Journalists incredulous as Times public editor asks: ‘Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?’

New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane is attracting attention and derision for his latest blog post, “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”

“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,” he writes.

This is connected to the idea of public fact checking, and how news organizations can integrate the clear calling out of falsehoods into reporting. For example, my recent look at the Associated Press’ approach to fact checking included this relevant section.

The approach of knocking down falsehoods is now also being incorporated into other areas of coverage, according to Cal Woodward, a reporter and editor in AP’s Washington bureau who writes a significant number of political fact checks.

“There is and has been an effort to integrate this kind of accountability reporting … outside of politics and into spot stories, hard news stories as well,” he said. “Why would you let somebody get away with a misstatement and not deal with it?”

Brisbane’s post lists a bunch of questions he seems to be pondering:

… 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?

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Paul Laroquod

    Look the NYT made the mistake of hiring someone who accidentally told the truth about their standards.

  • Ageless Male Review

    I agree with their opinion on stopping the Asian carp flow…blocking access to the basin should be our first priority for that.

  • Anonymous

    Should doctors be illness vigilantes? Or is that going a little too far?

  • Anonymous

    Here’s my solution. The first time someone lies in a public statement, you report it, and rebut it. Maybe the second time you report it and emphasize that the person continues to say untruths. If the lies continue, simply stop reporting them. Maybe every so often remind people that the person is still lying, but other than that, stop allowing the liar to spread his lies.

  • Sarah Thomas

    Everyone reading the column understood the question, and they gave their answer. 

  • Work Avoidance Log

    “But, of course, any responsible newspaper that publishes that statement
    would follow-up with facts to support, or deny, the statement.”
    So hard to keep up, Phil: could you please point to all the “follow-up[s] with facts to support, or deny, the statement” made on a multiple-times-daily basis by Republican presidential candidates, members of Congress and their enablers in the echo-chamber about the President’s dyed-in-the-wool, ingested-with-mothers-milk “socialism?” You know, the one that millions of Americans who think “socialist,” “communist,” “European,” “liberal,” “unemployed,” “college educated,” “Democratic,” “terrorist,” and “un-American” are all synonyms now accept at face value?
    But to the point of the story: Brisbane may be a nitwit, or he may just be an uncareful writer. Jay Rosen and the other “professional thinkers” continue to believe that they and their “followers” are typical of “users”–not even close, much less typical of people in general.
    Why do so many of us find it so difficult these days to see any shades of grey?

    Back to work:

  • Anonymous

    A responsible newspaper fires actors who go after the powerless and smear them with malicious lies. 

    Corruption is a liability for any brand that claims to be the paper of record. When they act as enablers to predators in high places, they’ve chosen a side. It’s a shame. And it’s an affront to the honest people whose work I miss seeing because they set a good example.

  • Jack Otter

    Brisbane is getting a bad rap here. He points out that the Times does, in fact, check facts in sidebars. And it does so in news columns as well, but in the limited slightly awkward way that all of us do, following a statement by pointing out that “many experts say TK….” How should reporters handle the assertion that reducing taxes will increase growth and reduce deficits? In some circles that’s considered gospel, but mainstream economists would say the growth benefits are not enough to outweigh the loss of tax revenue. Should the writers take a position on that topic? A GOP candidate could easily give a speech asserting not only that lower taxes reduce deficits, but that global warming doesn’t exist, contraception is dangerous, evolution is an unproven theory, Fannie Mae caused the financial crisis and Obama is a socialist. Should the article rebut each claim? Yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point, but so are Brisbane’s critics. He’s not suggesting the Times abandon the role of telling the truth; he’s wondering where to draw the line between He Said/She Said and rebutting politicians.

  • N.

    Brisbane is well-known as a nitwit. Of the 4 public editors to date, he’s considered the most embarrassing, which is saying something when you consider that one of his predecessors was Barney Calame.

  • Phil Ammann

    The NYT is simply jumping on the ‘fact-check” meme, following the lead of the Washington Post “Pinocchio” (Newt’s favorite, it seems) and the Politi-Fact from the St.Peters… er… Tampa Bay Times. Anybody who follows print journalism would be shocked… SHOCKED, I say… that fact checking should have a place separate from the business of crafting a good, honest news story. Unfortunately, when a newsworthy person makes a statement (“so and so said the President is a bold-faced liar, failing to bathe on a regular basis, and scares small children in the process”), it seems that that would be newsworthy, in and of itself. But, of course, any responsible newspaper that publishes that statement would follow-up with facts to support, or deny, the statement.