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Piling on Arthur S. Brisbane, unfairly

January 12, 2012

It’s not easy being the New York Times‘ public editor. At a recent talk I attended, Arthur S. Brisbane said, half-jokingly, that few people at the Grey Lady want to have lunch with him. But the criticism from outside the paper’s 8th Avenue offices can be just as blistering.

Today, Brisbane wrote a blog post entitled Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? An unfortunate headline, to be sure, if you’re talking about the New York Times. Unfortunately, many readers and media commentators failed to read beyond the headline and understand what Brisbane is really asking, which is not whether reporters should be dogged in their pursuit of the truth. Of course they should. What he’s asking is whether a hard news reporter should be calling out potentially untruthful statements made by sources, or whether the reporter’s job is to simply quote the source accurately.

It’s easy for everyone to pile on Brisbane. After all, if a reporter is certain that a source is lying, and has the evidence to back it up, then it’s incumbent on them to say that, right? But rarely is reality so neat and tidy. This isn’t “Law and Order”, after all. The example Brisbane uses is whether Clarence Thomas was to be believed when he stated that he “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form by failing to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. This is not something that can be proved truthful or not, unless one were able to get inside Thomas’s head.

Brisbane, in response to a question from Jim Romenesko, says that “in this case a lot of people responded to a question I was not asking.” I completely agree. So let me offer my opinion on the question that Brisbane was asking. I think reporters should avoid inserting their own judgments as to the truth of a source’s statement, unless they are absolutely certain one way or another. While it may be unbelievable to some readers that Clarence Thomas, a sitting Supreme Court judge, could misunderstand a financial disclosure form, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. It should be up to the reader, not the reporter, to decide whether Thomas is either lying or an idiot.

The public already likes to criticize reporters for a perceived lack of impartiality. Having them add opinions about their sources’ credibility to stories would only create even more noise, especially on such hot-button topics as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resultant letters that would invariably land on Brisbane’s desk would make today’s pile-on seem like a vacation day.