The NYT’s Public Editor, Arthur Brisbane, remains clueless about the political reality of our time. (But I must immediately step up to confess factual error, committed in the interest of pith, for his office is in fact a few blocks from Times Square.) Earlier this month, he asked aloud “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Said gaffe was worsened by the unwittingly hilarious headline slapped on it (“Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”) The letters that poured in were almost uniformly scathing, making it plain that Times readers had far outdistanced their anointed ombudsman in their understanding that if journalists do not correct the false claims they report, they are not journalists at all, but rather stenographers—or worse, to quote the late, great Jack Newfield on the ideal Washington correspondent, stenographers with amnesia.
Today Mr. Brisbane comes forward again to insist that journalism should confine its arguments against falsehood to the sidebars.
Can you fact-check without displaying bias? Some argue that fact-checking operations fail this test. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway cited a University of Minnesota study that found PolitiFact had assigned “substantially harsher grades” to Republicans than Democrats between January 2010 and January 2011.
Fact-checking organizations, he told me, “are doing opinion journalism, but they are doing it under the guise of pseudo-scientific objectivity.”
As co-believer he cites the Times’ new executive editor, Jill Abramson, who told him
that if fact-checking were made a “reflexive element of too many news stories, our readers would find The Times was being tendentious.” Readers, she added, could come to see The Times “as a combatant, not as an arbiter of what the facts were.”
In the routine, banal, all-suffusing presence of blatant untruth, a newspaper ought to be combative—against untruth. If it is not combative, it ratifies untruth. That would be unprofessional. And here’s the problem that afflicts Mr. Brisbane: The Republican Party is committed to untruth.
To Mark Hemingway, that PolitiFact “assigned ‘substantially harsher grades’ to Republicans than Democrats” is proof of bias. There’s another possible hypothesis, of course: That Republicans are less fact-bound than Democrats.
The most egregious example is not trivial: A party whose putative leaders publicly doubt that social factors are responsible for catastrophic climate change is committed to untruth.
Democrats are often apologists for plutocracy but that is not party policy. There are major Democrats who dissent, even when there aren’t millions of Occupiers in the streets pushing on them. It is Republican party policy that global warming cannot legitimately be attributed to human causes. The vast majority of climatologists, who happen to disagree, this party considers to be hucksters and cheats. If I point this out in the New York Times, must I immediately add, in the interest of balance, that the Democrats were responsible for the Vietnam war?
Mr. Brisbane does want more rectifications in sidebars, “regular installments of fact-checking journalism.” He ”favor[s] rebutting assertions in some routine news articles. But The Times needs to be disciplined about it. The paper’s straight news function remains its most valuable asset, which would be undermined if argument replaced fact-gathering.” He goes around in circles on the subject of “argument,” as if reporting untruths poker-faced constituted “fact-gathering” and disputing them right there in their face were tantamount to “argument” and therefore a violation of journalistic integrity. Journalists should be discrete in the face of untruth. They should not disrupt the party. That would be partisan.
This is how journalism goes toothless.
Update Jan. 23, 8:30 AM: A Times piece on Iraq notes: ”while there remains hope that Iraqis can still unite, the country is far from the ‘sovereign, stable and self-reliant‘ place President Obama described it as last month.” This is a perfectly proper way of noting, in the body of the piece, that Obama’s description was false.