Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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Should political reporters be more than stenographers?

January 15, 2012

Arthur Brisbane asked readers Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?, in on his Public Editor's blog for the New York Times (1-12-12). Referring to stories about Clarence Thomas's claim that he had "misunderstood" a financial reporting form when he failed to report his wife's earnings from the Heritage Foundation, and about Mitt Romney's claim that President Obama has a habit of "apologizing" for America), Brisbane asked whether news reporters should have the freedom to investigate and respond to those comments. The piece elicited many readers' angry responses ("that's their job!"), a quick second post (Update to my Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes), and thoughtful responses elsewhere in the media.

Clay Shirky (Guardian UK, 1-12-12), in The New York Times public editor's very public utterance , wrote that Brisbane's question on reporters' duty to challenge misleading political speech has permanently altered readers' expectations. "Having asked, in a completely innocent way, whether the Times should behave like an advocate for the readers, rather than a stenographer to politicians, the question cannot now be unasked. Every day in which the Times (and indeed, most US papers) fail at what has clearly surfaced as their readers' preference on the matter will be a day in which that gap remains uncomfortably visible."

Jay Rosen (PressThink) asked, So whaddaya think: should we put truthtelling back up there at number one?, and he concluded: "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."

Glenn Greenwald, in Arthur Brisbane and selective stenography (Salon.com 1-13-12), wrote: "That most reporters faithfully follow the stenographer model — uncritically writing down what people say and then leaving it at that — is so obvious that it’s hardly worth the effort to demonstrate it." He further wrote:
"Only those who wield power within America’s political and financial systems are entitled to receive this treatment. For everyone else — those who are viewed as ordinary, marginalized, or scorned by America’s political establishment — the exact opposite rules apply: their statements are subjected to extreme levels of skepticism in those rare instances when they’re heard at all."

Thanks to Anita Bartholomew and Erik Sherman for links to these posts. Maybe it was a dumb initial post, but it sure aroused well-timed and important questions and responses.