Yes, The New York Times Should Definitely Be a Truth Vigilante

Journalist flooded Twitter with side-splitting remarks about New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane's latest column, (provocatively?) wondering in the headline, "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

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Updated (5:55 p.m.): Journalists flooded Twitter with side-splitting remarks about New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane's latest column, (provocatively?) wondering in the headline, "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" Brisbane leads with what seems to be a simple mission. "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." The immediate answer, everyone we follow seemed to agree, was a resounding YES. And yes, people did make fun of Brisbane's use of scare quotes around the word facts.

It's unclear right off the bat what Brisbane aims to do with the results of his crowdsourcing experiment to figure out if Times readers want Times reporters to be more assertive in their fact-checking. He'll probably write another blog post, and possibly -- we should add extra emphasis the word possibly -- he could pursue some changes to The Times's reporting policies. But there's a deeper, almost academic relevance to the question. Moments after Brisbane published the post on his blog Public Editor's Journal, New York University journalism professor and Atlantic Wire media diet contributor Jay Rosen immediately tweeted the link and then said to GigaOm's Mathew Ingram, "I'm afraid the Times Public Editor has just shown that he has not kept abreast of public discussion or press practice on this one." He followed up six minutes later with his assessment on the premise of Brisbane's question:

It is a great journalism question, but as Rosen pointed out in an interview with The Atlantic Wire, it's a very very old question, one that he says was answered a long time ago. "Everyone is so shocked," Rosen said of the insta-reactions on Twitter. "I am not. Because I have been making a careful study of just how far the View from Nowhere penetrated into American journalism, and I concluded a while ago that, though most journalists would deny it, there are situations where truthtelling is outweighed by other considerations like 'remaining objective' a phrase Brisbane used, or maintaining the View from Nowhere, or as I have also said: the production of innocence." In a matter of speaking, objectivity has its merits, but reporters' primary job ought to be seeking out the truth.

The View from Nowhere is an idea that's been around pretty much since the days of Pulitzer, but the philosopher Thomas Nagel coined the term with in his 1989 book's title. Since we don't have a Ph.D. from Harvard like Nagel does, we won't try to explain the notion very deeply, but as Rosen suggests, The View from Nowhere applies to journalism insofar as "remaining objective" is a strategy that's remained central to respected American reporting factories since yellow journalism shook up our notions of sensationalism and its discontents. On October 25, 1896, Adolf Ochs, the son of German-Jewish immigrants and Tennessee native who bought a small, fledging newspaper called The New York Times, adopted the motto "All the News That's Fit to Print," a philosophy that the newspaper's stuck to since. Obviously, it's been a successful philosophy for The Times.

Rosen's focused a large amount of his academic work on exploring the relevance of The View from Nowhere in modern American journalism. (This Q&A is definitely worth a read if you want a quick primer on Rosen's ideas about the issue.) As we mentioned, lots of people immediately wondered why Brisbane was even asking readers if they thought Times reporters should be truth vigilantes, but Rosen also wondered why he waited so long. "It's been a question for a long time," Rosen told The Atlantic Wire, "but I mean people saying: we have to change this, now!"

And what can really come of Brisbane's crowdsourcing experiment besides some good navel-gazing at The Times and joke-making on Twitter? "It's hard to say because he's starting from so far behind. I mean, this is a debate and a shift in practice that is well underway. We don't know if he plans to catch up, or start fresh," Rosen said. "Here's an example [of the discussion]: five years ago." With the enduring debate between the two newspapers (one print, one Internet), it's a little bit ironic that the author of the post Rosen pointed out is none other than Dan Froomkin, senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. Maybe it is just an academic exercise, or maybe Brisbane will really effect change in the Times newsroom. "I guess that's possible," Rosen responded when we pressed him about the idea that Brisbane would do more than ask readers a question and listen to the answers. "We shouldn't be entirely cynical about it. However, the place where that would happen is probably the standards editor and what is called in the building The Masthead." He added, "The Public Editor is not a policy-making position at all."

Like we said, Brisbane's question is an open one. And The New York Times's readers are being rather open in sharing their thoughts in the comments. The most recent comment at the time of this posting answers Brisbane's question very, very clearly.  Says Rob from Chicago, "Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!"

Salon's Alex Pareene, in the meantime, has a follow-up for Brisbane:

Sure, why the heck not?

Update 2: Now, Times executive editor Jill Abramson has responded to Brisbane in a pretty nifty back-and-forth blog post. First, Brisbane goes into greater depth about how the question in his original blog post was slightly misinterpreted. Then, Abramson responds. Her point is very clear:

In your blog, you ask "whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." Of course we should and we do. The kind of rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing you describe is a fundamental part of our job as journalists.

We do it every day, in a variety of ways. On the most ambitious level, we sometimes do entire stories that delve into campaigns to distort the truth.

Former Times executive editor Bill Keller also weighed in. "I wonder if Art hasn’t confused matters a bit by his choice of examples," Keller said in an email to the Poynter Institute. We'd like to note that all of the responses -- and the responses to the responses -- are worth reading in full. You know, if you're into that sort of thing.

Update: Brisbane implores his recently very outspoken readers (and you) to read more closely before you start swinging that criticism stick. Following the Twitter-powered outcry and a growing number of comments on his latest inward-facing post about The Times's approach to journalism -- the post's title "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" sort of speaks for itself -- Brisbane insists that people are answering the wrong question. "I often get very well-reasoned complaints and questions from readers, but in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking," Brisbane said in a statement. "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 hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question." Jim Romenesko's published Brisbane's full response on his blog. But honestly we've been having so much fun reading the journo-pundits pile on to The Times, we'd have to recommend you read this first.

(Disclosure: I sat in on a few of Rosen's classes last spring and worked with him in a professional capacity in 2009, when I was an editor at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.)

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