The New York Times‘ Public Editor Arthur Brisbane unwittingly sparked an intense and likely enduring controversy yesterday when he pondered — as though it were some agonizing, complex dilemma — whether news reporters “should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” That’s basically the equivalent of pondering in a medical journal whether doctors should treat diseases, or asking in a law review article whether lawyers should defend the legal interests of their clients, etc.: reporting facts that conflict with public claims (what Brisbane tellingly demeaned as being “truth vigilantes”) is one of the defining functions of journalism, at least in theory. Subsequent attempts to explain what he meant, along with a response from the NYT‘s Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, will only add fuel to the fire.
Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky both have excellent analyses of the Brisbane controversy — which, as they point out, sparked such intense reaction because it captured and inflamed long-standing anger toward media outlets for mindlessly amplifying statements without examining whether they’re true. As Stephen Colbert put it in his still-extraordinary 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ‘em through a spell check and go home.” While reporters typically react with fury over the suggestion that they are stenographers, Brisbane was essentially posting that this is all they are, and then earnestly wondering aloud whether they should be anything more than that, as though it was some sort of exotic or edgy suggestion.
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. There are important exceptions to this practice even at the most establishment media outlets, where diligent and intrepid investigative journalism exposes the secret corruption of the most powerful. But by and large, most establishment news coverage consists of announcing that someone or other has made some claim, then (at most) adding that someone else has made a conflicting claim, and then walking away. This isn’t merely the practice of journalists; rather, as Rosen points out, it’s virtually their religion. They simply do not believe that reporting facts is what they should be doing. Recall David Gregory’s impassioned defense of the media’s behavior in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when he rejected complaints that journalists failed to document falsehoods from Bush officials because “it’s not our role“ and then sneered that only an ideologue would want them to do so (shortly thereafter, NBC named Gregory the new host of Meet the Press).
Literally every day, one finds major news stories that consist of little more than the uncritical conveying of official claims, often protected by journalists not only from critical scrutiny but — thanks to the shield of anonymity they subserviently extend — from all forms of accountability. Just to take one highly illustrative example from last week, the NYT published an article by Eric Schmitt based almost entirely on the assertions of anonymous officials, announcing that “a nearly two-month lull in American drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan.” No criticisms of drone attacks were included. Three days later, the U.S. resumed drone attacks, after which the same Eric Schmitt immediately ran to inform us, citing Reuters, that the drone strike killed “at least three militants” (as always, “militant” in American media discourse means: any person who dies when an American missile shot from a drone detonates).
Read the full article, with updates, at Salon.com