Earlier today, the New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane wrote an interesting piece that delved into the question of whether the news media should add disclaimers to quotes by political figures that can demonstrably be proven false. Brisbane phrased it like this:
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.
…on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage.
As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?
If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less:
“The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”
Although I was very interested in weighing the pros and cons of this difficult question myself, there was a similar question about journalistic standards that pressed me a little more. Right before I had read Brisbane’s article, I had read a New York Times article authored by John Harwood that had unwittingly misquoted a line from Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire victory speech. The line, as reported by the Times, read:
“President Obama wants to fundamentally transform America,” Mr. Romney said. “We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great. He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity. “
This is what Mitt Romney actually said:
“He wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state.”
Now, honestly, the only reason I had noticed this discrepancy at all was because I had run into this problem myself. That is, while I was searching for the same quote to post on my New Hampshire Primary Live Blog this past Monday, I could only find transcripts that had the wording “entitlement society”. I had originally taken this as an indication that the Romney campaign had released a transcript of the speech to a number of media outlets, and out of time considerations on primary night, many had not been able to fact-check the transcript with the actual speech. (Or do they ever do that?)
In the past couple weeks, there’s been a lot of chatter by journalists and bloggers alike about the blasé manner in which the newsmedia have covered the Republican candidates numerous off-the-cuff claims about President Obama being things such as “un-American” and a “socialist”. What struck me about the New York Times’ flub was how they had similarly become so unconcerned with these types of claims that the semantics that differentiate ”entitlement society” from “social welfare state” had also become meaningless.
It was also alarming that our country’s “paper of record” had ceded the “record” part over to whoever could provide them with the transcript.
I emailed the New York Times this morning to ask for a correction. This evening I received an email from John Harwood who indicated that the Times would issue a correction. Thanks Guys! Now I can soundly consider whether y’all should rebut misleading claims!