When I was working on my college paper, the vice-president for academic affairs, a rather serious man named William Brennan, delivered a lecture on some obscure topic to a group of, I think, economic majors, and somehow, a Wesleyan Argus reporter was there to cover it. The young journalist gave a fair rendition of the event, and the headline an editor wrote was about the most accurate thing I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. It read:
“Brennan bores small crowd.”
The New York Times, which never runs headlines like that, is having an internal debate over — seriously — whether its reporters should be free to tell the truth.
That’s right: The Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, asked in his Jan. 12 column whether “reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
In other words, if the president tells an obvious, outright lie, should the Times point that out — or just repeat his inaccurate statement as fact, since in fact the president said it?
Should newspaper reporters be reporters, or stenographers?
It’s so silly, but it reminds me of what’s always annoyed me about the skilled, highly trained and often brilliant staff people at the Times: They’re not allowed to tell the truth.
After just about every press conference on the War in Iraq, for example, I would have written:
“President Bush lied to the public again today, noting — in direct contrast to the evidence on the ground — that the war is going well and that the invasion had nothing to do with oil.”
I know the Times would never go that far, but Brisbane actually had to ask:
“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 Dec. 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?”
Huh? Should reporters be able to report that the likely Republican candidate for president is making stuff up that he knows or ought to know has no basis in factual reality? Is that something the voters need to know?
And the big papers wonder why they’re losing readers.