The community of journalists and assorted media types exploded last week after Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor (ombudsman) for The New York Times, wrote a blog post titled “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”
His goal — clarified in a second post, with an appendix from NYT executive editor Jill Abramson — was to start a public dialogue about whether journalists should attempt to rebut or clarify statements of fact issued by public figures when the truth value of those statements is open to debate. One of Brisbane’s examples (a good one, I think): Whether Justice Clarence Thomas was forthright when he ascribed the omission of some of his wife’s income on a financial statement as a mere misunderstanding. Some would argue that it’s implausible that a long-tenured member of the Supreme Court could “misunderstand” a routine financial filing; Brisbane’s question seems to be, Should a news reporter explore the truth value of the statement, or merely report it and leave commentary to the columnists?
The aftermath of Brisbane’s column was largely brutal. Many commenters responded with the equivalent of a “well, duh” and even professional journalists seemed to use the blog post as an opportunity to throw matches on their preferred straw men. Two Poynter posts (here and here) and Brisbane’s own comments to Jim Romenesko highlight the degree to which many otherwise reasonable people decided to ridicule the question Brisbane didn’t ask and instead skewer the stereotype of insular NYT judgment. My take on Brisbane’s posts isn’t that he questions whether news writers should fact-check, but whether they should assess in detail the accuracy of quoted statements when the factual content of those statements becomes difficult to prove objectively.
The ombudsman’s question deserved better treatment than it received. I’m not much of a cheerleader for The Times, but when the Grey Lady’s right, she’s right, and Brisbane’s question has merit.
Consider a few salient points.
Foremost, as much as some professionals like Jay Rosen question the “view from nowhere” — the idea that journalists should take great pains to avoid rendering judgments that could appear to favor a particular interest group — any Philosophy 101 student worth his salt understands that assigning a binary truth-value to a complex statement isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Any statement of fact more complex than “the sky is blue” or “most horses have four legs” usually doesn’t admit to a clean and obvious true/false dichotomy. Rather, as the “statement of fact” becomes increasingly complex, it tends to turn into the conclusion of an elliptical argument rather than a plainly obvious and falsifiable statement about the world that can stand alone without additional logical or epistemological support.
For example, were I to say that I believe Attorney General Eric Holder lied about his knowledge of Operation Fast and Furious, I’m articulating a “fact” — that Holder lied — that’s not a fact at all. It’s an argument. It rests on certain bits of information and a judgment that if these bits of data that I possess are true, it’s implausible that Holder’s denial of knowledge about Fast and Furious is honest.
A reporter very rarely knows whether a person is lying in the sense of being deliberately dishonest, instead of merely lacking some essential bit of information or believing a certain maxim. So when I say, “Holder lied!” I’m making a fact-like statement that’s the conclusion of an elliptical argument. My statement isn’t necessarily true or false but the premises that undergird that statement may or may not be accurate, leading me to a false conclusion. Again, this is Philosophy 101. To suggest that my comment about Holder being a liar is itself a lie or a deliberate falsehood is to pass a judgment without having had the opportunity to assess the premises behind my statement. Call this judgment what you will, but “neutral fact checking” it ain’t.
The point? Merely this: If a journalist were to report my statement about Holder and then attempt to deconstruct its truth value, the journalist isn’t engaging in fact-checking. He’s engaging in an argumentative rebuttal, which typically isn’t the purview of news organizations but rather of opinion columnists.
One last observation. The question of accent must rear its ugly head. Assume a reporter is assigned to cover a political debate. Each candidate will make various statements. The reporter picks which statements to cover, and hence which are subject to attack by the self-proclaimed truth vigilante. A left-leaning reporter may well disproportionately attack a right-leaning candidate, and vice versa — a prospect that increases when political statements depend on unspoken and unfalsifiable ideological judgments as part of the elliptical argument.
The point is, when reporters take it upon themselves to interject their own analysis of their subjects’ honesty, the writers become part of the narrative. When a journalist transcribes a debate, the story more cleanly reflects the debate and its participants; when a journalist analyzes a debate, the journalist becomes a hidden participant in the story he covers, one who gets to render opinion from behind the veneer of objectivity and who enjoys the privileged position of setting the parameters of the discussion. The “truth vigilante” reporter is both participant and referee in the subject he covers — a clear conflict of interest, and one that deserves more scrutiny than the “just trust us, we’re professionals” mantra that some advocate. Whatever the criticisms of the View From Nowhere, the idea that journalists enjoy a special access to impartial and accurate ”truth” reflects an institutional hubris that borders on megalomania.
Reporters ought to report. Columnist ought to comment. If we blur the line between reporting and analysis, fine — but we cannot then pretend that the truth vigilante is anything else than a hidden-but-coequal participant or even an adversary in the subject being reported.
Brisbane raised a good question. His question deserved a fairer treatment than I think it received. I don’t have the answers — no one does — but the cause of quality journalism is advanced by the conversation.