This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Don't believe everything you read.

Arthur S. Brisbane has what one might think of as a pretty good job. He’s the Public Editor (or, what was once known as the “ombudsman”) at The New York Times. According to the job description posted on the Times’ website, the Public Editor “responds to complaints and comments from the public and monitors the paper’s journalistic practices.” That is, he gets to represent the public interest (my emphasis) in what goes into “the newspaper of record.” Fully independent of the paper’s owners and publishers, the job description goes on to note, “(h)is opinions and conclusions are his own.”

Mr. Brisbane stepped in it Thursday, however, by penning a rumination on “journalistic practices” seeking reader input on the question whether Times reporters should serve as “truth vigilantes.”

That’s right. The ombudsman for the New York Times wonders whether it’s a good idea to require reporters to ascertain the veracity of the “facts” they report as news.

Faced with an avalanche of reader input saying, basically, “what kind of f*cking question is that, nimrod?” Mr. Brisbane later in the day attempted to qualify his question, and blamed readers for getting him all wrong. “I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question,” he groused.

People who make a living thinking about and teaching the craft of journalism were rightfully nonplussed both by Mr. Brisbane’s original question and his reaction to reader reaction. Some may recall the Gray Lady’s difficulty getting at the truth of “facts” asserted by certain newsmakers in the run-up to the USA’s recently concluded war in Iraq (not to mention the length of time she took in admitting publicly what many had been deriding for years as culpability in the squandering of fortune and loss of life on a massive scale), which, in the light of current warmongering directed toward Iran, makes Mr. Brisbane’s boneheaded musing all the more frightening.

For my money, the best response came from Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair, who wondered whether it really benefits editors at her magazine to act as spelling vigilantes: “Whose job is it to decide what words look strange and what words just look fancy?”

Perhaps we’re closer to the end of the world than some might think.

#ethics#facts#journalism#New York Times#truth#Vanity Fair#vigilantes

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