January 13, 2012 · 9 Comments
By Marie Burns:
We can stipulate that Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, is a clueless naif. No one today would disagree with that, and many have said much worse. For a man who has been in the newspaper business for 35 years and whose grandfather – for whom Art is named – was one of the best-known newspaper editors of the 20th century, Art Brisbane is remarkably unaware of the principles and practices of the family business. While it is tempting to assume the Times hired Art Brisbane in 2010 because of the ink running through his veins, I suspect the real reason Art got his gig was that the ink was rather thick and gummed up his brain. The idea was, no doubt, to have a public editor too thick-skulled to ask hard questions. The plan worked quite well. Until it backfired.
So yesterday, absent irony, Arthur Brisbane asked readers if “The Times should be a truth vigilante?” Brisbane wrote,
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…. 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?
Brisbane treats this question as if it had never been posed in journalistic circles before. From the tone of his post, it appears Brisbane thought this question was nothing more than the idle musing of a stray reader or two, and he was curious to know if anybody else had every thought of such a thing. (Jim Fallows of The Atlantic suspected “the NYT and the Onion have finally merged.”)
Well, there was Edmund Burke, who coined the term “Fourth Estate” in the 18th century: “But in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. ‘Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.” So the Fourth Estate labored on for a few more centuries, printing incendiary partisan opinions and scandalous rumors and sensational malarkey with abandon, until such time as one Edward Wardman of the New York Press began smacking Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal with charges of yellow journalism. And who do you suppose was the editor of these papers? I know, I know, this is too perfect. Drumroll: Arthur Brisbane. In 1901, Grandpa Arthur wrote a column in Hearst’s paper suggesting that President William McKinley be assassinated. Shortly thereafter an anarchist shot the President dead, and critics accused Hearst’s paper of inspiring the assassin. Well, yeah.
While Grandfather Arthur Brisbane was wielding his poison and partisan pen, Adolph Ochs – great-grandfather of today’s New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. – bought theNew York Times. Ochs coined the paper’s slogan, “All the news that’s fit to print,” as a condemnation of the city’s sensational yellow papers like the ones Brisbane edited. One of Adolph Ochs’ innovations was to separate the news and opinion pages so the reader could tell the difference between fact and opinion. He promised,
It will be my earnest aim that The New York Times give the news …impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved; to make of the columns of The New York Times a forum for the consideration of all questions of public importance, and to that end to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.
The Times of course became a model for other newspapers – a paradigm of “objective” journalism.
Art Brisbane, New York Times public editor, seems to know none of this. Ironically, Brisbane’s ignorance may prove to be a plus for journalism. In recent years, journalists and media critics have been alarmed at the way news media, including the Times, have turned Ochs’ “impartiality” on its ear. In 1996 journalist/memoirist Joan Didion called “fairness” a “familiar newsroom piety” and “benign ideal” that is “the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking.” What it often means, Didion wrote, “is a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured.” For nearly a decade, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has been exploring and deploring what he calls the media’s application of the “view from nowhere” – a passion for “objectivity” that has caused news organizations to devolve to the point that they are “bland” outfits that “lack soul.”
Journalists attending the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner did not laugh when Stephen Colbert described mainstream journalism this way: “Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home.” This is why Colbert and Jon Stewart are often better news analysts than are the writers at the New York Times and other major media outlets. In 2006, Stewart famously called out CNN shouting heads Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson of “Crossfire” for engaging in “partisan hackery” instead of substantive debate. Viewers agreed with Stewart. CNN cancelled “Crossfire.”
In 2008, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus wrote that few media managers and young reporters “want or believe they have the right to shape government actions. They don’t want to play activist roles in government – either personally or professionally – unless, of course, it could affect the bottom line.” Pincus called “this failure a threat to our democracy.” Publishers like Hearst, Pulitzer and Phil Graham of the Washington Post “all used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment,” Pincus wrote.
Pincus, who has been a newspaperman since 1954 and who reported on the Watergate story, sees the Nixon Administration’s attacks on the “liberal press” caused newspapers “to begin pulling back.” In addition, print journalists began voluntarily complying with the “fairness doctrine,” which required electronic media to present opposing sides of issues. Pincus wrote,
Today’s mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, unbiased and objective, presenting both or all sides as if they were on the sidelines refereeing a game in which only the players – the government and its opponents – can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance and at times even accuracy.
When they’re not serving as court stenographers, reporters often express their “objectivity” in what Jay Rosen has called the “he said/she said” format. Rosen cites a 2009 New York Times article by Edmund Andrews as a perfect example: Andrews quotes one person, then quotes another who disagrees. The reader has no idea who is right and who is spinning. Both views are presented as “equal” even though they are not. Andrews, of course, remains “objective,” but the reader comes away puzzled. When it comes to political shenanigans, journalists often use a variation on he said/she said: the “both sides do it” report in which a reporter presents the reader with another sort of false equivalence. Times publisher Adolph Ochs said that a “responsible newspaper should ‘report all sides of a controversial issue, and let the reader decide the truth.’” But if the reporter doesn’t give the reader a clue as to which “side” is more credible, the reader has no basis for “deciding.”
The loathing of this kind of lazy journalism has reached a crescendo during this year’s Republican primary campaign for good reason: the candidates lie. They lie large and they lie often. They repeat lies even after some few members of the press have thoroughly debunked the lies. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly, Think Progress and Media Matters have done yeoman’s work calling out the candidates’ false claims. But for the most part, few in the mainstream media have been listening. Until just this week, it has been common for the major media – who do have the facts available to them, sometimes even in the blogs of their own newspapers – to repeat candidates’ false assertions or go the he said/she said route.
Charles Pierce of Esquire told Jack Shafer of Reuters last week that
sports writers have a greater liberty to tell the truth than do political reporters. A sports writer, for example, will encounter little resistance from his editor when he submits a story that says a young shortstop has no chance to make the big leagues. But few experienced political reporters are allowed to treat hopeless candidates like Michele Bachmann that way until the day the candidate is forced to drop out of the race.
Enter Art Brisbane. In one stroke of hilarious blogfoolery, Brisbane has called attention to the widespread problem of reportorial abdication. The Internets went wild; or as Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post put it, “It wasn’t long after Brisbane posted this item that the world shook from the collective force of thousands of heads hitting thousands of desks simultaneously.” But Jim Fallows saw a silver lining: “Apparently naive questions can often be the start of quite penetrating and profound explorations…. Sometimes it’s only the plainness of a non-sophisticated query that allows people to talk about issues that are usually taken for granted.”
The immediate reactions to Brisbane’s post from ordinary readers and professional journalists alike were almost universally, “Gasp! I can’t believe he said that!” And, “Yes, of course reporters should fact-check.” The scolds tut-tutted and harumphed, and the wags wagged:
This from Juli Weiner of Vanity Fair: “Just as New York Times public editor Arthur S. Brisbane is concerned whether his newspaper is printing lies or the truth, we here at V.F. looking for reader input on whether and when Vanity Fair should spell ‘words’ correctly in the stories we publish.”
Many a droll response came via Twitter: “[Brisbane's post] should be put on the wall of a museum to explain contemporary US journalism.” And “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them.” And “Someone should make ‘Truth Vigilante’ T-shirts and donate a portion of the proceeds to nonprofit investigative journalism.” So it’s appropriate that Brisbane also got his own fake Twitter feed, which includes such tweets as, “Critics say the new drug may cause heart murmurs, hair loss, and epilepsy, but the manufacturer says it doesn’t. So I guess that’s that.”
The Times‘ big guns weighed in quickly on Brisbane’s questions. Bill Keller, former executive editor of the paper, suggested to Steve Myers of Poynter that Brisbane had chosen lousy examples to help illustrate the problem. He had. And as Myers remarks, “It’s ironic that one of the examples … Brisbane used in asking whether reporters should be ‘truth vigilantes’ has already been fact-checked. In March 2010 PolitiFact ruled that it’s not true that President Barack Obama has apologized for American misdeeds, as Mitt Romney has claimed.” Keller went on to tell Myers that “the Times and other news orgs have already formalized its fact-checking. For example, it’s common to assign Times reporters to fact-check during debates…. “’I think calling out mistakes or misrepresentations is very much part of the journalistic obligation,’ Keller said.”
Jill Abramson, the Times‘ executive editor defended the paper, too. In an e-mail to Art, which Brisbane posted, perhaps by executive order, Abramson wrote, “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…. Of course…, we have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness.”
Of course. Abramson cited a few examples of the Times‘ judicious fact-checking. What she did not say is that if the Times sometimes fact-checks its stories, it also often fails to do so. Greg Sargent writes,
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: Here, here, and here…. 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.
The Times‘ easy reliance on outside fact-checkers is also a problem. As I wrote in an earlier column here, the fact-checkers themselves often serve as interpreters rather than as truth-tellers: “My interpretation is better than your interpretation.” Experts widely criticized PolitiFact’s “2011 Lie of the Year,” demonstrating that PolitiFact’s “interpretation” was not as good as other “interpretations.”
Alex Pareene of Salon, found Brisbane’s post hilarious: “In Brisbane’s formulation, when a reporter corrects a falsehood made by a source or public figure, that reporter is a “truth vigilante,” because he or she took the truth into his or her own hands, before some slick fast-talking lawyer got the lie out of truth-jail on a technicality.” Pareene reminds us that the public editor’s job at the Times “was created after Jayson Blair published a bunch of untrue ‘facts’ in the newspaper. The Times eventually corrected those ‘facts.’”
Glenn Greenwald, Pareene’s colleague at Salon, devotes yet another column today to his frequent complaints about journalistic stenography, and once again singles out the Times for its “selective stenography,” particularly on coverage of U.S. wars. Greenwald’s subject is ostensibly Brisbane’s post, but Greenwald never needs much of an excuse to find fault with Times reporting.
Jason Linkins hits on the central point: “Watch what Brisbane does here [citing Brisbane]: “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?’” But, Linkins writes, “This is a trend I’ve been noticing for some time, in which the concept of objective fact is characterized as an opinion – something for columnists to litigate, because only they have ‘the freedom.’”
Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly adds, “By publishing falsehoods without scrutiny, for fear of being accused of ‘bias,’ the media is effectively leaving news consumers with the impression that lies and the truth deserve equal footing, which is ultimately untenable.”
The Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk had an answer to the question way back in 2004 when it was looking at coverage of that year’s presidential campaign:
The candidate makes a statement. You write it down, then you call the other side for a response. It’s one of journalism’s fundamentals. Tell us what he said, tell us what she said, and you’re covered, right? Well, no. Given the amount of spin this election year, the old rules don’t apply any more. Campaign Desk herewith proposes a new ground rule: ‘He said/she said/we said.’
Will anything change at the Times as a result of Brisbane’s post and the media-wide responses it raised? Will the Times editors do some soul-searching and abandon he said/she said “balanced” reporting and stenography? Will they – eight years late – follow the CJR “new rule”? I doubt it. Several writers, including Jack Shafer of Reuters, reminded readers that “Brisbane has no power outside of the bully pulpit that the paper gives him.” That is, nothing Brisbane writes or thinks or does will change the way Times reporters do – or don’t do – their jobs. Jill Abramson’s defensive response probably tells you how Times news editors will react: “Hey, we already do fact-checking. No need for overkill.” Besides, especially with that $15 million golden parachute the Times is bestowing upon outgoing CEO Janet Robinson, these are hard times at the Times. They can’t afford to have reporters and editors fact-checking every little thing a politician says. Not only that, today’s instant turnaround times demand fast reporting. No time to fact-check. So we will get the occasional news analysis of the type Abramson cited in her response to Brisbane. We will get some thoughtful blogposts from Paul Krugman and business bloggers like Bruce Bartlett. But for the most part, the Brisbane boomerang will fade into the next story, and that next story will tell us Mitt Romney says two and two are five, Barack Obama disagreed.
It is appropriate that this hoo-fah about reporting the truth took place on the day the fake Stephen Colbert announced his real candidacy for president. Colbert, who coined the word “truthiness” – “a ‘truth’ that a person claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or that it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts” – has managed to turn unreality into reality. He is a living, breathing send-up of the type of reporting – where the unreal is indistinguishable from the real – which Brisbane absently ponders.
As for the village idiot himself, a stunned Brisbane fought back against all the criticism, mockery and scorn. He did what any bully would do. He turned not on his media critics, not on his bosses, but on his readers – the “little people” Brisbane is supposed to speak for to the Times poobahs. Forget truth to power. Claiming he never said what they think he said,Brisbane said in a statement, “… a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking.” All misreaders misread alike, apparently. Forget he said/she said. For Brisbane it is “I said/I did not say.” At the New York Times, truthiness wins.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
Correction: this article has been corrected to reflect the fact that New York Times CEO Janet Robinson, not Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson as originally stated, is retiring. Robinson retired December 31, 2011, and will reportedly receive a benefits package worth about $15 million.