Thursday, January 12, 2012

Truthiness at the Times

Shark-jumping moment over at the paper of record:
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's the Times public editor wondering aloud in his weekly column if maybe the reporters who work for his paper should determine the truth or falsehood of a statement before printing it.

The subject came up after readers complained that the Times was blindly printing lies told by Republican candidates and flacks without pointing out that the quoted statements were, in fact, false.

This is a complaint Jews have been making for years, and its a problem on the oped page as well, where guest columnists often seem free to make any crazy assertion they like with no push-back from the editors.

The problem is this: Journalists, for the most part, believe they are supposed to be objective and report what's happened without commenting on it. If Mitt Romney, for example, announces that aliens have arrived from Mars, most reporters think their obligation is to report what Romney said, without offering an opinion on the candidate's sanity. Some other public figure is expected to counter the lie, at which point the journalist will report on that, as well, leaving it to the readers to determine who is right and who is wrong.

Or that's the theory anyway.

It fails for two reasons.

(1) People have their own biases. When you see someone in handcuffs you presume he's committed a crime, and when you see something printed in the New York Times you imagine its true. We're simply not trained, as newspaper readers, to second-guess examples of recorded speech that professional editors have elected to publish. We presume the editor checked to see if the statement was true. It never occurs to us, that maybe the statement is false, and the paper merely wants us to know that these words were said by this person, irrespective of their validity.

(2) Objectivity is a chimera. No human can achieve it. Even the best intentioned reporter is going to slant one way or the other. And, let's face it, most reporters aren't well-intentioned. I prefer to get my information from someone like Jon Stewart or Sean Hannity, who wear their bias as badges of honor, than from a reporter aspiring to objectivity. The reporter is going to fail, leaving us to wonder where he got it wrong. With guys like Hannity and Stewart we know going in which way the scale is tipped.

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