Friday, January 13, 2012

Annals of Journalism

Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Public Editor — i.e. ombudsman — asked this question of his readers the other day:

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.

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.

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.

As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?

Is that a trick question?

Many years ago I had a brief stint as a reporter for a radio station. I learned very quickly that there’s a delicate balance between reporting what someone says as fact and dutifully printing it without challenge or context, but there’s also the duty as a reporter or an editor to go beyond being a stenographer. You don’t have to call someone a liar, but when you are presented with a statement from someone like Mitt Romney who says, for example, that President Obama has “apologized for America,” all you have to do is cite the fact that there is no evidence that he has done any such thing and let the reader come to the obvious conclusion that Mr. Romney is, to be charitable, making shit up.

If a $7,000-a-year reporter for a little radio station in Northern Michigan could figure that out in 1979, surely the same thing must occur to the mighty New York Times.