The News About the Truth, and the Truth About the News

I had to read the headline twice. Then after reading the lede, I had to question whether I actually had read what I had just read. Was "the Paper of Record," the purveyor of "All the News That's Fit to Print," really asking if its reporters should bother checking out the factual assertions made by the newsmakers it covers and report whether they are, in fact, true?

Let January 12, 2012, be marked as the date when the New York Times confessed, in an oblique but nonetheless conclusive way, that it theretofore had not been terribly concerned with discerning and reporting the truth. This much came into crisp focus when public editor Arthur Brisbane asked his readers, "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?"

I quit working in mainstream news12 years ago, but I still consider myself a journalist, and still care very much about the profession and its crucial role in the functioning of a healthy democracy. In subsequent jobs as a journalism professor, deputy editorial director at Media Matters for America and communications director for Free Press, I railed against the hollow mockery the news business makes of something so important. Not to bash the reporters for their failures and shortcomings, but to remind them and their audiences that there are better ways to do it.

Since I broke into the news business more than 20 years ago, the people at the top have been lamenting their decline in readers, listeners and viewers -- and this predates the advent in online media to sap the already dwindling numbers. They always sought to produce more sizzle and pizzazz to draw more eyeballs, leaving substance as an afterthought if it was considered at all.

Petrified of being called biased, primarily by conservatives trotting out the "liberal media" smear to avoid criticism for their mistakes, they removed anything that might be controversial -- like exposing falsehoods. Paul Krugman famously quipped that "if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read 'Views Differ on Shape of Planet.'"

In that field of manufactured balance and false equivalence, where does the discerning news consumer go for actual news?

My research focus as an academic was on how satire takes on the valuable role of truth-teller in a society where the truth rarely sees the light of day. It was clear to me from the reams of research (since repeated and reaffirmed) being put out on how viewers of The Daily Show are better informed, generally, than the rest of the public. The reason for that is, Jon Stewart doesn't have to kowtow to powerful people who will willfully lie to the media with full confidence they'll never be called on it.

(In an article I wrote for a prominent journalism publication, I argued that real journalists could take lessons from Stewart and his research staff, which he once described as "an intern with a VCR": when the president, a member of congress or a local politician says something that you know to be false, and you have the evidence to prove it, say so! Unfortunately, the article got spiked because, the editor said, "The people who need to know this don't read [the magazine], and the people who read it already know this." One could argue that Brisbane's query suggests the editor might have been wrong.)

One should be careful not to place the target solely on Brisbane's back for his tacit acknowledgement that the NYT is not in the truth business. For neither he nor the Times are alone in believing so. In 2010, NBC News' Meet the Press host David Gregory told media critic Howard Kurtz that he couldn't be bothered to consider establishing a relationship like the one ABC News had at the time with, because he said, "People can fact-check Meet the Press every week on their own terms."

Long before that, venerated PBS newsman and NewsHour host Jim Lehrer told the Columbia Journalism Review, by way of explaining that he would not challenge a statement he knew to be false, "I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism." As my former Media Matters colleague Jamison Foser pointed out, Lehrer's approach "treats the two claims -- that it rained, and that it didn't rain -- as equally valid, even though he knows 'for a fact' that one of them is false."

(Interesting aside: When I used the Foser column linked above in a discussion of ethics in an advanced journalism class, one of my colleagues at the journalism school warned me against using such "political" materials because they might offend my conservative boss.)

I have argued since, and will continue to do -- now armed with supporting opinions of literally hundreds of people who commented on Brisbane's post, Facebook, The Huffington Post and elsewhere -- that if a news outlet is not looking at contradictory assertions and using its resources to assess which is closer to the truth, what service does it provide beyond reprinting press releases?

With apologies to Jack Newfield, "stenographers with amnesia" would be an improvement. At least they'd have an excuse for not recognizing they're reciting lies.