Weasel Words vs. Truth in the Gray Lady
Posted on Jan 14, 2012
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
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?”
B. Tse (CC-BY)