By now you have probably seen the question New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane put to readers, apparently in seriousness, which he phrased as, "Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?" Brisbane does a fantastic job of sounding isolated, out of touch, and ignorant of the basic principles of journalism in asking readers:

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.

In other words, the editor would like to know if readers want to see erroneous statements pointed out as such, or whether the paper should remain "objective" and simply recite whatever statements its "newsmakers" make unchallenged. When hundreds of commenters questioned his sanity, Brisbane closed the comments and typed the mother of all bitchy replies:

A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth.

That was not the question I was trying to ask. My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut “facts” that are offered by newsmakers when those “facts” are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.

This is a difficult question? To understand why, consider his disastrously poor logic and mangled interpretation of two poorly chosen examples to illustrate his point. In the original post:

As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

Then he explains what a difficult moral dilemma this is in the follow-up:

If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.

This is where I start to question what journalism school graduated this dipshit. No, it is not necessary to "crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back." Your reporter could, you know, investigate and report something along the lines of "In his 20 years on the bench, Mr. Thomas had filled out the form completely and correctly, including statements of his wife's income, every year.
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It is therefore unclear how Mr. Thomas could have misunderstood the form this year since the reporting procedure has not changed."

See? Look how easy that was. No head-crawling-in required. No journalistic experience required. Just a basic understanding of how to challenge a subjective claim (such as "I forgot" or "I was unaware that…"). Then he parses his second example:

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…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.”

Yeah, or rather than picking nits over the use of specific words the reporter could, you know, ask his interviewee to cite some goddamn evidence. "Mr. Romney, can you provide an example of President Obama apologizing for America?" Again: look how easy this is. I'm not even a journalist.

A clearer, less ambiguous example is the Republicans' repeated use over the last several years of the statement "Social Security is going broke" or variations thereof. Left untouched, it is indisputable that Social Security is solvent for at least 30, and likely around 40, additional years. That is very far from "broke", and even the qualifier that it is "going" broke is ludicrous given the timeframe. This statement should never, ever be reported unchallenged. Yet in practice it is never challenged. It is simply repeated after phrases like "Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said…"

It is legitimate to wonder how an editor from the New York Times could fail to understand this fundamental concept, or how he would need to solicit input from the mob to determine whether his reporters should practice basic journalism. But for someone so thoroughly steeped in, and partially responsible for the growth of, the Journalism as Stenography model, Brisbane's tentativeness is understandable. Modern journalism isn't about reporting and investigating and fact-checking, per se; it is about churning out a product, one that will appeal to the largest possible number of people. Muckraking is out, and keeping the sources happy is in. This is why we have "journalism" consisting of rehashed (if that) press releases.

Brisbane's comments are the logical end of the False Equivalency model of journalism, wherein every story must be presented with two equally valid sides.
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It's the "Some people say X, but other people say Y" technique writ large. How did this come to be? I think there are two answers to that question.

First, like on any other issue, people tend to idealize the past. American journalism has always been fairly weak on challenging people in positions of authority. Hearst and Pulitzer papers were hardly stuffed to the gills with Ida Tarbells. They were yellow rags with bleeding leads, and selling more copies was the only thing the editors cared about. While there may have been a greater emphasis on fact-checking as a result of fierce competition among newspapers, it's not like there's a golden age of investigative journalism in our recent past.

Second, the newspaper industry is dying, and fast. It is desperate to hold on to its remaining readers, and those readers are old. Really old. Old people don't want to be told that things they believe are not true. They're also the most likely to carp about Librul Bias if they aren't given an option to choose which "side" they will accept on any given story. The "Some people say X, but other people say Y" format was designed with their needs and wants in mind.

Brisbane is sad to watch here not because he is so clueless – and he is – but because you get the sense that he knows the right thing to do here and he realizes that he cannot do it. Editors are not editors because they understand journalism particularly well; they are in positions of authority because they understand the publication's need to market itself to the widest possible audience. They are gatekeepers who exist not to enforce the standards of good reporting but to screen every story through the question, "How can we write this story without conservatives getting mad at us?" And we will continue to be overwhelmingly screwed as a society as long as we define objectivity as quoting official sources uncritically and presenting opposing viewpoints as inherently equally valid.

37 thoughts on “MARKETING VIGILANTE”

  • Fucking EPIC and DEFINITIVE post on this matter, Ed. Kudos sincerely.

    Jesus god what shit we're in with the propaganda.

  • Not that this makes much of a difference, but it's worth noting that Brisbane is not an *editor* in the standard sense of having reporters work under him, giving them assignments, editing their articles, etc. The "Public Editor" position is more akin to "consumer representative." They are hired for a set duration and given no oversight over what they publish in their column. I believe the position was created in the wake of the Jason Blair scandal and the crisis of confidence that unleashed.

  • Jesus F. Christ… for those of you willing to throw your elders under the bus I can only tell you that there was a time not long ago where research was hard (no interwebs) and actual investigative journalism was actually easier. This was the point where journalists were highly respected and the real news was actually told.

    We need the fairness doctrine back more than I could have ever possibly imagined.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Brisbane pretends and is offended when readers call him on it. Poor guy, he thought that readers don't notice the crap he prints and will let him off the hook. He deserves what he got.

    I hope print news media will survive. We don't need them for daily news, or their moronic op-ed pages, we need them for investigative reporting which when not political the top papers and magazine still do. They should move to an electronic only and save paper and ink.

    Don't insult old people such as me. Our journalistic wishes are identical.

  • Should Arthur Brisbane be stuffed with an angry ferret and roasted over an open fire? I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    OK, boys and girls – let's run the NYPD Homicide Department, NY Times-style!

    Mr. Brisbane's wife/mother/sister/lover/father/brother, whoever, is brutally murdered.

    A Homicide Detective is chosen and goes out to investigate.
    He interviews the suspects, carefully writing down what they said. He take photos, and catalog's the evidence.

    The Detective brings everything back to Mr. Brisbane, and lays it on his desk.

    Mr. Brisbane asks the Detective, "So, who did it?"

    The Detective says, "I don't know. That's not my job. I'm just here to tell you what everyone said. It's up to you to figure out who's telling the truth and who's lying."

    I wonder how Mr. Brisbane would feel about that?

    Mr. Brisbane, I have a great way for your paper to save money:
    Get rid of the reporters.
    Get digital recorders.
    And send them to the people you want to interview, and tell them to speak slowly, and enunciate carefully into the device, so that a computer can then turn their words into print for your paper to sell.


  • Charlie Pierce summarized all this last week. Papers are going broke and the editor/beancounters are looking to CYA until they can get high enough up the pecking order to get a great retirement and bail. That can't happen if they rile up the conservative owners. They don't give a damn about journalism or reporters or readers.

  • And Mr. Brisbane seemed like such a nice young man years ago when he wrote for the Kansas City Star, my guess is he spent too much time around suits and went native.

  • If democracy is to function, the electors need to be able to make informed choices. Sadly, the limiting principle here is the old dictum GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Corporate news media is a threat to national security.

  • Brisbane's little mauling was a welcome opportunity to remind them that we know we're being served a shit sandwich, but it's the nearest thing we have to a newspaper anymore. I'm afraid that's all the satisfaction that I can take from it. Hopefully an inkling of shame was kindled in some withered, journalistic heart somewhere.

  • In a world where every god damned thing is going to shit, I fixate on this:

    "Old people don't want to be told that things they believe are not true."

    In exactly what way does this distinguish them (OK – us) from young people?

    Seriously, Ed, your ageism shows through over and over again. It is the biggest consistent flaw you display on this blog, and you're already in get off my lawn mode.

    Get the hell over it already.

  • Monkey Business says:

    @JazzBumpa: Because while it's true that no one likes to be told things that they believe are not true, the likelyhood that someone will be willing to change the views when presented with sufficient evidence is inversely proportional to their age.

  • @Monkey Business: I don't think that relationship is linear. Have you ever tried to convince a 16-18 year old they are wrong about something?

  • Ming of Mongo says:

    It was an appalling column, but I was encouraged by the brutal comments.

    By the time I saw it, they had already closed comments, but I sent the following email.

    No, I think you should
    continue to act as stenographers for the political class. If Mitt Romney
    says the Earth is flat, you should report that. Earth is round, Earth is
    flat, who can really say? Anyway, the whole purpose of the Fourth Estate
    is to act as a mouthpiece for politicians. After all, it worked so well with
    Judith Miller during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

  • Oldsters get the shaft here because they skew conservative.

    A steady diet of right-wing media has trained its consumers to expect sleazy ad hominem potshots at "liberals" and RINOs and careful protectionism for conservative idealogues. Anything less would be librul bias. And it is good for ratings, because the right seems to be having so much more fun than the left. Meanwhile, old-schoolers such as the NYT try to stay "objective," gradually learning how far the window has moved.

    A long read but well worth it:

  • It is indeed a mark of his cluelessness that he posted that question and then was surprised, nay shocked! at the response he got. His whiny response ws just the cherry on top.

    But I am going to edit Ed's answer to the Clarence Thomas story: the last sentence is offering a conclusion. A reporter shouldn't do that; the first sentence suffices. A reporter implies, a reader infers. I think that was the main lesson on day one of J-101, as a matter of fact.*

    *Never used my J-degree. I got disillusioned with reporting while still in J-school, but was so far into my credits that I figured I'd just stick it out.

  • Ha…and I must be old because I like print media (nothing like throwing the newspaper all around your chair in the morning–and I sure as hell don't want my cat tearing up the I-Pad/laptop/computer). Hell, I'm so old that in J-school we still used typewriters.

    Behold the ancients and learn from our wisdom, children.

  • '"The "Public Editor" position is more akin to "consumer representative."'

    Close. The public editor/ombudsman is, in practice, the first line of defense against a publication's readers. This is why they ask stupid questions, get (some) stupid responses, and conveniently walk away feeling good about themselves.

    A good public editor would look at a reasonable complaint or question–even if it's badly phrased–turn it into a thoughtful inquiry, and apply it to his or her publication. But that would require biting the hand that feeds them.

    ESPN used to have a good ombudswoman awhile back; they're not all bad. She would look at what people were saying, summarize it into a thoughtful analysis, and apply it to ESPN. But for the most part (and it seems worse at papers), they seem to be there to point at their readers and smirk.

  • Brisbane sounds like he's drunk-dialing an ex here. But I think some of his implied questions are a fair ones.

    Everyone likes "objectivity." But he may be just starting to realize that he's addressing an audience that considers labels such as "socialist" and "patriot" objective. And in the current Rashomon climate, is hypocrisy even worth talking about anymore?

  • Even his reply completely misses the point (or ignores it); when he summarises the response as

    "A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth."

    he needs to be fact-checked himself. The overwhelming response is better paraphrased as "yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and CALL LIARS OUT ON THEM." Which is pretty much what he had been asking in the first place.

    Except, of course, he really wasn't even asking that question in the first place. That word "vigilante" in the title carries a lot of baggage and was no accident: he (or his keepers?) are trying to frame the very act of fact-checking statements by politicians as an *act of vigilantism*. Calling them out by printing their current statement side-by-side with their older statement that contradicts it or black-and-white facts that render them incorrect (or even liars)? That's the next worst thing to a *lynching*.

    And you know who does that side-by-side stuff, right? (You know, journalism?) I'm actually wondering if there's not a significant behind-the-scenes push to knock Jon Stewart down a couple notches. It's *insane* but it sometimes seems like he's the only one left out there doing something resembling journalism. :(

  • In case Brisbane is not a faithful follower of ginandtacos, I forwarded a copy of today's rant to his office, together with my comment:

    You might not be aware of a recent blog on re: your recent discussion of issues of truth in reporting statements by public servants. Herewith I furnish the totality, which appeared today. Though the writer serves up a degree of snark, his arguments are very persuasive and ones I would share, adding only that words like "allegedly" and phrases like "he asserts", "tested credulity by avowing" "unlikely as it sounds" are always easy ways of expressing doubt about veracity or accuracy, leaving the truthfinding to others.

    Doubt I'll get a reply, but he should see this if he's worth his salt as a seeker after truthiness.

  • Ah, I was just going to ask if you sent Brisbane a copy of this. Excellent.

    When I replied the other day, I included the simple analogy of reprinting a quote and adding "[sic]" when there is an error in the original. This lets readers know that you are being faithful to the source, but that you know it's incorrect. It also points out to readers who wouldn't otherwise recognize the error that there was one.

    Expand this notion to other sorts of fact-checking, and hey, you're a journalist! Getting pissy about inaccurate insults and exaggerations between politicians is just a smokescreen to distract us from shoddy reporting of meaningful data. (I hope it is, anyway. If not, he wouldn't have passed my high school journalism class.) Opinions vary. Facts don't.

    But my suspicion is that the NYT is a liberal rag who wants to look fair, and pointing out all the many Righty inaccuracies, hyperbole, rumor-mongering, and untruths (both tactical and natural) would make them look deeply biased. But not calling one side on their egregious fouls doesn't make you a fair ref, Brisbane. Yeesh.

  • I actually managed to get in a comment during the brief window they left open. I sent the following constructive criticism:

    If the purpose of the NYT is to be an inoffensive container for ad copy, then by all means continue to do nothing more than paraphrase those press releases. (Though I'll spend less and less of my time reading it.) If you have ambitions to be a newspaper that practices journalism, then practice journalism – even if that's harder. You might find there's an audience for an actual functional news organization.

  • and that explains why Goldman Sachs owns and runs America today.

    the NYT wouldn't want to upset the Right. the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan got rid of, would cause Fox news lawsuit after lawsuit.

    you sow the seeds of Destruction by selling out to lobbyist/Business and voila!! America as you see it today.

    Brisbane is just a water carrier for the Elites. and i would bet he is mighty pissed people called him on his stupidity. the Facts are a dangerous thing, that's why they are gone from the Conversation in America today.

  • Another thing happened because of (more likely the cause of, really) the dying of newspapers. Advertisers are in the position that since they pay money to the newspapers, the papers better damn well print what I tell them to. They pay for ads and get the headlines thrown in as a bonus. Every morning, I pick up the daily paper (Cleveland Plain Dealer) and see 40% of the front page devoted to some big advertiser's "news". Wow. The Cleveland Clinic opened some new state-of-the-art building did they? Thanks to the generosity of some big name benefactor? But they had nurses moving the furniture rather than hiring movers (that doesn't make it into the story).

  • So much weak sauce here. Let's inject some real world facts here.

    First, Thomas didn't leave his wife's conservative think tank income off the form just one year, after filling it out correctly for the previous 20. He has never listed that money on the disclosure forms, he's left that little detail out for years. So he has been consistent – consistently wrong, but none the less, consistent. So your criticism fails.

    Next, let's take the example of Romney (and others) claiming Obama apologizes for America. Oh, if only someone would ask a follow up question, it would all fall apart like a house of cards! Uh, do you think they come up with this claim out of thin air? No, they take some actual incident, wildly exaggerate and distort it, and produce poutrage. And then look for any repeat opportunity. So, if challenged, Romney (or any of the other Obama bashers) will just cite those items.

    Yes, you can parse those statements and compare them with actual quotes, but that gets you in to a matter that those with partisan lenses will see differently. It isn't just a matter of asking for examples, because you will get examples – they just won't be factual.

    And so forth. The not-so-fine line that Fox News and others usually walk is to not make something up completely, but to take some actual event and wildly embellish, misinterpret, and exaggerate (yes, sometimes they do just make stuff up completely, but that's more rare, and the ones that regularly do that, like Glenn Beck, end up in a media backwater).

    The formula described above just isn't effective, if it is then Media Matters would have destroyed Fox News long ago, and one good interview would have sunk Dick Cheney. Sorry, but the idea that the truth always triumphs is a fairy tale best reserved for children.

  • Bruce Partington says:

    It's funny how you mention yellow journalism, since Brisbane's grandfather was a prominent editor and propagandist for the Hearst papers when they put the yellow into journalism in the first place.

    I can't be the only person who knows this.

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