Longing for Vigilantes

It’s good to know someone in the news business, like Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta – he was part of the team that founded CNN way back when, after he had earlier worked for Roger Ailes, and Rick established much of CNN’s satellite infrastructure. And after Rick left CNN his wife stayed on, a key producer in the background of all the major events. And of course the two of them know everybody and have lots of stories – stories that cannot be revealed here. And Rick can keep you honest. That the good thing, When you write something where you’re railing about the failure of the press to do this or that, Rick will leave a comment here and straighten things out. He’ll remind us all that the role of the press is tricky – objectivity is harder than you think, or sometimes easier than it seems. Rick has explained this now and then – see CNN and the Death of Serious TV News – The Inside Story (2005) and this item a year later on press objectivity – and he still leaves comments. And one key item was from November 21, 2004 – One More Round on Whether the Press Can Be Objective (which includes Rick’s “Journalism 101” item) – so the discussion has been going on a long time.

Maybe this all started back in 2003 when George Bush stood in the Rose Garden and said we had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein would not let the inspectors in – so we had to go to war. We really had had no choice.

But wait. We had all watched that stuff from the UN – that Blix fellow and his team had been in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found. It was right there on television. But now it seemed that never really happened. No UN inspectors ever went to Iraq. They were never allowed in – Bush said so.

But of course Bush was just blowing smoke, and the press let it slide. It may have been a goof, or a clever bald-faced self-serving lie, or maybe Bush was simply delusional. But the press simply reported what Bush said, without comment.

And that made some folks angry. We deserve a better press. They should report when those is power flat-out lie – that’s news, a significant event – or report when they’re clearly delusional – which is even bigger news. But, at the time, Rick said this:

Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that’s pretty much a misconception. Think about it. Although you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials. What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents’ claims about the other guy’s lies. Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be “lies” and even just “goofs” without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they’re just pimping for some special interest or political ideology.

So that’s it. The press will gladly report on someone else calling out a lie, but they’d rather not do it themselves. That has a whiff of bias to it. They just report who said what. Some say that makes reporters no more than stenographers. But that’s unfair. They do track down everything for us, which is hard and often dangerous work. It’s just that if Senator Blowhard stands up and says that the earth is flat and the sun rises in the west and free-range chickens write fine poetry, they simply tell us that the senator said that. You’re on your own to decide what you think of Senator Blowhard. And maybe that’s best.

But now, years later, this has come up again. Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, has posted a rather remarkable item that has many commenting, or laughing. But it does get down to the basics. What is the role of newspapers in a political world where everyone is twisting things or just lying? Should the press point out obvious lies? Should they be what he calls Truth Vigilantes? Brisbane seems to think it’s an open question whether reporters, who end up actually amplifying assertions made by, say, political candidates, should tell readers whether those assertions about this and that are actually true or just bald-faced self-serving lies.

And here’s one of Brisbane’s open questions:

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?

If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:

“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.”

Brisbane, like Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, isn’t sure that’s such a good idea. But the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent offers this:

Should news reporters include that last paragraph giving readers the information they need to evaluate whether Romney’s claim that Obama “apologized for America” – which the paper itself is amplifying – is true? I’m sympathetic to Brisbane’s worry that that regular fact checking by reporters could mean some statements will get checked and others won’t. …

But I think there’s a simple way to drive home to Brisbane why reporters should include info enabling readers to judge such claims.

The Times itself has amplified the assertion – made by Romney and Rick Perry – that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Herehere, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers – with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.

But the press critic Jack Shafer is a bit more pointed:

Brisbane’s mistake wasn’t to bring up the topic of how much time, space and effort reporters should commit to truth-squadding the iffy stuff that oozes out of the mouths of politicians, other notables and their spokesmen.

It’s a worthy topic. Brisbane’s mistake was to pose the topic as question – as if a journalist with his sort of experience didn’t know what the correct answer is – and then to stupidly ask and re-ask the question in the final paragraphs of his item, as if he were Phil Donahue with microphone in hand, rushing up and down the carpeted stairway eager to collect comments from the studio audience.

And this did lead to Salon’s Alex Pareene offering this – “Should the New York Times – America’s ‘newspaper of record’ – print the truth?” And Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega tweeted this – “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But Jack Shafer points out some real issues here:

Part of the outrage against Brisbane is theatrical. It’s fun to excoriate the Times. I’ve made a career out of it! But Brisbane has no power outside of the bully pulpit that the paper gives him. He speaks for himself, not the Times, as the paper endlessly reminds those who ask. But because editors and reporters generally don’t have the guts to take abuse directly from readers, they employ ombudsmen and public editors like Brisbane as their shields: The ombudsman exists primarily to take in the face whatever rotten fruit, bean balls and shards of broken glass that angry readers want to heave at the editors and reporters who produce the newspaper. The ombudsman is a safety valve that prevents reader fury from exploding, a way for the newspaper to say “we listen.” And today, as the gashes on his face prove, Brisbane is earning his pay.

Shafer thinks what Brisbane was really trying to ask was “how much time and effort the Times should put in refuting or contesting every flawed expression of ‘fact’ that they come across when writing about newsmakers.”

So this is really a resource issue:

I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact – assuming that that’s possible on deadline – the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that? There’s a longstanding joke among journalists about what an infinitely vetted wedding announcement would look like: “A couple representing itself as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith say they hosted a reception Saturday, to commemorate what they claimed was the marriage of their son, in an apartment on Park Avenue that they assert they own.” …

Then, late today, Brisbane dug himself in a little deeper with a new post, claiming that his stupid questions had been misunderstood. I’ve read this post a dozen times and can’t figure out what he’s trying to say other than that he’s still looking for “reasoned discussion.” I urge Brisbane to forget about the reasoned discussion and start over with a blank screen – and not to ask stupid questions he doesn’t have the answers for.

Yes, just look at some of the Twitter feed:

Brisbane’s post should be put on the wall of a museum to explain contemporary US journalism.

That the NYT even has to ask is remarkable, and depressing.

Disappointed that NYT ombud (a friend) merely asks whether Times reporters should say when people are lying.

Oy. What has journalism come to when the NYT wonders if its reporters should report the truth?

Missed the announcement that the NYT was outsourcing public editor duties to the Onion this week.

But the Atlantic’s James Fallows is sympathetic:

I’ve mentioned how the mainstream press can be buffaloed if one party to a dispute says things that just aren’t true. Every reflex teaches journalists that the only “fair” approach is to neutrally report “both sides” – and to resist ever saying, “for the record, one side is just making things up.” Thus we have the false equivalence problem. “Professor Jones says that males differ from females in having both an X and a Y chromosome, as opposed to two Xs, but Mr. Smith says that such findings reflect a political agenda and also the motivation of funders.” All views are equal, and a reporter remains “objective” just by serving up what each side says. …

But – no joke – I’m going to look on the bright side. Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations. Think of Yogi Berra; think of Peter Falk’s “just one more thing…” throwaway queries on Colombo; think of children asking “Daddy, am I going to die?” or “Why is those people’s skin a different color from mine?” Sometimes it’s only the plainness of a non-sophisticated query that allows people to talk about issues that are usually taken for granted.

So I think Brisbane deserves credit rather than ridicule for raising this question. Let’s hope that within the Times, and elsewhere, it’s one more reason to focus attention on the difficult daily choices facing journalists trained to be “fair” and “objective” in the new political-infosphere terrain.

Actually, Fallows wrote a whole book on the topic and offers this:

For an “it even happens at NPR” real-world example, consider a report last month on what’s gone wrong with Congress. It quoted Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, who with straight face mourned the unpredictability of today’s politics: “Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people’s lives.”

It didn’t note that Rep. Cantor’s main political function over the past year, and the main source of his tension with Speaker John Boehner, has been precisely to add “confusion and uncertainty” to politics, toward the end of overthrowing what he considers corrupt old bipartisan business-as-usual. During the debt-ceiling showdown, he was a major proponent of risking a default if he didn’t get the spending cuts he wanted. You can admire his brinkmanship or deplore it, but either way it deserves mention when he talks about “uncertainty.” A “truth vigilante” would point it out.

But do we want truth vigilantes? What is truth, after all? You remember those college dorm-room discussions. And that’s where David Atkins seems to be:

That the question is being asked after all these years is, I suppose, a good sign. That it had to be asked demonstrates everything that has gone wrong with modern journalism.

Simply reprinting what a newsmaker says is known as “stenography.” Word for word transcription of organizational mouthpieces isn’t journalism, and isn’t worth paying for. When we worry about the potential loss of news organizations around the world due to shrinking revenue, the concern is not that powerful entities won’t be able to push their messages out to a waiting public via dutiful transcriptionists. We worry, rather, about the loss the investigative journalism: stories that ask hard questions – that uncover truths that powerful people and organizations would rather keep quiet, or even just stories that provide reality-based context in a sea of competing and distracting arguments.

That’s the true value of journalism, no matter what they may teach in modern journalism school. If printing the truth amounts to a story that is biased in favor of one side, then so be it. That’s the job.

And of course that’s impossibly idealistic. See Jack Shafer, above. But Atkins argues that there’s now help with those resource constraints:

In an hour-by-hour news cycle, fact-checking every statement a newsmaker makes is difficult – though the advent of vigilant partisan blogs on either side of just about any debate should make the process a little easier. If a public figure or organization lies about something, there are usually myriad stories online to debunk the lie in matter of hours or even minutes.

But who wants to wade through those? Everyone has an axe to grind. But that doesn’t stop Atkins:

More importantly, though, news editors are worried that if their stories seem to be biased as a result of being truthful, they’ll lose credibility with people who cling to untruthful views. First off, that’s just too bad. That’s the job. That’s the public service a newspaper is supposed to provide: educate the ignorant and hold the powerful to account. But secondly, it’s not as if that isn’t happening already. The New York Times is already felt to be liberal Pravda by a good 30-40% percent of the public: failing to fact-check some conservative’s outlandish statements won’t suddenly make a Fox News viewer feel that the New York Times is any less biased. Meanwhile, partisan media organizations who don’t necessarily seek truth as their main objective will continue to grow audience and market share.

So here’s his advice:

Pursuing uninformative stenography to avoid accusations of bias will mean an even faster death for modern media outlets. Seeking truth is the only way they can stay relevant, and the only good reason for them to survive.

That’s easy for him to say. It’s always more complicated than that. In fact, see Clay Shirky of the Guardian (UK):

Now, it’s worth noting that Brisbane’s question makes perfect sense, considered from the newsroom’s perspective. Romney’s claim that Obama makes speeches “apologizing” for America isn’t readily amenable to fact-checking. Instead, Romney relied on what are sometimes called “weasel words”, in which an allegation is alluded to, without being made head-on. (Romney, for instance, never quotes any of the president’s speeches when making this assertion.) For Brisbane, the open question was whether a hard news reporter should be calling out those kinds of statements, or should simply quote the source accurately.

You can’t identify as a lie that which is not really specified, can you? What is truth, after all? But, regarding Brisbane’s dilemma, Shirky shifts the focus:

This is what was so extraordinary about his original question: he is evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective. Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Judging from the reactions to his post, most of us never understood that this wasn’t the newspapers’ self-conceived mission in the first place.

It seems we were misinformed. But then there are practical considerations:

If the Times were to commit itself to challenging deliberately vague political language, it would have to express skepticism about some huge percentage of utterances made by public figures. Newspapers, at least in their US configuration, are simply not in the business of broadcasting skepticism about mainstream political speech.

This is partly because centrist publications enjoy more uniform access to politicians than partisan ones (even if the partisanship is simply an intolerance for hogwash). It’s also because treating readers as political participants rather than spectators would be frowned on by advertisers, for whom the relative neutrality of the mainstream press is a prized part of that platform’s value.

So nothing will change. But Shirky says this little dust-up may be, in the end, a watershed moment (a terrible newspaper cliché by the way):

The immediate fallout from Brisbane’s question will be minor – no paper in the United States, not even the Times (as its editor partially concedes), has enough staff to express continuous skepticism about political speech – but there may yet be a lasting effect to be reckoned with. Having asked, in a completely innocent way, whether the Times should behave like an advocate for the readers, rather than a stenographer to politicians, the question cannot now be unasked.

But Shirky is a Brit and may be misreading American readers’ preference on the matter. Much of what happened here is that everyone, for a day, got a chance to rag on the New York Times, and a chance to get on their high-horse and say noble things about what the noble press should do. It’s great fun.

But it’s different in the trenches. Getting down in words what just happened – the basic facts, in their proper sequence, in clear and compelling prose, by deadline – is hard enough. Careful analysis of the relative truth of what various parties said, and explaining that clearly, is just impractical, and somewhat beside the point. Back in 2003 George Bush did say we had gone to war because Saddam had refused to let the inspectors in to look around. Report that he said that. People knew then what they’d seen with their own eyes. And history judged George Bush, sorting things out, eventually. Journalism isn’t history. It’s only the first draft of history, as they say.

But yes, someone should limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty. Just keep the press out of it. They’ll cover that, not participate. The News Guy in Atlanta was right all along, damn it.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Longing for Vigilantes

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    This is my last sentence, apologizing for the length of the following rant. Sorry. I hope at least one person reads this!
    There is certainly research around on this most important topic, but nobody will read it.
    My guess: most Americans don’t even read headlines, much less content, and in these days can’t be bothered with discerning fact, so they depend on their outlet of choice: Fox, Daily Kos…endless similar sources right and left.
    I’m just a common dog in all of this. I’ve noted that the first paragraph and the last are important. the headline may or may not be unbiased. Pundits often stick in the middle of their column, somewhere, a CYA paragraph, in case somebody calls them out for their bias. They can then say, truthfully, what is really false: “see, it was right there, and you just didn’t read it.” The lead story on TV is always sensational, and there is no “depth of coverage” worth those words outside of, perhaps, 60 Minutes. And on an on and on.
    There is a lot of money to be made by the media in political advertising, and we schmucks will pay the bill through campaign contributions to our favorite candidates.
    Years ago I coined a phrase, “we have too many news people, and too little news”. Of course, as I say, I’m just a common dog and have no way of proving that, and the words are too common to do a productive internet search of that and prove my case. But “my” phrase has been out there for years.
    We have become a nation of idiots.
    ‘Opinions’ have replaced any semblance of ‘facts’ or ‘truth’
    Or maybe we haven’t lost it all just yet.
    Just a couple of days ago an elderly friend of mine (actually, he and I are the same age, but what the hey?) was talking with a young woman, who’s working on her senior thesis at her university in Philly area. I had taken her over to see him. She happened across me last summer, and I think she’s glad she did. He observed to her, and I agree with him, that the vast majority – the silent middle in this country – is up to something. But it’s quiet and uninteresting and too hard to ferret out, so it won’t make the news. If he’s right, and I think he is, we’re at a time of a profound shift in attitude, but it’s far too boring to cover: like watching paint dry. News is entertainment today.
    My college friend is the future we’re, pardon my French, ‘shitting’ on as we play our games. They will remember. We lived in the golden age of “America”, and we lost perspective. Who doesn’t know someone who’ll freely admit “I’m spending my kids inheritance.” It’s more than our kids money we’re spending. We’re spending their future, too.
    So the commercial media (which unfortunately includes almost all media now – even lonely bloggers need to pay for their computer) will continue to “ambulance chase”, and in one way or another adopts the famous mantra: “we report, you decide”. And the politicians and their image makers will lie through their teeth, knowing it doesn’t make any difference at all: today’s quote is all that matters, and that people will forget by election day.
    As a disinterested relative of mine is fond to say, “they all lie”, which gives her permission to ignore any responsibility for her own choices.
    One parting shot: last spring we saw a movie that came and went quickly, but is back in DVD and on demand as of Jan 3, 2012. It is called I Am, The Documentary. I wish everybody in the world could see it, and then talk about it. Check it out on the internet. As the subtitle says: “The shift is happening”. I hope.
    Sign me: someone who cares.

  2. Rick says:

    I haven’t had time yet to read Arthur Brisbane’s Times posting, but I gather the question under discussion is whether journalists should point it out when some politician “lies,” or at least doesn’t tell the truth, about something. I think they should. In fact, I have a hard time understanding the logic behind the other side of that argument.

    But the real problem isn’t whether to ferret out and publish the truth, it’s knowing the “truth” when you see it. That “apology tour” question is a good place to start.

    A few months back, I myself wondered whether these Republican claims about Obama going on an “apology tour” really held water, so I went and checked, and landed on Glenn Kessler’s “Fact Checker” column in the Washington Post from February of last year, which is a pretty good, albeit long, overview of the subject. Go read it if you want the details.

    Kessler first quotes Karl Rove:

    Mr. Obama told the French (the French!) that America “has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” toward Europe. In Prague, he said America has “a moral responsibility to act” on arms control because only the U.S. had “used a nuclear weapon.” In London, he said that decisions about the world financial system were no longer made by “just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy” — as if that were a bad thing.”

    Then Kessler points out that the word “apologize”, or anything like it, never appears in any of Rove’s examples, and that, especially in the case of Prague and London, Obama’s statements were just statements of fact, as part of Obama’s introduction to the world of himself as the new president, in which he differentiates himself from the previous administration — making it clear that things would be different from that point on. Bush 43 did something similar when he took office, when he “quickly broke with Clinton administration policy on dealings with North Korea, the Kyoto climate change treaty and the international criminal court, to name a few.”

    Still, was Obama apologizing, or wasn’t he? Well, if you think he wasn’t, I’d guess you’re not a Conservative.

    Why? Because Conservatives see an apology whenever they see someone confessing that they — or, in this case, their country — did something wrong, regardless of whether the words “apology”, “sorry”, or “regret” are even used. Yes, one definition of “apologize” is to “express regret for something that one has done wrong”, but even if you don’t hear Obama “expressing regret,” one might be justified in inferring it. Many people won’t, but many people — also of good faith, believe it or not — would infer it, and those people are called Conservatives. (You may have noticed that Conservatives hardly ever apologize, nor admit they did wrong. They consider both these things a sign of weakness.)

    But as for inserting that line, “Any assertion that [the president] has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words,” that might be only true for Liberals. At the very least, it’s not an indisputable fact, and if you insist that it is, you may unwittingly be taking the Liberal’s side in this issue. If you do, you’re pushing your opinion, and not being objective.

    My favorite part of what Karl Rove says is “Mr. Obama told the French (the French!)…”

    (Full disclosure: An ex-journalist who retired years ago, I am, in fact, a Liberal. So why am I being so considerate of Conservatives? Because I am, as I just told you, a Liberal.)


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