Tag Archives: Journalism

The practical problem with ‘truth vigilantism’

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s  blog posts on “truth vigilantism” have certainly generated a lot of discussion.

What is “truth vigilantism”? It’s the theory that reporters for the Times should aggressively fact-check “false” assertions made by politicians or other newsmakers in the course of reporting on them — even, apparently, if the assertion is an opinion, hyperbole or  statements that are difficult to submit to a truth test.

I thought The Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto had the best response to the dust-up:

Brisbane’s examples make clear that when he poses the question whether the Times should become a “truth vigilante,” what he is asking is whether the entire paper should become an opinion section–whether the Times’s news pages should emulate (editorial columnist Paul) Krugman, albeit perhaps with a somewhat softer tone (“misleading interpretation” instead of “complete fabrication”).

To hear Brisbane tell it, there is a demand for such a transformation. He writes that he gets emails from “readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight” and who “worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.”

If that kind of “judgment” is what they want, they can get it from Krugman and the paper’s other columnists and editorialists. Why do those readers feel something is lacking in the paper if reporters are more restrained about expressing their opinions than opinion writers are?

Exactly right. Those complaining to the Times about this seem to think that ostensibly unbiased reporters, who juggle multiple assignments across various beats, locations and time zones, should act more like hyperfocused partisan bloggers, who live to parse political speech down to the subatomic level. If you think charges of “media bias” are pervasive now, they’d be much more difficult to refute if news organizations adopted this policy.

But bias is the least of the problems with “truth vigilantism.” By far the biggest is this: Few organizations have the time, or the bodies, to do it, especially in today’s downsized, Web-driven newsrooms ruled by a culture of “first and fastest.” As Jack Shafer of Reuters points out:

But to be fair to Brisbane — and I promise not to make this a habit — I think he was asking how fully reporters must tweeze every utterance spoken by newsmakers. Politics teems with gray areas and half-truths. If a reporter were to investigate every assertion of fact — assuming that that’s possible on deadline — the story he was supposed to be working on would dissolve into pixel dust. Infinite skepticism is swell, but it requires infinite fact-checking, and who has time for that?

Holding our leaders accountable is important, but fact-checking must be practical, and it must draw a careful distinction between actual misrepresentations of facts and mere expressions of opinion, no matter how poorly framed or obnoxious they seem.

Thankfully, Jill Abramson, the Times‘ executive editor, seems to get it. She wrote this as an addendum to Brisbane’s second blog post on the matter:

We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness. Some voices crying out for “facts” really only want to hear their own version of the facts.

Good point. There are plenty of problems with independent fact-checking organizations like Polifact. It would be a shame if great news organizations like The New York Times start heading in the same direction.


Walt Whitman Civil War papers surface

Just in time for Tuesday’s 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War comes news of the discovery of a trove of writings by Walt Whitman:

…Price had found almost 3,000 pieces in Whitman’s handwriting, a discovery that Archivist of the United States David Ferriero called “astonishing.”

The writings are essentially letters authored by various government officials that Whitman copied into record books when he was a clerk in the U.S. attorney general’s office in the 1860s.

I’ve never been a big Whitman fan, but this is a fascinating story.

Is survivalism really anti-humanism?

Virginia Postrel, in her final Commerce & Culture column for The Wall Street Journal, explodes some of the assumptions behind survivalism and what drives it in these deeply uncertain times. Along the way, she reveals how trade and the specialization of labor have benefited civilization:

Here we get a hint of the survivalist instinct’s fundamental error. In focusing on extreme situations, it forgets about the capacities built up during less-stressful times. Self-sufficiency limits knowledge and productive skills to whatever a single individual or locality can comprehend. Specialization and trade allow the system to expand those capabilities almost without limit. What looks like ignorance permits the growth of knowledge.

Carried to their logical conclusions, survivalist arguments would sever the very connections that make modern societies like Japan prosperous and resilient. If Japan were an isolationist nation of rice farmers, its suffering would indeed have fewer effects on our distant shores. We wouldn’t notice the absence of its people or what they produce, because we would have never gained from their efforts nor they from ours.

Read the whole thing.

Densely populated cities: Not so great after all

Urbanization enthusiasts gush about the benefits of dense development, or about the remarkable, low-carbon-footprint survival skills of the citizens of megacities like Lagos.

However, urban theorist Joel Kotkin makes the case that many people who live in those places would rather be living somewhere else:

But essentially megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred earlier in the West. They play to the nostalgic tendency among urbanists to look back with fondness on the crowded cities of early 20th Century North America and Europe.

Kotkin points out that during the past 50 years, Americans have steadily moved away from heavily populated urban cores to more manageable, human-scaled suburban areas. Why, he wonders, do the experts think things should go differently in the developing world?

If you like urbanism — and contrarian thinking — give Kotkin’s piece a read.

Was Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ a fraud?

That’s the surprising thesis of this article from Reason that raises some serious questions about the artistic integrity of one of America’s greatest writers.

The author, Bill Stiegerwald, doesn’t say John Steinbeck never went on the 1960 cross-country road trip he documented in Travels With Charley in Search of America. Instead, Stiegerwald asserts that Steinbeck fabricated much of what happened on that 11-week journey from New York to California and back. An excerpt:

From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes.

Stiegerwald is blogging about his experiences retracing Steinbeck’s steps at Travels Without Charley. Check it out.

Editing: ‘One of the great inventions of civilization’

That terrific line is found in James Fallows’ ode to the wonderful, terrible world of online journalism in the April issue of The Atlantic:

“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.

I wish to associate myself with Jill Lepore’s remarks.

Snark, the herald angels sing: ‘Spy’ is now online

Google (informal motto: “don’t be evil”) has just done something very good:  it has scanned and posted the entire archives of  Spy magazine.

If you’re not familiar with Spy (and far too many people weren’t, even in its 1986-1998 heyday), think People written and edited by the staff of National Lampoon. It skewered the celebrities, media and politics of its time in a tone of withering sarcasm and irony that’s instantly recognizable — and today, nearly inescapable.

That’s right: Before there was an Internet for Al Gore to invent, Spy took the initiative in creating the double-edged sword we call “snark,” without which the Web as we now know it would probably shut down.

Its high-profile pranks made news. In the most famous one, a Spy writer posed as a talk radio host and called first-year congressmen in 1993 to ask them “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop what’s going on in Freedonia?” (Freedonia is a fictitious country best known to fans of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.) Being politicians, they all tried to answer the question as if they were jockeying for the chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Freedonian Affairs:

Representative Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, said she approved of what the United States was doing in Freedonia, and added, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.”

Another memorable stunt compared the star power of two fictitious celebrity brothers (“Michael Baldwin” and “Tito Wayans”) when it came to securing spots on the guest lists at big social events. A sample:

SPY: This is the personal assistant for Tito Wayans. I wanted to sneak Tito onto the list for the Mariah party

COSMO: The list is closed; the party has started. You’re quite late

SPY: I am. But Tito’s brother is Keenan Ivory Wayans.

COSMO: I know that.

SPY: Well, then maybe you also know that Mariah and Keenan are friends. He would be upset if his little brother couldn’t go to the party.

COSMO: I’m sorry. I apologize. Tito is on the list.

Spy could also do serious journalism, albeit with an edge. In 1996, Mark Ebner’s first-person expose of the secretive, manipulative world of the Church of Scientology caused a huge stir and inspired threats of legal action.

Whether it was being funny or serious, Spy was always  an enjoyable read, and I always felt smarter after finishing an issue. One of my Facebook friends, Bill Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post, put it succinctly in a posting on my wall:

Spy was to me in my early 20s what Mad was in my adolescence — funny but in many ways beyond me, and not talking down to me. An immersion teacher of pop culture.

Wonderfully said, Bill.

Check out Spy‘s archive. You can come back here later and leave a snarky comment.