Last week, New York Times public editor (the equivalent of an ombudsman) Arthur Brisbane wrote a blog post asking whether, in covering the campaign, reporters should challenge in the body of their straight-news stories statements by candidates that are dubious, distorted or outright false. Or as he put it—in a headline that generated unsurprising outrage from his commenters—“Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?”
My short answer, I say in my dead-tree TIME column this week (subscription required): yes. The longer answer: yes, but he did make a point that’s worth talking about.
Brisbane’s “truth vigilantes” coinage did bother me (though I claim dibs on it if I ever start a band). It’s telling, I think, of the kind of nerves that causes news editors and producers to pull punches: that challenging misstatements and willful distortions is like taking the law in your own hands, using excessive zeal, stepping outside your lane. A vigilante is someone who tries to do the police’s job; but readers and viewers are reasonable to assume that separating truth from lie is a reporter’s job.
But as I note, Brisbane was getting at an issue more subtle and tricky than the simplistic interpretation of his post—which his headline encouraged—that he was suggesting that the Times get out of the truth business. Rather, as he tried to explain in that post and a follow-up, part of the problem is that dishonesty in politics often takes the form of things that are not literally provable. A public figure explains a gaffe by claiming to have “forgotten” something that he probably didn’t; a candidate makes claims about her opponent’s mindset that are unfair and misleading, but can’t objectively be proven without reading the person’s mind. (One example, which Brisbane references and I go into in my column: Mitt Romney’s claim that Barack Obama goes around the world “apologizing for America.” Or, as PolitiFact controversially stepped into last year, Democrats’ statement that Republicans intend to “end” Medicare—rather than “change” or “privatize” or “end Medicare as we know it.”)
The easy thing for journalists to do is to wash their hands of contested claims like this, run the quote and “let you decide”—a decision, however, that often requires information extraneous to the article itself. Distortions that about contested facts or matters of interpretation can be some of the most damaging, unfair attacks of all—that’s exactly why politicians use them. When politicians and surrogates—amplified by politicized media outlets—are throwing around terms like “socialist” and “corporate raider,” the news audience, rightly, wants knowledgable journalists to say flat-out how justified those labels are, not declare “not my problem.” Even if it means they get accuse of bias—and they definitely will.
As I also point out in my column, the New York Times (and other outlets) often do challenge facts and call out misstatements, and we all should do more of it. It may be tough—and Brisbane was right to acknowledge that—but it’s the job.
And come on: who wouldn’t want “truth vigilante” on their business cards?