CC-licensed photo by David Weinberger
Yesterday, the New York Times‘ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, asked:
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.
Uh, what? They’re asking whether the news they report has to be factual?
But wait… there’s an explanation:
Even if this is true, that the public editor is coming from a point of view outside of the Times‘ reporting and editing structure, there’s still a problem here. If he’s speaking from outside the structure, then that means that that structure isn’t concerned with asking the question — he’s an outsider. How does that even happen? What’s the role of the public editor and what is his/her power to inform the way news is reported for the good of the people, for the public?
Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere
But wait a minute: how can telling the truth ever take a back seat in the serious business of reporting the news? That’s like saying medical doctors no longer put “saving lives” or “the health of the patient” ahead of securing payment from insurance companies. It puts the lie to the entire contraption. It devastates journalism as a public service and honorable profession.
This makes me really really sad when I think of my students’ view of media. We’re studying social media and the prevailing thinking in the class — even after looking at the disparity in the coverage of Occupy Wall Street in social vs. traditional media, even after looking at the role of social media in the Arab Spring — is that traditional media is unbiased and more trustworthy while more informal sources are full of bias and untrustworthy. There is very little middle ground in that discussion.
The fun of all of this is sussing out the truth while surrounded by biased sources — some have big names and some are just hashtags — but it’s a big mess. So it’s clear that I’ve still got some work to do, but (yowza!) so do a lot of other people.