Arthur Brisbane, Public Opinion editor for the NY Times, has copped a well deserved shellacking for a column in which he asked whether reporters should act as ‘truth vigilantes’ in relation to statements made by public figures.
Having observed the silliness of asking whether newspapers should (aspire to) tell the truth, the obvious question is: How should they telll it. Here are a some suggestions
1. Its unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words, such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc
2. If the approach suggested above, it will rapidly become apparent that Republicans lie all of the time about everything, whereas Democrats only lie some of the time about some things. A serious paper of record would acknowledge this, noting the partial exceptions like Jon Huntsman. That is, if the NYT were reallly serious about truth, it would gloss every statement by a Repub as (X, a member of the Republican Party claimed Y. Extensive studies by the NYT have shown that most statements by members of the Republican party are false. In this case …)
3. This is a sad state of affairs, just as its sad that Americans won’t have a chance to vote for a serious Presidential candidate who opposes indefinite detention of innocent people. But that is the situation and organizations like the NYT have limited choices – they can either publish lies or be ‘truth vigilantes’.