Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor at the New York Times, was skewered by readers last week when he raised the question of “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
His thoughts had drawn, at last check, 327 reader comments, most of them in this vein: “You are joking, right? You can't be this stupid.”
Or this: “Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn't have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”
Journalists tend to avoid the word “lie,” in part, perhaps, because they are timid, and in part because the word implies a deliberate intent to deceive. As I tell my journalism students, we can only know what people say. We can’t know what they believe.
Readers obviously thought reporters should call out lies, but that wasn’t exactly the question Mr. Brisbane asked. The question isn’t whether lies should be called out, but how often and in what format.
For example, Mr. Brisbane mentioned presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s frequent assertion that President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America.” The Washington Post Fact Checker has awarded this claim four Pinocchios, a designation reserved for statements the Post considers to be “whoppers.” The Post notes that Mr. Obama has not used the term “apology” in speeches, and says claims that he has apologized are misinterpreted or taken out of context.
Mr. Romney has said that he will “never apologize for America.” Exactly why he thinks that is a reason to vote for him is uncertain. Your mother probably told you that when you hurt innocent people, even when it is accidental or unavoidable, you should apologize. That same sound advice would seem to hold for countries, too.
But never mind. Mr. Brisbane’s question is this: Should the Times note every time that Mr. Romney makes this charge that it is simply untrue? And if so, how? By adding a paragraph pointing out the falsehood after each assertion?
The answer has both factual and political implications. The idea that Mr. Obama went on an “apology tour” after his election has now become an ingrained postulate of Republicans, some of whom no doubt sincerely believe it to be true. Would a lame sentence or two pointing out that Mr. Obama had never said the word satisfy anybody?
Besides, even on the internet articles can only be so long. Just parsing Mr. Romney’s frequent public misstatements would add scads of boilerplate to every story about him.
For example, he has claimed to have created hundreds of thousands of jobs when he was with the Bain Capital private equity firm, but the evidence for that claim is dodgy at best.
Mr. Romney’s very first political ad attacking Mr. Obama took a quote blatantly out of context. When the falsehood was pointed out to him, Mr. Romney stuck to his “no apology” mantra. "What's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander," he said, incoherently.
Mr. Romney has himself been the victim of false and misleading attacks. Supporters of Newt Gingrich distributed a 28-minute film about Mr. Romney’s business career that almost immediately began to collapse under the weight of factual errors. To Mr. Gingrich’s credit, he called on the film maker to either correct the errors or withdraw the film altogether.
And when Mr. Romney said last week that he enjoyed “firing people,” he was referring to insurance companies that provide poor service, not to the victims of capitalism’s creative destruction. That didn’t stop his Republican opponents from echoing the phrase constantly.
Many reporters did point out the context for Mr. Romney’s remarks, but that did less to correct the error than it did to gloss over how troubling his remarks were when taken in context. Sure, it would be nice to be able to fire health insurance companies, but how many people have that power? Do you?
Unfortunately, the important discussion of how Mr. Romney would fix that problem was nearly lost in the rush to correct the factual distortion.
Even more unfortunately, politicians and their surrogates seem more willing to lie than ever, thanks perhaps in part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has greatly expanded the ability of political operatives to avoid accountability (see last week’s Outpost).
Many of their lies take on lives of their own. For example, a standard Republican talking point has been to accuse Democrats of engaging in “class warfare” for proposing to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans by a few percentage points.
This is ridiculous, if not a blatant lie. When Stalin murdered thousands of kulaks in the 1930s for the crime of being prosperous, that was class warfare. When the Russian writer Dostoevsky was sentenced to death (later reduced to prison camp) for belonging to a literary discussion group that wanted to abolish serfdom, that was class warfare.
But returning tax rates to what they were in the 1990s, when the federal budget was in balance and debt was in decline? Nonsense. Rule of thumb: If it doesn’t involve class and it doesn’t involve warfare, it’s not class warfare.
Even Mr. Brisbane’s harshest critics probably would agree that pointing out the inaccuracy of that term every time it appears is beyond the obligations of daily political reporters. As I used to say, if newspapers were serious about printing only objective truth, we would see Easter headlines like this: “Christians celebrate alleged resurrection of Jesus.”
Fact-checking departments such as the Washington Post’s don’t solve the problem. The Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.com recently drew heat for giving its Lie of the Year Award to Democratic claims that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” Critics argued that not only was the claim basically correct – you can change the motor, the body, the steering and the transmission of a BMW and still call it a BMW, but that doesn’t make it one – but also that Politifact was trying to even things up after finding so many Republican claims false.
If true, that’s old-style “he said, she said” journalism at its most supine. Even lies would be a welcome diversion.