NYT Defense

Like many other people on the Internet, I poked at the NYT some yesterday in the wake of their public editor’s question. Today, Kevin Drum has a piece up today (sort of) defending that question:

And yet, if you insist on real-time fact checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. Every news organization needs some kind of “fact manual” that provides the agreed-on facts for every conceivable assertion. The copy desk then has to ensure that these stylized facts are included in any story in which a public figure says something different.

Question: do you really want this? Does anyone want this? A few weeks ago PolitiFact declared that “Republicans want to end Medicare” was their Lie of the Year. If the Times adopted this position, it means that every time a Democrat said this the Times would explain that it’s not really true. Are we all up for that? Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?

There are, among lefties, a smallish number of issues where we believe that conservatives routinely peddle flagrant factual falsehoods that ought to be refuted immediately. Climate change is the obvious one, and there are a few others. But the truth is that misstatements of plain facts are fairly rare. That’s just not how most political debate works. I think that federal stimulus would be good for the economy. Republicans claim otherwise. Is this a fact? No: it’s an argument. That kind of thing makes up about 99% of all political discourse. It’s just not fact checkable in the usual sense.

I still don’t agree. Drum’s points aren’t necessarily wrong. I wouldn’t debate the fact that much of the material reported by the Times and other news organizations is more complicated than fact and fiction. I’m not expecting that the entire NYT be turned into Paul Krugman’s Liberal Conspiracy, although that’d be terrific if it happened.

Drum’s point is mainly, I think, about reactive journalism. His stimulus example works well, enough, even if the majority of people I read (Krugman, DeLong, Baker) would bristle at the notion that the advantages of enacting a federal stimulus vs doing nothing is debatable. But what about proactive journalism? The facts about Social Security are relatively simple (something of which Drum is well aware) and yet the NYT and WaPo don’t call out politicians for their demonstrable demagoguery when they spew bullcrap about SS. The NYT and the WaPo might have published comprehensive pieces that debunk the SS lies, but if they did, calling out the lies is clearly not something they make a habit of doing.

Or take another example. Mitt Romney has claimed many times that his efforts at Bain Capital produced lotsa jobs (in excess of 100k). He has made this a central plank in his campaign and a major credibility booster. This claim is absolute crap, by the way. But: do private equity companies “help” the economy? The NYT or WaPo could investigate Bain Capital to judge whether the company committed any of the actions that Dean Baker outlines here, actions that have deleterious effects on the economy. Reuters, to its credit, has run a decent story on some of Bain’s ventures, but that reporting to me was still somewhat dense.

The NYT could do its best to find out the percentage of private equity companies that use the practices that Baker outlined. Reporters could look into the number of companies that went bankrupt and present the typical effect of equity companies on their subsidiaries. All of this would be hard work, no doubt. Equity companies are intentionally opaque and getting information about them is tough. But NYT reporters time would be a lot better spent doing that than writing idiotic pieces about Romney’s hair.

More than anything else, I look at this in terms of informing readers, which to me is the essence of journalism. Greg Sargent, in maybe the best response out of many to the public editor’s column, describes the effects of the NYT’s silence on Romney’s 100k job creation claim:

The Times itself has amplified the assertion — made by Romney and Rick Perry — that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times: Here, here, and here. I urge Brisbane to check them out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled. He or she is left with the mistaken impression that Obama may have, in fact, apologized for America, when he never did any such thing.

In other words, in all those three cases, the Times helped the GOP candidate mislead its own readers — with an assertion that has become absolutely central to the Republican case against Obama. Whatever the practical difficulties of changing this, surely we can all agree that this is not a role newspapers should be playing, particularly at a time when voters are choosing their next president.

Of course, rebutting false claims is essential to informing people. But so is assessing statements which are technically accurate but grossly misleading, to steal Bob Somerby’s phrase, and then presenting to readers the information that casts such clever statements in a properly disingenuous light. Social Security, like climate change, is a rare easy example where many talking points are patently false. On the nature of economics and taxes, though, the bullshit is a little more clever. To me, the NYT’s readers, and the country itself, are not particularly well served when the NYT decides to let the cleverer lies slide.

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