The New York Times, Compromise, and the Past

Arthur Brisbane is New York Times Public Editor, a position outside the regular editorial team that is supposed to act as the reader’s representative. Followers of this blog have probably already heard about his recent post, “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?, which many readers found maddeningly stupid. Brisbane was asking whether NYT reporters should challenge statements by journalistic subjects that the journalists know to be untrue. Brisbane was responding to broad public discussion about “He Said/She Said” reporting, in which the truth tends to get lost, although he seemed not to realize that this was the context of his post when he followed up on it yesterday. (Ostensibly, he was responding to an op-ed by Paul Krugman published in December, but he must know that the discussion about this problem has been much broader and been going on for a long time.) An informative early response to his initial post was from the tireless watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). (I will also point to a useful note from FAIR about “both sides are right” presumptions at PolitiFact, the political fact-checking blog.) What is so maddening about Brisbane’s question to readers is that it verges on questioning a fundamental principle of the fourth estate as the supporter of the public sphere – to be an independent monitor of power. At a time when traditional journalism is in a crisis for reasons beyond its control, it is difficult to comprehend why the public editor of America’s paper of record would flirt so explicitly with the idea of giving up on that principle that is the source of journalism’s enduring value to people. What it seems to me that he was doing in asking that question was asking the public to validate a journalistic trend that has been in progress for some time, that seems to be born of a failure to stand up to political pressure. The public hates He Said/She Said reporting. I think Brisbane simply miscalculated in his hope that the public would take the paper off the hook by providing a number of useful responses supporting this sorry trend.

I have said in the Library Juice blogging pledge that we won’t write about news topics that other people are writing a lot about unless we have something new to add, so let me attempt to add another angle to the discussion. What I would say it’s worth considering in light of this debate is that issues like this one have been debated from the beginning of modern journalism, and those earlier discussions can offer much to us now. Some recommendations along those lines. First, an article in Acadame, the AAUP’s journal, by Eric Alternman, summarizing the 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over a broader question about the way journalism works in relation to democracy. Lippmann held that (even at the time) real policy issues were too complex for the public to understand through a simple presentation of accurate information, and that the main service of journalism is to provide the basis for conversation rather than information, and that this conversation is the real basis of democracy. In the time I spent as a reference librarian at the California Research Bureau providing service to policy analysts and legislative staffers, I came to sympathize strongly with this kind of view, because I saw that in fact public debate was highly simplified and dramatized versus the more sober and technical discussions that go on in the policy sphere, and this was partly because of the orientation of the public toward issues. Dewey’s side of the debate was more idealistic. It may be that journalism’s insiders see this problem partly from the perspective of the policy sphere about which they are charged with reporting to the public, with the result that in the process of negotiating the level of technical detail versus drama that they provide in news, they also negotiate with the level of truth.

An answer to this apology for compromised journalism could be found in many sources, and I will cite a couple of them. First, a book that is dated in its examples but not in its overall thrust: The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. This book provides thorough evidence of the the kind of positive falsehoods, as opposed to oversimplifications, often offered by experts and reported unquestioningly by journalists. It is dated, but to the point.

More important, however, is the rich area of work surrounding the effects of the capitalist organization of the institutions that give us the news. From the most recent past era, a cornerstone work is Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly. Though it is from before the internet era, I think it is still essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the core problem behind “He Said/She Said” journalism and related failures (such as that steady stream of PR that makes up so much of what is presented as news). There are other important works related to Bagdikian’s from the same era, including Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and works by Robert McChesney. Not long ago these books were essential starting points for anyone wanting to think progressively about journalism, but new issues are causing them to fade into the background. It’s time for new to works deal with the same issues in the new media context. But these works and older ones are still important. For an understanding of how far back these market effects on journalism have been a problem, books worth consulting would be Upton Sinclair’s 1919 The Brass Check, which is freely available in various forms; a compilation of media criticism edited by Robert McChesney and Ben Scott, titled Our Unfree Press: 100 Years of Media Criticism; and a new book out by Amy Reynolds and Gary Hicks, Prophets of the Fourth Estate: Press Critics of the Progressive Era. (Full disclosure: Litwin Books is the publisher of the latter one).

I think the historical and political-economic context Brisbane’s question to readers is worth understanding better through some reading beyond the blogosphere, where past work is easily forgotten.