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New York Times Public Editor Asks Readers To Weigh In On Whether Or Not Reporters Should Attempt Some Sort Of 'Reporting' [UPDATE]

Nyt Building

First Posted: 01/12/12 02:48 PM ET Updated: 01/12/12 06:28 PM ET

In a game-changing move that could have a far-reaching impact on the way journalism is practiced in America, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane is asking Times readers if they'd like the paper's reporters to, you know, do some "reporting" or something. Because why not, right?

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.

I'm not sure how paid subscribers are supposed to respond to this. I'm guessing that most will say, "Uhm, sure?" while a small number of outliers will respond, "You know, as long as you keep bringing me Thomas Friedman's thought-farts and a weekly dose of human wreckage in the Modern Love column, feel free to go on printing whatever anonymously-sourced horseshit you want." I imagine that more than a few are going to struggle with the whole "whether or when" conceit -- "Yes, the Times should print things that are true, but only on Wednesdays."

It wasn't long after Brisbane posted this item that the world shook from the collective force of thousands of heads hitting thousands of desks simultaneously. Reaction among media types has ranged from confusion to outrage to mockery. (Here's Craig Silverman at Poynter, rounding up a solid set of reactions, plus a helpful Twitter list of reacts set up by Jim Romenesko.)

As Alex Pareene points out, the position that Brisbane currently holds at the Times "was created after Jayson Blair published a bunch of untrue 'facts' in the newspaper." That was back in 2003. So one way of looking at this whole embarrassing episode is that eight years after the public editor position was created, the fourth person to hold the job is finally getting around to address the question it was intended to answer in the first place.

Right about now, you might be wondering how anyone in the newspaper business could possibly be fussing over this. You might be asking yourself, "Isn't challenging assertions simply a basic task of ordinary reporting?" At one time or another, sure, that may have been true. But watch what Brisbane does here:

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?

This is a trend I've been noticing for some time, in which the concept of objective fact is characterized as an opinion -- something for columnists to litigate, because only they have "the freedom." But when did reporters lose "the freedom?" Did they part with it willingly or was it stripped from them? That Brisbane is even asking if "reporters" should be in the business of "challenging assertions" and "call[ing] out" lies indicates that from his point of view, reporters have been without that "freedom" for a significant amount of time. (By the way, when one, in such a freedom-less state, writes a story for a newspaper, the task is called "stenography," not "reporting.")

Brisbane, surprisingly, isn't that interested in how it came to pass that reporters parted with the "freedom." Instead, he conjures up an entirely new brand of Times employee -- the "truth vigilante." Because what objective journalism has needed, all this time, is more lynchings.

UPDATE: After receiving a rather forceful reaction to his column, Brisbane has offered up what amounts to a rather petulant response, which is available for your perusal over at Jim Romenesko's site. The short version is that everyone who responded to his initial inquiry, which solicited "reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about," got the question wrong and should feel bad for being so stupid. He then does that thing where he restates the original inquiry, and pretends that he has made it clearer for readers, who are obvious idiots:

I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and fact-check.

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.

Oh! You meant to ask whether reporters should challenge assertions and offer rebuttals in the body of the stories they are writing? What other venue for rebuttals and challenges could you possibly have meant, Arthur, other than the body of the stories? The reporters' imaginations?

Brisbane seems to think that this should force everyone to rethink their original response, somehow. In addition, he apparently had the expectation that readers would provide "diverse" and "nuanced" responses to a question that basically boils down to, "Should the stuff we put in the body of our stories be, like, true and junk?" I'd be curious to know if he honestly expected a "diverse" response to this -- if he literally expected some people to say, "Actually, it doesn't matter so much to be is what I read in the body of your stories is reliable or not."

Brisbane goes on to restate some examples he originally provided "to illustrate the difficulty" of his question, but he fails to understand that he is the one having a hard time grappling with the difficulty -- not the people who have responded, in simple terms, to his inquiry.

He closes with, "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," because it's not his fault, it's everyone else's.

UPDATE, 6:26pm: And now NYT executive editor Jill Abramson weighs in, politely telling Brisbane to sod off:

Art,

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.

Read the whole thing here.

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