New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane has been on the business end of a shit-ton of flack since yesterday for asking whether the Times should challenge statements of fact from public figures. I’ve sort of ignored the whole kerfuffle because the quality of the conversation on both sides was pretty willfully obtuse, but I think John Quiggin gets to the core of the issue here:
It’s unreasonable to expect reporters to take the burden from scratch in refuting zombie lies. Newspapers, including the NYT, should include a set of factual conclusions, regularly updated, in their style manuals. The most relevant current example is that of global warming. As with the current account deficit (routinely glossed as ‘the broadest measure of the balance of payments’) the NYT should formulate a standard set of words (such as “a conclusion endorsed by every major scientific organization in the world’) to be used whenever the views of Repubs on the issue are mentioned. Similarly, any reference to claims about ‘Climategate’ should include the words ‘a conspiracy theory refuted by a number of inquiries in the US and UK’. Rinse and repeat wrt evolution, the Ryan budget plan etc.
There’s fairly broad agreement that quoting public figures saying something wrong about Subject X in a news story, and then correcting the record on Subject X only in a follow-up fact-checking piece, is a lousy practice. After all, everyone reads the A1 story, but very few people read the A17 fact-check. The current system just doesn’t work.
And yet, if you insist on real-time fact-checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. Every news organization needs some kind of “fact manual” that provides the agreed-on facts for every conceivable assertion. The copy desk then has to ensure that these stylized facts are included in any story in which a public figure says something different.
Question: Do you really want this? Does anyone want this? A few weeks ago PolitiFact declared that “Republicans want to end Medicare” was their Lie of the Year. If the Times adopted this position, it means that every time a Democrat said this the Times would explain that it’s not really true. Are we all up for that? Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?
There are, among lefties, a smallish number of issues where we believe that conservatives routinely peddle flagrant factual falsehoods that ought to be refuted immediately. Climate change is the obvious one, and there are a few others. But the truth is that misstatements of plain facts are fairly rare. That’s just not how most political debate works. I think that federal stimulus would be good for the economy. Republicans claim otherwise. Is this a fact? No: it’s an argument. That kind of thing makes up about 99 percent of all political discourse. It’s just not fact-checkable in the usual sense.
That said, there are still a few widely repeated lies that news outlets ought to correct on the spot when they pass them along. “The planet is cooling” is certainly one. “47 percent of Americans pay no taxes” is another. Those qualify as naked facts. So let’s make a list in comments. The rules are simple: (a) It needs to be something that gets repeated fairly often, and (b) it needs to be absolutely, concretely wrong. The Times might not need an entire fact manual for this kind of thing, but maybe we can supply them with a top 10 list.