“Vigilante for truth”: An accurate headline…or shameless Twitter bait?

Earlier today, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane caused a bit of a kerfuffle when he posted an (online only) piece titled “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” “I’m looking,” Brisbane wrote, “for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Judging from my Twitter feed, the response among my peers to Brisbane’s question has been fairly unanimous: Are you f-ing kidding me?

On the one hand, I agree with this sentiment: If reporters’ jobs isn’t to ferret out the truth, what, exactly, are they doing? In fact, I think the willingness to regurgitate outrageous (and false) claims using a pretense of journalistic objectivity is a huge problem in reporting about politics, science, and medicine. One of the things I rail against in The Panic Virus is the reporters who justified publicizing unfounded (and in many cases disproven) claims by saying they were just being fair to “both sides” of an issue.

However, this isn’t that easy a discussion — as evidenced by the first example Brisbane gives in his piece:

One example mentioned recently by a reader: 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.

In this situation, I don’t think it’s so easy to simply say, “Thomas was lying.” The most obvious reason for this is we don’t know that’s true. The question then becomes how does one best convey the reality of the situation? Maybe I’m an outlier here, but to my eyes, it seems fairly clear that Liptak wanted his readers to understand that he was dubious of Thomas’s claim — hence the scare quotes.

In fact, considering he’s writing about the implications of misrepresenting facts, I think Brisbane’s biggest problem is the use of a Twitter-bait headline that doesn’t really reflect the question at hand. Of course the Times should be a vigilante for the truth. The question is what, exactly, that entails.

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4 Responses to “Vigilante for truth”: An accurate headline…or shameless Twitter bait?

  1. Ed Yong says:

    “…to my eyes, it seems fairly clear that Liptak wanted his readers to understand that he was dubious of Thomas’s claim — hence the scare quotes.”

    I think we have to be really careful about assuming that readers understand the vocabulary of news writing. I have seen, time and again, that this isn’t the case. While you, a seasoned journalist, might understand what Liptak is implying, a reader who is unaware of such conventions might not.

  2. Barry Rueger says:

    I know that on more than one occasion I’ve seen a politician or executive say something that was a flat out, bare-faced lie. A statement that ANY person could see was false.

    At those times I’d like to see a reporter or interviewer say “Sir, that is not true.”

    It hasn’t happened yet.

    As a consequence it’s assumed that you can lie through your teeth, secure in the knowledge that whatever you say will be printed and broadcast without question.

  3. Dan Vergano says:

    It might help if Brisbane had provided a link to what Liptak actually wrote, which I can only assume came from a Dec. article (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/01/us/chief-justice-backs-peers-decision-to-hear-health-law-case.html?_r=1&ref=adamliptak)

    “There have been missteps. Justice Thomas for several years failed to note the sources of his wife’s income on financial disclosure forms. After the watchdog group Common Cause raised questions, he issued amended forms last January. A court spokeswoman said at the time that the information had been “inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.” “

  4. Seth Mnookin says:

    Dan, good point — it was (one) of the odd things about the column. The language there makes it even more apparent to me that Liptak meant to convey skepticism, and it stresses that this all only happened after he was called out on it. I’m really not sure what else could or should have been in that situation…

    Ed, based on what Dan quoted about, do you think there was a better way to go about dealing with that?

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