Factchecking in a Post-Truth World

Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece about how we’re in a post-truth society, essentially because Republicans are able to say nasty things without officially called out for it by the media.

So here’s my forecast for next year: If Mr. Romney is in fact the Republican presidential nominee, he will make wildly false claims about Mr. Obama and, occasionally, get some flack for doing so. But news organizations will compensate by treating it as a comparable offense when, say, the president misstates the income share of the top 1 percent by a percentage point or two.

The end result will be no real penalty for running an utterly fraudulent campaign. As I said, welcome to post-truth politics.

Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor of the New York Times, asked how the Times should deal with this.

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.

One example mentioned recently by a reader: As cited in an Adam Liptak article on the Supreme Court, a court spokeswoman said Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial disclosure form when he failed to report his wife’s earnings from the Heritage Foundation. The reader thought it not likely that Mr. Thomas “misunderstood,” and instead that he simply chose not to report the information.

Another example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.

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?

I have some problems with the piece, and the reaction. The main question is pretty stupid, as pretty much everyone agrees that reporters should correct factual inaccuracies. It’s a straw man argument that suggests that the Times doesn’t do its job. Joe Hill summed it up.

Upset to hear the NY Times might begin to report “facts” and expose “lies” instead of just regurgitating what PR flacks & politicians say.

The NYTimes can start calling people on “lies” or they can skip it, either way they will keep on doing what they do best: wrapping fish.

The examples the public editor uses aren’t unambiguous facts that were ignored. Whether it is plausible that Clarence Thomas misunderstood a financial disclosure form is ultimately an assumption, and I don’t think it belongs in a general article about the Supreme Court. What constitutes a President apologizing for the United State is also a matter of opinion that doesn’t belong in a piece on Mitt Romney in Iowa.

Either issue is worth exploring in a separate column, but adding the writer’s viewpoint sets a bad precedent. While it’s nice to add context and clear up any potential misunderstandings, it can get repetitive and tiresome, or overwhelm the reportage. For example, the Times could feature multiple perspectives on a controversial assessment. There could be the guy who thinks Obama doesn’t apologize for America, the guy thinks Obama’s doing the right thing by apologizing for America, and the guy who thinks that Obama’s wrong to apologize for America, along with the President’s quotes in full context. There will be a page of reporting to explain a claim within a speech.

If anyone says something factually inaccurate, I have no problem with the New York Times calling them out on their bullshit. For example, if quoting a tea party activist who refers to Nancy Pelosi as an “atheist lesbian spinster,” it is totally fine for a reporter to mention that the former Speaker is a married Catholic grandmother.

While the paper clearly has a place for anyone who wants to editorialize or offer an opinion, I wouldn’t mind separate pieces about the ways in which politicians try to maneuver voters. Though that often requires journalists with extraordinary amounts of self-awareness.

I suspect that most reporters, especially for the Times, will come at things from a consistent slightly left-wing perspective. In most cases, they’ll get the references Democrats make, while being overly literal when analyzing what Republicans said. Brisbane’s interest in whether Obama used the word “apologize” illustrates this.

Krugman may be right that we live in a post-truth world, but that means that there’s more healthy skepticism about the opinions of media gatekeepers. The Public Editor’s obvious blind spot just reinforces my impression that this is a good thing.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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2 Responses to Factchecking in a Post-Truth World

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