On Vigilantism

The Crack Den had this first, and my initial response was to bang my head against the wall until it exploded:

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.

That’s silly enough on its face, but the straw men erected throughout the piece are actually much worse:

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.”

You could, in fact, just stop after that first sentence, and yes, it would be a reasonable expectation. Basically, when a candidate or anyone else in any position of power says anything that is demonstrably bullshit, your job is to demonstrate that it is bullshit. Not by yelling BULLSHIT, but by laying out the facts in contradiction to the assertion. Here on the Internet we can use the word bullshit, but you can use something along the lines of, “the candidate’s actions were contradicted by X, Y and Z, and also by reality.”

This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.

WHAT THE FUCK ELSE ARE YOU THERE FOR? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to yell, but if you’re not there to sort out the nonsense from the rest of the information it is time to start earning the oxygen you consume and go work in a toll booth or teach ballroom dance or undertake some other fundamentally helpful function in society. If you are not there to find things out and tell everybody, you are wasting space at a desk that someone who has not been beaten into complacency could occupy.

The editor goes on to delineate practical considerations that basically boil down to, “everybody talks so much shit all the time that fact-checking everything would make stories unwieldy and the newspaper 500 pages long every day.” To which I say, then stop covering people who lie to you all the time, the way you don’t cover moon landing denialists and flat-earth conspirators. Eventually even the dumbest Republican presidential candidate will come around to the idea that if they want to get a story in the paper they’d better start pitching in the same stadium as reality’s strike zone.

But don’t act like it’s all just beyond you. Do your fucking job. I have ZERO patience for this IT’S JUST SO HARD MOMMY crap. This is the definition of vigilantism:



1.One who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one’s own hands.
2.A member of a vigilance committee.

[Spanish, watchman, vigilante, from Latinvigilns, vigilant-, present participle ofvigilre, to be watchful, fromvigil, watchful; seeweg- in Indo-European roots.]

Look, nobody is ever going to come along and give you permission to uncover their deceptions and their fears. Nobody’s ever going to say it’s okay and yes, in fact, it is your job to make them miserable by revealing that everything they think is fine in life is actually rotting through the floorboards. Nobody’s ever going to love you or thank you for stripping away all their pretty fictions.

But they are going to be better, the way we all get better when we look our lives full in the face and decide what we’re going to live with and what we’re going to change. They are going to be smarter and stronger and braver, once you’ve called a lie a lie.

So to answer the question posed in that bludgeon of a headline, YES, I do expect the Times to be a “truth vigilante.” I do think it is the Times’ job (and the job of every media outlet, and every person on the planet by the way) to take matters into its own hands and determine what is right and what is wrong. I don’t know who ever gave anybody the idea otherwise. What else are we DOING here? What else is the point?

Most writers figure this out by the time they get to be working at a grown-up shop. I don’t know what on earth is holding Brisbane back.


18 thoughts on “On Vigilantism

  1. I left this comment just after noon ET: “Y’all should just quit, every damn one of you.” By the time they closed comments about 45 minutes later, it had gotten 34 recommends. Methinks Mr. Brisbane has committed the journalistic equivalent of touching the third rail, except that nothing will change as a result.

  2. Another case of everyone having their opinion and the news media thinking that they have served their purpose by just presenting the extremists with opposing views. No thought to the idea of an Informed Opinion. No thought that some may carry substantial personal baggage into making their opinion. And no thought that FACTs may not be just a matter of opinions (My opinion is that Noah grew up riding dinosaurs. Don’t need no stinking facts to support it.)

  3. It gets worse. Brisbane wrote Romenesko & said that “how can we rebut Thomas’s claim that he misread something? We’d have to be in his head!” He then goes on to say that he was hoping the unwashed masses would be more “nuanced” in their response.
    I think we can compromise and say that the NYT should rebut things that are rebuttable.

  4. Amazing.
    The idea of their being anything other than a stenographer for the 1% and their puppet politicians is apparently just so UNHEARD of to the NYT that their entire worldview is just shattered, shattered. And this was the paper that went toe to toe with the Nixon White House over the Pentagon Papers??
    So this is how democracy dies: when the “free press”–“the watchdog of the people”–simply can’t imagine it has any function other than to parrot the bullshit of the rich and powerful without question…
    …Exactly what DO they teach those students at the Harvard School of Journalism?

  5. Seconding what PWL said, my initial reaction was “and then did Mr. Brisbane ask if Times reporters should be ‘journalists’ or ‘stenographers?’

  6. Right on! I’ve been saying for years that the Sunday talking head shows need to impose a 3 strike rule: Lie 3 times and you are off the guest list for good. (And that includes professional dopes like George Will, Peggy Noonan, and the ‘always present somewhere’ Saint McCain).

  7. And that includes professional dopes like […] ‘always present somewhere’ Saint McCain
    I’ve often wondered if one of his 7 houses was the green room at Face the Nation.

  8. The NYT long ago relinquished any credibility. Why start now? *cough*judithmiller wiretappingcoverup Jayson Blair to name a few examples*cough

  9. What’s wrong with asking someone what their sources are for their lame-assed claims? I did it all the time when I was covering the morons on the school board. Sometimes a particularly stupid answer warranted a whole ‘nohter story of its own.

  10. A Presidential candidate (recently withdrawn) had made the statement that “hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes” believe in intelligent design, not evolution. When I had the chance (in a press conference, not an “ambush”), I asked her to name a couple of them. Someone wrote soon after that it was “gotcha” journalism. Gotcha? What’s gotcha about asking someone to supply even a modicum of proof to substantiate a claim?
    Others said it was obviously a partisan attack. Though I’m sure if I didn’t ask, I’d be written off as a credulous hack. You can’t win.
    And you know what? THAT’S OK, AS LONG AS YOU’RE DOING YOUR JOB. If you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t care. If it bothers you that much, get another job.
    Obviously we can all improve and no one does a perfect job at anything, but being criticized for “hating” or having an agenda or whatever is just part of the routine, or it should be, for a reporter. I’m sure cops get tired of hearing “I pay your salary, you work for me” — but does that mean they should stop writing tickets? If everyone thought you were hunky-dory, you’d be Mary Hart.
    Anyway, my $0.02 on l’affaire Brisbane: He dug a pretty good grave with the original essay, but the petulant follow-up later in the day was the equivalent of shooting himself in the back of the head and falling into that self-dug grave.

  11. On the Times’ public editor and paraphrasing Dean Baker today: “This shows that the U.S. economy still produces good-paying jobs for people without skills.”

  12. This is why all journalists should have to takerigorous courses in academic writing, whereevery single damn thing you say needs to be backed up with good citations, and they should have the kind of nasty thorough profs like I have who’ll jump all over those citations, too. They should learn how to evaluate sources (“Is thisJournal of Woo-Woo Bullshit likely to have reliable information? No, I think not…”) and do real research, that doesn’t involve, you know, just calling two or three of their favourite undisclosed sources and shooting the shit for a while.
    I’ll admit that it takes some learning, butby the time you’re already working for the New York Fucking Times, maybe you should, I dunno, know how to do shit like that already. Kind of like how people who can’t hit or catch baseballs to save their lives don’t somehow wind up playing for the Yankees.
    I could do his job better than he could, with my single, Masters-level course in research methodologies. And that’s fucking pathetic.

  13. Oh, you mean like BLOGING. I see. Seems to me all reporters in this day and age need to do is reply to some bit of political bullshit with “Linky, linky!”

  14. Yeah, thanks for this. I wrote about it when it first appeared too. I just thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever read. What’s interesting is that Brisbane seems truly stunned by the kick in the shins he received from everyone when he asked what he thought was a sincere question.
    Here’s a link to the Romanesko column whet moser mentioned. He said:
    “I have to say I did not expect that so many people would interpret me to have asked only: should The Times print the truth and fact-check? Of course, The Times should print the truth, when it can be found, and fact-check.
    “What I was trying to ask was whether reporters should always rebut dubious facts in the body of the stories they are writing. I was hoping for diverse and even nuanced responses to what I think is a difficult question…”
    WTF? I am completely confused. I have NO clue what he was trying to ask. I think he was just trying to cover his ass after getting outed for being a journalistic moron.

  15. Excuse me? He now claims that he was just trying to start a conversation on how much effort he should put in to doing his job?

  16. You should start taking a cue from your ferrets, Athenae. The New York Times is a wonderful newspaper. TO POOP ON! 😛
    Seriously. Much like CNN, it’s just imploded. I thought you’d noticed. 🙁

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