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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Journalists finding out the truth is not being a 'truth vigilante,' it's their job

by John MacBeath Watkins

New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane has written a column asking, "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

One of the rules of objectivity is not to use words that bias the reader. "Vigilante" is a term applied to those busybodies who take the law into their own hands, trying to achieve justice by extra-legal means. In asking if the Times should act as a "vigilante," he is in effect asking whether the Times should act in an illegitimate manner.


That is akin to using biased attribution, such as, "'I am not a crook,' he lied." Journalists are taught to use the grey little word "said" in such circumstances, so that the readers can make up their own minds. Brisbane apparently does not want the readers to make up their own minds, so he's used a word that prejudices the discussion.


The word "vigilante" also implies that the Times would be usurping the legitimate authority that should be determining what is true. I imagine that if such an authority existed, it would be referred to as the "newspaper of record," or some such.


In fact, if the Times wishes to have the public continue to regard it as a newspaper of record, it needs to act like one. One of the examples Brisbane gives of the vigilante role he claims readers are asking the Times to take on concerns Mitt Romney:
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.
Brisbane suggests that the readers are asking that the Times insert some paragraph like the following next time they report such a statement by Romney:

“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.”
 This is absurd. The readers have every right to expect that the Times will do its job and report the story fully. When one side makes a claim that seems not to be supported by facts, ask them to produce the facts. If they decline to produce them, or produce words that don't seem to line up with the interpretation, report that. How much more satisfying would it be to write this:
In an email to Politico, the Romney camp said it used the out-of-context quote "intentionally."

How did the press manage to ferret out this bit of deception?

A reporter asked a question.

Was the Politico reporter acting as a "vigilante" in asking why the quote was used out of context? Hardly.


That's the reporter's job.

Brisbane isn't really asking if the Times should act as a vigilante. He's asking if it should do its job, follow up on what politicians and other say and determine whether the facts back up what they've said.


In science, there is a motto: Remarkable claims require remarkable proof. The Times hasn't even been asking for ordinary truth in many cases, notably in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

If you report a lie and make no attempt to determine whether it is true, all you've done is repeat a lie. The claim that you have accurately reported a lie and your story is therefore accurate is pure casuistry. How do readers react when you uncritically repeat a lie? If they find out, they conclude that the newspaper has lied to them, and trust the press a little less.

How do public figures react when you uncritically repeat a lie and do nothing to find out if it's true? They lie some more, because they know there is no penalty for it, you won't do the reporting required to uncover the deceit.

But the Times regards it, apparently, as unethical to do its job.

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