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?
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.”
That approach is what one reader was getting at in a recent message to the public editor. He wrote:
My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?
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?
Throughout the 2012 presidential campaign debates, The Times has employed a separate fact-check sidebar to assess the validity of the candidates’ statements. Do you like this feature, or would you rather it be incorporated into regular reporting? How should The Times continue a function like this when we move to the general campaign and there’s less time spent in debates and more time on the road?
I have appended a note statement from Jill Abramson, the executive editor, responding to this post.
First, though, I must lament that “truth vigilante” generated way more heat than light. A large majority of respondents weighed in with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth.
That was not the question I was trying to ask. My inquiry related to whether The Times, in the text of news columns, should more aggressively rebut “facts” that are offered by newsmakers when those “facts” are in question. I consider this a difficult question, not an obvious one.
To illustrate the difficulty of it, the first example I used in my blogpost concerned the Supreme Court’s official statement that Clarence Thomas had misunderstood the financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings.
If you think that should be rebutted in the text of a story, it means you think a reporter can crawl inside the mind of a Supreme Court justice and report back. Or perhaps you think the reporter should just write that the “misunderstanding” excuse is bull and let it go at that. I would respectfully suggest that’s not a good approach.
The second example I used in the blog post was Mitt Romney’s quote about the president “apologizing” for America. This one isn’t a slamdunk, either. It certainly isn’t being systematically rebutted in the paper’s news coverage now. Maybe this is one that should be. My point is: the question is worth a reasoned discussion.
By the way, I should add that I did receive some thoughtful responses to the blogpost from people who recognize that the issue is timely and unresolved. Here is one from Greg Sargent at The Washington Post:
In your blog, you ask “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.
We do it every day, in a variety of ways. On the most ambitious level, we sometimes do entire stories that delve into campaigns to distort the truth. On a day to day basis, we explore the candidates’ actions to see if what they’ve done squares with what they are saying now — for example, this story about Newt Gingrich’s work for clients:
A typical day-to-day example came in John Harwood’s Political Memo on Jan. 6, examining Mitt Romney’s assertion that Obama wants “to replace our merit-based society with an entitlement society.” That may be an opinion or political rhetoric, but we supplied the context for readers to assess it. We pointed out: “The largest entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — were all enacted before Mr. Obama entered grade school.”
We quickly called out Romney’s misleading ad that quoted Obama out of context on the economy:
On the other hand, in Romney’s defense, we quickly explained in detail the true context of his “I like being able to fire people” quote — that he was talking about choosing an insurance company, not firing workers.
And of course, as you pointed out, we routinely have a team or reporters fact-checking debate assertions in something close to real time; here are examples:
These are just a few recent cases. And providing facts to challenge false or misleading assertions isn’t just part of political coverage. We do it routinely in policy stories from Washington and business stories from Wall Street. We do it in science coverage, too — for example, we constantly point out the scientific consensus on climate change,
Of course, some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for “facts” really only want to hear their own version of the facts.
Could we do more? Yes, always. And we will.
Sincerely, Jill Abramson
Here's the letter I sent to the Times:
After twenty-five years as a reader of the New York Times, this is my first missive to the paper.
Yes, I would like the New York Times to do its best to inform me about what the truth is. I am, in fact, mortified that you even think this is an open question. What else do you think your job might be?
I recognize that this will result in accusations of “partisanship”. Most of those accusers have already demonstrated that they will claim “partisanship” whatever policy the paper takes, so I do not see how you can regard them as relevant.
I recognize that this opens questions about what constitutes relevant truth. Yes, opinions do differ on the shape of the Earth. But you are journalists. You can figure it out.
After the second posting on the Times website, I sent them a second email>:
Public Editor Brisbane suggests that readers like me didn't understand his question.
I disagree. I think he didn't understand his question.
He asks whether the Times should rebut false claims by “newsmakers” in the article in which those people are quoted. Let me clarify the implications of that question. By “newsmakers” he means People In Power. So he is asking whether the heart of the story is the fact of what People In Power have said, or the facts of the subject that People In Power are talking about. If the former, it is incumbent on the paper to not distract from the core story by interjecting a rebuttal of a Person In Power. If the latter, it is incumbent on the paper to support the core story by rebutting People In Power when they deceive.
I am very clear on which I need and expect from a newspaper. Why isn't he?