Thrill to the exploits of New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, aka Truth Vigilante! Watch him wonder if it’s worth it to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Witness him ask around to see if he should run faster than a locomotive!

I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

That’s the lead paragraph, folks. Arthur Brisbane has to ask readers if reporters should call bullshit on politicians and public officials. Truth is apparently no longer a normal part of the job description for journalists, but an “optional extra” that the New York Times may or may not choose to install, depending on reader feedback. If reporters were not supposed to challenge the assertions of the subjects of their reporting, you could actually fire them all and hire some low-cost court stenographers to do the work.

The examples cited by Brisbane are all instances where any self-respecting writer would contextualize and analyze the CYA quotes they got before typing them up. But to Brisbane, this is a question of real mystery. A lot of news outlets get around this these days by having a separate “fact-check” column. But needless to say, if the lies aren’t called out right in the article, they never get fully challenged.

Amazingly, Jim Romenesko sought further comment from Brisbane, and he still didn’t get the fuss his column generated: [cont’d.]

I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and

What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question. To illustrate the difficulty, the first example I cited involved whether Clarence Thomas “misunderstood” the financial disclosure form when he failed to include his wife’s income. No doubt, many people doubt that he “misunderstood” but to rebut this as false would be difficult indeed, requiring knowledge of Mr. Thomas’s thinking. I was also hoping to stimulate a discussion about the difficulty of selecting which “facts” to rebut, facts being troublesome things that seem to shift depending on the beholder’s perspective. Many readers, in my view, would be skeptical whether The Times would always take a fair-minded approach to rebutting

Why is it hard to rebut that? Thomas’ intent is actually beside the point. If he failed to include his wife’s income on a financial disclosure form, he illegally submitted the form. I don’t know how this “misunderstanding” piece is relevant at all. What would be relevant is the implications of the illegal form, what has happened to other judges who improperly submitted such a form, and so on. Who cares what Thomas was thinking?

This is pretty serious stuff. In a recent NYT article, a reporter stated without equivocation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, according to the IAEA. That happens to be untrue, and Brisbane actually agreed with the complaints from readers over it. Does that mean that the next time a politician says that the international community believes Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, that NYT reporters should have to think about whether or not to rebut that? Of course not. But this is Brisbane’s query.

Personally, I’d rather follow the law and just be a truth whistleblower, rather than a truth vigilante. But Brisbane seems to have the idea that telling the truth is a criminal act.

David Dayen

David Dayen