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Thursday, January 12, 2012

The New York Times wonders aloud if it should care about the truth

by David Atkins

The New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane asked his readers a remarkable question today: should the Times actually care about the truth? No, I'm not kidding:

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...

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?

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.

It's understandable that major news editors are deeply uncomfortable with that notion. 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.

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 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.

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.