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Ear to the Ground

Weasel Words vs. Truth in the Gray Lady

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Posted on Jan 14, 2012
B. Tse (CC-BY)

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked in a blog whether reporters should more aggressively challenge the truth of statements made by political figures in its news pages. Readers gave him an earful. Most respondents said that, of course, the paper’s job is to report and print the truth.

But Brisbane’s question makes sense from a more nuanced newsroom perspective, writes Guardian contributor Clay Shirky. A statement about President Obama made by Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney alluded to a claim without making it head on. It’s that kind of “weasly” remark that Brisbane was curious about.

But as Shirky says, the question looks ludicrous from the readers’ perspective: “Readers do not care about the epistemological differences between lies and weasel words; we want newspapers to limit the ability of politicians to make dubious assertions without penalty.” —ARK

The Guardian:

Brisbane (who, as public editor, speaks only for himself, not the Times) referred to two recent stories: the claim that Clarence Thomas had “misunderstood” a financial reporting form when he left out key information, and Mitt Romney’s assertion that President Obama gives speeches “apologising” for America. Brisbane asked whether news reporters should have the freedom to investigate and respond to those comments.

The reaction from readers was swift, voluminous, negative and incredulous.

“Is this a joke? THIS IS YOUR JOB.”

“If the purpose of the NYT is to be an inoffensive container for ad copy, then by all means continue to do nothing more than paraphrase those press releases.”

“I hope you can help me, Mr Brisbane, because I’m an editor, currently unemployed: is fecklessness now a job requirement?”

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By Glenn12, January 14, 2012 at 11:53 pm Link to this comment

Yup, Blueokie, Brisbane is a buffoon. Then to stumble twice trying to clarify his position? Out of touch and an elitist clown.

A good journalist should have a strong dose of skepticism when doing an interview. Specifically when dealing with any politician.

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they call me the working man's avatar

By they call me the working man, January 14, 2012 at 11:26 pm Link to this comment

hetero said “reporters haven’t a right to substitute their opinions for the news”

Nothing that I said calls for them to do that.

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By heterochromatic, January 14, 2012 at 9:44 pm Link to this comment

journalists should show the distortions and the outright lies, work.

but not in a straight news story. 

reporters haven’t a right to substitute their opinions for the news without labeling
their opinions AS opinions.


I suggest that no one can complain about how the media distorts the news when
you’re advocating that reporters have a DUTY to distort the news.

we need truth, but we don’t need Pravda.

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they call me the working man's avatar

By they call me the working man, January 14, 2012 at 8:56 pm Link to this comment

Hetero said “the primary job of reporters is to tell the readers what happened”

Which is exactly why they should call out lies and distortions. If a subterfuge is occurring, they should report it.

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Blueokie's avatar

By Blueokie, January 14, 2012 at 2:54 pm Link to this comment

The fact that Brisbane would even posit this opinion in a non-sarcastic/satirical way proves that he is an unqualified buffoonish hack.

In the Corporate State, where everything is commodified, facts and truth go to the paymaster or highest bidder.

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By felicity, January 14, 2012 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

When Jefferson said that as long as this Republic
didn’t ‘lose’ the freedom of the press, it would
survive.  Well, if the press doesn’t do the job of the
press, we’ve lost it.

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By heterochromatic, January 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment

the primary job of reporters is to tell the readers
what happened and not to overtly intrude upon the
story.

follow ups, analyses and opinion pieces are where the
evaluations belong…and it’s wise to distinguish which
is which.

news reporting isn’t all crusading all the time.

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By bpawk, January 14, 2012 at 11:06 am Link to this comment

As the article states: “New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked in a blog whether reporters should more aggressively challenge the truth of statements made by political figures in its news pages.”........

In response to any inaccuracies or rhetoric made by politicians, just go to the government source (whether senate, governor, president etc.), look on how they voted or debated issues in government (whether health care, war, taxes etc), and publish it - that’s their official record, something they can’t dispute - nothing tells the truth more than past performance. They cannot sue any newspaper as long as it is the truth, especially the official record for all taxpayers to see.
Journalists can not only give opinions, they can publish state records.

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