Should we tell the truth, the New York Times asked us this weekend. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as pathetic as that, but the column from the paper’s new public editor – its ombudsman – made the queasy admission that sometimes the world’s most famous newspaper doesn’t make much of an effort to find out whether what they’re printing is true.
Titled He Said, She Said, and the Truth, Margaret Sullivan’s column discussed the pernicious – and increasingly common – practice of “false balance”: one side says, “The sky is blue,” the other says, “no, it’s red,” and the journalist makes no effort to look outside the window to see who’s right.
With the US in the midst of an unsurprisingly bitter presidential election there has been no shortage of “false balance” in recent weeks. Paul Ryan’s convention speech had a decent sprinkling of lies, half-truths and hypocrisies – yet when the media bothered to cover the allegations it rarely managed to do much more than simply report the Democrats’ claims, let alone establish if any of them were correct.
Sullivan has, on the whole, been applauded for wading into this argument. Yet as she says in her conclusion, “It ought to go without saying.” I struggle to understand how a newspaper as august as the New York Times would be unable to see that its job is to uncover and report the truth.
What worries me most is the way the Times’ editors in Sullivan’s piece describe the idea of investigating claims as if it were somehow new.
“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking,” says political editor Richard Stevenson. The paper’s Washington bureau chief, David Leonhardt, is even weaker: “I take their point,” he says, referring to critics, “but we have to be cautious.”
One senior editor even goes as far as to give the impression that he doesn’t even appear to understand the concept of “false balance”. Referring to a story the paper had recently run about allegations of voter fraud, national editor Sam Sifton said, “It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper. We need to state what each side says.” Fine, do that. But don’t call it journalism – that’s stenography.
As Sullivan argues, “The more news organisations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership – and the democracy – will be.”