Hilarity ensued in mid-january after Arthur Brisbane, "public editor" of the New York Times, posted a blog entry titled "Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" He was compelled to publish a follow-up post hours later to reply to his "large majority of respondents" who answered his question "with, yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth."
Being a "truth vigilante" turns out to mean something different from being truthful. Something very different, as we can see from the two examples in Brisbane's initial post. Here is the first, "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 [thought] that he simply chose not to report the information.
That's the whole example. A reader was suspicious of Justice Thomas's explanation and faulted the Times for failing to…well, to do what exactly? The reader doubts the sincerity of Thomas's explanation but has no factual basis for disputing it. Liptak may or may not agree with the reader's opinion that it was "not likely" Thomas was telling the truth. In either case, this is not a difficult call. It is obviously wrong for a reporter to insert his personal opinion into a news story, especially when that opinion lacks any factual support.
Brisbane then offers as an exemplar of a "truth vigilante"—seriously, you cannot make this stuff up—former Enron adviser Paul Krugman:
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."
I'm sorry to be rude, but that's just dumb. It may be a fact that Obama hasn't used the word "apologize" (I haven't checked), but that proves nothing. One can apologize without using the word "apologize."
The characterization of Romney's interpretation as "misleading" is, again, a matter of opinion. It may be an opinion for which one could offer persuasive factual support, but neither Brisbane nor Krugman makes any effort to do so. Krugman merely asserts that "the so-called Obama apology tour is a complete fabrication, assembled by taking quotes out of context."
Brisbane's examples make clear that when he poses the question whether the Times should become a "truth vigilante," what he is asking is whether the entire paper should become an opinion sec-tion-whether the Times's news pages should emulate Krugman, albeit perhaps with a somewhat softer tone ("misleading interpretation" instead of "complete fabrication").
To hear Brisbane tell it, there is a demand for such a transformation. He writes that he gets e-mails from "readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight" and who "worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true."
If that kind of "judgment" is what they want, they can get it from Krugman and the paper's other columnists and editorialists. Why do those readers feel something is lacking in the paper if reporters are more restrained about expressing their opinions than opinion writers are?
Because reporters have an authority that opinion writers do not have. You can reject Krugman's "judgment," or Thomas Friedman's or Maureen Dowd's or the editorial board's, by dismissing it as a product of their ideological predilections. That is not so easily done with a news story. If a Times editorial declares it "not likely" that Justice Thomas is sincere, that's just a matter of opinion. If a Times news story does, it's a fact.
Or so Brisbane's readers seem to imagine. In reality, reporters owe their authority precisely to the expectation that they adhere to an ethos of impartiality. Jill Abramson, who as Times executive editor oversees the paper's news coverage, seems to grasp this point. As she writes in a response to Brisbane, which he included in his second post:
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.
Tendentiousness is a synonym for bias, a shortcoming of which the Times's news pages have often been accused, including in this column. But Brisbane has stood the question of political bias on its head. What they're debating at the Times is not whether the paper is biased, or how it can become less biased, but whether it is biased enough.
And although Abramson ultimately answers in the negative, the overall tone of her reply to Brisbane is defensive. "The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists," she insists. "We routinely have a team or reporters fact-checking debate assertions in something close to real time." As an example of the Times's "providing facts to challenge false or misleading assertions," she notes that "we constantly point out the scientific consensus on climate change."
Traveling in politically conservative circles in New York, I often run into people who tell me they've canceled their Times subscription, or are holding out from doing so only for the crossword puzzle or the food section, because they're so fed up with its liberal slant. (Full disclosure: I am an employee of the Wall Street Journal, a Times competitor, and a shareholder in the Journal's parent, News Corp. Thus such stories never fail to brighten my day.)
Even though self-described conservatives make up 40 percent of America's population in Gallup's latest survey, their defection is probably not a threat to the Times's survival. That percentage, after all, is far lower in New York and similar urban areas that are the Times's target audience.
But when Abramson observes that "some voices crying out for 'facts' really only want to hear their own version of the facts," she perhaps unwittingly identifies the threat that the narrowing of the Times's readership poses to the quality of the paper's journalism. Those voices, after all, belong to the Times's customers. They want the reporters who work for Abramson to be less disciplined about keeping their opinions to themselves. Abramson has reason to be defensive. Not only is her paper biased, it is under commercial pressure to become more biased.