Along with quite a few other people, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has now been successfully trolled by Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, having dignified the paper’s ombudsman tonight with a response after he incited a brouhaha of populist outrage with a poorly-worded column published earlier today.
The Public Editor column in question sought to ask whether or not the Times should work to aggressively counter the press lines given to them, by writing those counters within the context of a story. This is a poor way to bring up the ongoing debate about where a journalist providing “news context” crosses over into a journalist providing “opinions.” Especially when you title your column “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Which sounds less like a public editor column, and more like a particularly unfunny Stephen Colbert segment.
The answer to whether or not the Times should be relentless in its pursuit of truth is “Yes,” unless you are the target of that pursuit. Which is why a bunch of Times reporters publicly facepalmed when they read his column. Everyone on Twitter was like “YES!” Some people wrote some legitimately funny takes on it.
Finally, not too long ago, Times‘ executive editor Jill Abramson filed a response tonight. So eager was the Times to get this response into the open that even the company’s head flack made a point of Tweeting it out.
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.
Which is basically what everyone else said. Why even dignify this? So outrageous isn’t the question itself so much as (A) Mr. Brisbane’s inability to ask what he ostensibly meant to say and (B) the awesome, pageview-bating headline he put on it to incite the rage of the masses.
Mr. Brisbane is asking whether or not it’s a journalist’s place to look at something that is clearly and patently untrue—and either question it or note it as untrue—without empirical evidence. The closest he came to clarifying this question wasn’t in the first or even the second post on the matter he wrote, but in an interview with Jim Romenesko:
What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing.
This depends on whether or not you’re the kind of person who sees something that is plainly full of lies and cannot control the urge to publicly identify it as “total bullshit,” or if you’re the kind of person who says “well, hold on a second, maybe this person in a position of great power with very powerful interests to protect is actually telling us the truth.” Most journalists—especially at the New York Times—are the first kind.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of news sources like Fox News and people like James O’Keefe—who employ euphemisms for “objectivity” to a pornographic degree—have made these lines blur a little more over the last decade. Blogs and bloggers also make fundamentalists like Mr. Brisbane—who, as Jack Shafer pointed out, is no slouch as far as journalism goes—get very squirmy about what “objectivity” means. This is the stripe of mindset that thinks that a journalist shouldn’t have an opinion about anything, and that this opinon-less zombified state of human living is what constitutes “objectivity.” Hence, his question: Does relentless pursuit of the truth constitute something other than journalist’s place, like an agenda (of calling ‘bullshit’ what it is)?
For the most part, however, most practitioners of journalism would agree that erring on the side of skepticism publicly is probably a good idea. The alternative is the kind of lifeless journalism and commitment to archaic and never-quite-ever-actually-realized ideals of objectivity that hasn’t helped anyone, let alone the craft or business of journalism.
Some folks, however, continue to thrive on the journalism of a juicy headline—sometimes quite ginned up—intended to make people ragey. Ask Matt Drudge! He’s done okay for himself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear even that was Mr. Brisbane’s intent. It may be worth paying less attention to next time.
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