters include that last paragraph giving readers the information they need to evaluate whether Romney’s claim that Obama “apologized for America” — which the paper itself is amplifying — is true?
I’m sympathetic to Brisbane’s worry that that regular fact checking by reporters could mean some statements will get checked and others won’t. (Although as Jamison Foser neatly illustrates, newspapers are already choosing which quotes to amplify and which ones to ignore, which itself throws into question whether total “objectivity” is possible.)
But I think there’s a simple way to drive home to Brisbane why reporters should include info enabling readers to judge such claims.
The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Here, here, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.
In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.