Keller: ‘I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit’

It’s ironic that one of the examples New York Times Public Editor Arthur 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.

Brisbane’s other example – whether Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas really misunderstood a financial disclosure form – is not the sort of thing that can be fact-checked, no matter how implausible it may seem. (Brisbane said as much in a response to Jim Romenesko and in a followup post.)

“I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit by his choice of examples,” said Bill Keller, former executive editor and current op-ed columnist, via email.

The question of whether Obama “apologized for America” is a matter that lends itself to testing. … The question of whether Clarence Thomas “misunderstood” a financial reporting requirement, on the other hand, is not a checkable fact, unless you hook Justice Thomas to a polygraph or pump him full of sodium pentathol. You can’t “check” what was in his head. But readers can decide for themselves whether they find his explanation credible. My point is, there’s a continuum of types of information that cannot all be handled in the same way.

Keller said 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. And PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair noted that Times reporters already cite PolitiFact in news stories – the sort of situations in which Brisbane asked if reporters should knock down untruths.

“I think calling out mistakes or misrepresentations is very much part of the journalistic obligation,” Keller said. (Executive Editor Jill Abramson lists some examples in a response to Brisbane.)

Fact-checking has become so popular that two conferences were held recently on the subject in about a month. “I hope Mr. Brisbane understands that there is in fact a tremendous movement in journalism toward more fact-checking,” Adair said.

Almost no punchline has gone unuttered in the reaction to Brisbane’s post. Many people said that it should go without saying that journalists should try to report the truth and verify facts.

“A lot of people responded to a question I was not asking,” Brisbane told Romenesko.

“What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. … I was also hoping to stimulate a discussion about the difficulty of selecting which ‘facts’ to rebut, facts being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective.”

Adair took issue with that idea. “It’s wrong to equate fact-checking with opinions. Fact-checking is simply good accountability journalism.”

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LIBJJI2YZJAHGLPM3A2WYKNWMA MHS

    Politifact and Poynter should be basing their authoritative-sounding conclusion on more than just a simple search for the word “sorry.” Here is just one example this discussion could have touched on and what could be construed as a criticism, an apology or an objective statement of fact:

    “If we’re honest with ourselves,
    we’ll acknowledge that at times we’ve failed to engage the people
    of the region with the respect owed to a partner. . . . Those high
    hopes have been dashed. Since the Bush Administration launched a
    misguided war in Iraq, its policy in the Americas has been negligent
    toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested
    in the challenges that matter in peoples’ lives, and incapable of
    advancing our interests in the region.

    “The situation has changed in the
    Americas, but we’ve failed to change with it. Instead of engaging
    the people of the region, we’ve acted as if we can still dictate
    terms unilaterally. ”

  • Anonymous

    One word: balderdash.

  • Anonymous

    In the Romney example the assigned reporter(s) should ask the candidate or their campaign for an example of an “apology.”  If none is forthcoming the paper should report that the campaign could did not respond to the request for an example in the charge in question.  When there is doubt make the source supply back-up.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, truth has a notorious left-wing bias.

  • Anonymous

    I guess Politifact doesn’t see a distinction between intent and opportunity.

    http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/09/09TOKYO2033.html#
    POTUS VISIT TO JAPAN: TOO EARLY FOR HIROSHIMA VISIT ¶5.  (C) VFM Yabunaka pointed out that the Japanese public will have high expectations toward President Obama’s visit to Japan in November, as the President enjoys an historic level of popularity among the Japanese people.  He underscored, however, that both governments must temper the public’s expectations on such issues, as the idea of President Obama visiting Hiroshima TO APOLOGIZE FOR the atomic bombing during World War II is a “non-starter.”   

  • Codewizard

    The NYT is laying down some cover fire for it’s coming election coverage. They are desperate to get Obama re-elected; they have to be free to attack anyone that opposes him. The only way to do that is to be “vigilante truth detectors.”

    If any of you had paid attention to the Obama Camp for the last 5 years, you would realize this is nothing but liberal code for “go after anyone that disagrees with the liberal/progressive/anti-American/anti-Christian/pro-Muslim agendas.”

    The NYT just wants to be able to take sides with the “permission” of the people. Worse still, they seem to be willing to forgo the appearance (*ROTFLMAO*) of impartiality to push their agenda even harder.

    I can’t believe you people are buying into this. Amazing.

  • Anonymous

    What Joy Said. The relevant Thomas facts are (1) he an was reporting his wife’s income, (2)the she got That Job, and (3) he stopped reporting her income.

    If Bill Keller is stupid enough to claim there is a need for Thomas to fail a lie detector test to “prove” he’s lying, when a responsible journalist would simply report those three facts, then I understand why Brisbane is confused: his boss wants to ignore, or at least not report, the facts.

  • Anonymous

    What Joy Said. The relevant Thomas facts are (1) he an was reporting his wife’s income, (2)the she got That Job, and (3) he stopped reporting her income.

    If Bill Keller is stupid enough to claim there is a need for Thomas to fail a lie detector test to “prove” he’s lying, when a responsible journalist would simply report those three facts, then I understand why Brisbane is confused: his boss wants to ignore, or at least not report, the facts.

  • four legsgood

    The public isn’t confused. It’s sad that Brisbane seems to be. What I see, all to often, is some political figure quoted in the NYTimes spouting some crazy falsehood. The reporter dutifully quotes them with no challenge what so ever. So candidates and their surrogates continue to do it. They know they aren’t going to get called out so there’s  no downside. In the meantime, a reader with no expertise in the subject gets bamboozled. 

    In spite of his confusion (and apparent irritation with TIMES readers like myself), I’m happy he opened up this can of worms. Let’s talk about it and KEEP on talking about it. Journalism can only be better for it. 

  • four legsgood

    The public isn’t confused. It’s sad that Brisbane seems to be. What I see, all to often, is some political figure quoted in the NYTimes spouting some crazy falsehood. The reporter dutifully quotes them with no challenge what so ever. So candidates and their surrogates continue to do it. They know they aren’t going to get called out so there’s  no downside. In the meantime, a reader with no expertise in the subject gets bamboozled. 

    In spite of his confusion (and apparent irritation with TIMES readers like myself), I’m happy he opened up this can of worms. Let’s talk about it and KEEP on talking about it. Journalism can only be better for it. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh my effin’ word.

    Just ’cause some blogger calls himself Poltifact doesn’t make the blog  fact checker to be cited by the Times as authoritative. ”Facts” get scare quotes?  This is an extraordinary documentation of the “All the News that’s Fit to Print” journal concession that, no, all they really do is write down what different people say, and then print it.

    I’m paying 20 bucks a week for this kind of ‘journalism”? For an institution terrified of printing “facts”?

  • http://twitter.com/JoyousMN Joy Dunseth Jacques

    But the Clarence Thomas example DOES go to what I think Brisbane was trying to ask, “How do you put context or “fact-checking” around something more nebulous? I do think it’s possible to do something even when it’s not as clear-cut; did Clarence Thomas always report his wife’s income in other circumstances? If so, did he give an explanation for why that changed? Details along those lines…People are aware, and politicians are definitely aware, that as long as you skate right up to a point, without crossing it, you won’t ever get called on it by the press. 

    Jay Rosen has done a much better job documenting this; I would love to see him brought into this discussion.