Arthur Brisbane, New York Times public editor, attempts to equate two examples that are, by defintion, vastly different, resulted in blistering backlash from readers and journalists alike today.

Today, Arthur Brisbane seemed to ask readers if they wanted The New York Times to change its practices and become truth-chasers. Wait, what?

Indeed. The column by the Times public editor seemed to assert that reporters have not been challenging facts that are told to them and asked readers if they wanted the paper to do more of this.

The heads of journalists and readers alike exploded. Or at least they did so figuratively, in the comments section of Brisbane’s post, on Twitter, on Poynter, and on Jay Rosen’s blog.

Brisbane tried to explain himself in a rebuttal that says people weren't responding to the question he was trying to ask. But by trying to equate two examples that are, by defintion, vastly different, he opened the door to misinterpretation. Let me explain. 

In the original column, Brisbane notes an example of calling out the truth on the Republican nomination campaign trail:

Another example: 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.”

Craig Silverman responded for Poynter, saying “there’s nothing vigilante about checking facts.” Silverman also created a Storify that summed up the Twitter reaction to Brisbane’s column. Spoiler: The reaction was somewhere between incredulous and deeply sarcastic. Anthony De Rosa, Reuters social media editor, tweeted, “If that post by the @NYTimes Public Editor doesn't wind up on @TheDailyShow, someone's not paying attention.”


Jay Rosen’s reaction speaks to a wider observation about journalism in general. He writes:

Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.

Rosen continues, describing how truth telling “moved down the list of newsroom priorities” and how the valuation of objectivity over truth was denied, since admitting to that would be devastating to the industry. It would be an admission akin to doctors no longer putting the health of a patient ahead of collecting payment from insurance companies, he says.

So, Rosen says it has been denied until now, when Brisbane has solicited input on whether or not New York Times reporters should “challenge the ‘facts’ that are asserted to them by newsmakers they write about.”

But, it should also be noted that even though he is the public editor, Brisbane doesn’t speak for the Times. And Brisbane responded to Jim Romenesko that people are responding to a question he wasn’t even asking.

He says didn’t mean to ask: ‘Should the Times fact-check?’ which is what people have responded to. As he told Romenesko, he meant to ask “whether reporters should always try to rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing.” This question lends more to the first of the two examples Brisbane cited in his original column:

One example 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 that he simply chose not to report the information.

This one is a more difficult question, as it would be difficult to rebut someone’s claim of misunderstanding as false, save for a polygraph, or other unrealistic measures.  “I was also hoping to stimulate a discussion about the difficulty of selecting which ‘facts’ to rebut,” Brisbane told Romenesko. “Facts, being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective.”

However, a fact is something that is verifiably true; it can be confirmed by outside sources, such as the President having never used the word “apologise” in a speech about U.S. policy or history. A fact does not shift based on perspective, as Brisbane says there (those are opinions or perceptions). A misunderstanding is not a fact. It is open to interpretation. It’s an assertion that can be challenged, but not proven to be untrue. 

Brisbane’s rebuttal that attempts to equate the two examples by definition is, ironically enough, what created this "misunderstanding" between his stated intention and the readers’ interpretation in the first place.

What do you think? Was the initial heated reaction to the assertion that fact-checking has gone by the wayside fair? Or has the value of Brisbane’s intended question now been lost? Leave a comment below or tweet us @jsource.