Being the ombudsman or “public editor” for the New York Times has to be a pretty thankless job at the best of times, but it got a whole lot more thankless for Arthur Brisbane on Thursday, when he touched off a blog and Twitter firestorm by asking whether the newspaper’s reporters should be “truth vigilantes.” Many of the responses expressed shock that the paper would even have to ask such a question — what else should a media outlet like the NYT be doing? While Brisbane protested that his point was more nuanced than his critics suggested, the furor over his question reinforced a crucial point: Many traditional media sources are clinging to an outdated view of what their purpose is, and how to accomplish it.
In the column, Brisbane said reporters often come across statements made by political figures that are of questionable veracity — for example, repeated comments from Mitt Romney that President Obama has “apologized for America.” In a nutshell, the question Brisbane posed to New York Times readers (since the idea of the column is that the public editor represents the readers rather than the newspaper itself) was whether reporters should question those kinds of statements directly in the article they are writing, or whether they should do it in some other way, presumably in a follow-up piece, etc.
What else should the NYT be doing but checking facts?
Most of the initial responses to the column, however — including those from prominent journalists, as well as commenters on the post itself — focused on the question implied by the headline, which seemed to be asking whether the NYT’s reporters should be doing any fact-checking at all. Brisbane tried to clarify his point in a follow-up post, and in comments to media industry veteran Jim Romenesko, saying his question was not whether they should do so, but how and when.
But by then it was too late, and the waves of criticism continued to build as each new blog post was published — including a response from the executive editor of the New York Times, who took issue with Brisbane’s suggestion that the paper didn’t fact-check enough (although he never actually said that) in a statement appended to his follow-up column. By the end of the day, Brisbane had even achieved the dubious honor of spawning a parody Twitter account. And critics such as Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald were using the public editor’s column as evidence of a failure of the entire media industry:
That might be overstating the case somewhat (Greenwald later expanded on his tweet in a column noting that the New York Times routinely engages in what he called “selective stenography” by printing what politicians say without questioning it). But there’s no doubt that the response to Brisbane’s column says a lot about where the NYT and other mainstream media stand. In the past, their reporting may have been looked at as infallible, but incidents such as the Judith Miller case — in which statements about the Iraq war were published without question — have dismantled a lot of that authority.
The “view from nowhere” is no longer good enough
At the same time, there are so many other sources of news and commentary now, many of which are unafraid to be opinionated. That poses a threat to what used to be a cornerstone of traditional media: objectivity, or what journalism professor Jay Rosen has called the “View From Nowhere.” To newspapers like the NYT, providing a scrupulously balanced report of two viewpoints might seem like the right thing to do, but to what seems like a growing body of readers, this is actually the king of all cop-outs. As media theorist Clay Shirky noted in a piece for The Guardian, the “truth vigilante” question revealed a sharp divide between what the newspaper seems to think it’s duty is — i.e., reporting the news — and what readers seem to think its duty is. In Shirky’s words, Brisbane:
[I]s evidently so steeped in newsroom culture that he does not understand – literally, does not understand, as we know from his subsequent clarifications – that this is not a hard question at all, considered from the readers’ perspective.
Those who run newspapers like the New York Times may still think objective reporting is all they need to do, apart from the occasional opinion column or editorial, and that selectively fact-checking the occasional egregious statement is enough. But as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark points out in a response to the Brisbane column, the rise of entities such as Politifact (which had already checked one of the statements the public editor referred to in his post) and Factcheck.org shows that people want more — and media outlets that leave this kind of function to third parties risk losing the trust of their readers.
The reality of media today is that entities such as the New York Times no longer have an exclusive claim on that kind of relationship. Anyone can effectively achieve it, whether they describe themselves as a journalist or not, and there are plenty of examples of that happening — including Andy Carvin’s use of Twitter during the Arab Spring revolutions, and the rise of citizen journalists such as Tim Pool during the Occupy Wall Street protests. And to the extent that others do a better job of truth-telling than the NYT, they will find an audience and the New York Times will not.