Arthur S. Brisbane, the New York Times’ public editor, recently asked readers whether the Times should be a “truth vigilante” in correcting presidential candidates when they make factual errors. Mr. Brisbane said he’s “looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”
Should reporters challenge the people they write about? Hell, yes. When? Continually. That is, in fact, a reporter‘s job — to hold newsmakers accountable for both their statements and their actions.
I know I sound old-fashioned. In a world where we measure our success and self-worth by the number of “likes” we get on Facebook, how many followers we have on Twitter, and how big our LinkedIn network is, we’re loathe to say or do anything that might make others un-like, un-follow, or un-connect with us. So we listen politely when people make outrageous statements, and we make noncommittal replies like, “That’s interesting” even when our inner voices are screaming, “That’s not true!”
I ticked off quite a few politicians (and other newsmakers) when I was a reporter because I asked inconvenient questions, and when they had their facts wrong, I corrected them. That was my job, because my responsibility was to my readers, not to my sources. When I crossed over to public relations, a government-relations guy told me I was “too attached to the facts.”
I’m darned proud to be “attached to the facts.” From both a personal and professional standpoint, respect for the facts requires me to be honest and fair, frees my mind from preconceived notions, and allows me to question conventional wisdom.
I expect no less from the New York Times — and every other media outlet. If we can’t count on the media to get the facts straight, then why bother with the media at all?