“Truth Vigilantes”

Arthur Brisbane, public editor for the New York Times, poses a question today: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” He asks Times readers -- and this is really quite remarkable -- whether New York Times reporters should fact-check statements from the people they cover:

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.


This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven't mentioned here?

Newsmakers already have people to repeat what they say without challenge. They're called CNN.

This is an expression of an irrational, overpowering fear of anything that could be misconstrued as a viewpoint. It has so thoroughly permeated our news establishment that the paper of record is having an existential crisis over whether they should make sure what they present to their readers as news is true.

This, in turn, is a symptom of valuing the appearance of objectivity over accuracy -- itself a pointless endeavor, given that the catcalls of “bias” will continue no matter what steps the Times takes.

Here's a recent example in which a little fact-checking would have served the Times well. On January 10, the Times quoted Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in New Hampshire:

“I've got broad shoulders and I'm happy to describe my experience in the private economy and the fact that if you take all of the businesses that we invested in over our many years, over 100 different businesses and collectively, they net-net added over 100,000 new jobs,” Mr. Romney said.

The claim from Romney that he created 100,000 new jobs while with Bain Capital was dissected by the Washington Post's Greg Sargent and the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn and found to be “bogus.” The Washington Post's fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, called it “untenable.” It's one of those scare-quoted “facts” that the Times should have challenged, but didn't.

As such, Times readers were left unsure whether Romney's claim was true, or perhaps just assumed it was because the Times didn't say otherwise.

The choice between being accurate and being “fair” is a false one. But the drive for forced objectivity and the fear of appearing “biased” have become so ingrained that the presentation of the truth is now cast as an act of vigilantism.