Should Newspapers be Truth Vigilantes? Are Their Ombudsmen All High?

Washington Post Ombud Wondered Whether Paper Was 'Innovating Too Fast'

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Not long ago The New York Times and The Washington Post were locked in a battle to set the national agenda. Now they seem to be vying for the bong-hittiest ombudsman introspection.

The New York Times building
The New York Times building Credit: Renzo Piano Building Workshop

First the Washington Post's Patrick Pexton wondered aloud on Jan. 6 whether his newspaper was "innovating too fast." Many people found it crazy, funny or even revolting that a business in such deep decline could worry about such a thing. Then, not to be outdone, New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane came up with his own jaw-dropper on Thursday: Should the paper be a "truth vigilante" and call out lies rather than just publishing? Many people found it crazy, funny or even revolting that a newspaper devoted to reporting the truth could worry about such an activity.

If you're not familiar with the ombudsman, you should know that , besides being a mouthful of Nordic etymology, it's a curious institution. Basically, the job is to represent readers and say it loud when your news organization isn't living up to standards. There's a lot of teeth-gnashing, navel-gazing and other visceral hyphenates related to things like anonymous sources, injecting reportorial opinion, that sort of stuff.

To put it in sports terms, it'd be like a football team literally hiring a Monday Morning Quarterback, actually paying someone to criticize its actions after the fact but giving him no say upfront. (Incidentally, the New York Times' first public editor invented fantasy baseball.)

Now it's not as bad as hiring any sweaty jerk out of the comments section. These folks, Mssrs. Brisbane and Pexton certainly included, are typically accomplished journalists in the gloaming of their careers. But as independent observers handing down rulings far from the charnel house where the news is made and monetized, they're set up to make these weird statements. I don't think it's about trolling, as some have suggested. I think it's that the organizational disassociation yields cognitive dissonance, as happened this month.

Now, it's a little too easy to just pile on these gentleman, so let's take their statements one by one.

First up is the far more defensible Mr. Pexton. The main problem with the column is that it's rhetorically imprecise. Mr. Pexton complains about innovation, but what he really means (I hope) is clutter. He's echoing reader frustration that there's just too much damn stuff on the website and too much going on -- the redesign, the new content-management system, the new blogs and bloggers, the content for African-Americans. Too many, to use his word, "gewgaws." This should not be written off as the kvetching of reactionary newsosaur but a legitimate problem, as has been acknowledged even by plugged-in, smart media and design thinkers.

But the remedy is not "taking a breather lap," as he suggests in rather zenned-out fashion at the end of his column, but instead devising some packaging and design solutions that cause less confusion among the readers with whom he sympathizes. (To his credit, Mr. Pexton also deserves a huzzah for gadflying the paper on the very non-ombudsman issue of page-load speeds.)

Mr. Brisbane's point, on the other hand, is bunk. First off, there's the odious headline imagining a "truth vigilante." Vigilantes are ordinary people who take the ministration of justice into their own hands. It is not Charles Bronson's job to kill eleventy-thousand people in "Death Wish"; he does it anyway. It is , however, the job of reporters to find the truth and expose untruths. They do not find themselves in the role occasionally or by accident.

Whether it's a newspaper's job to call out lies and liars is not a question to be asked in 2012. Hell, it wasn't a question to be asked in 1912. It's a journalism-school exercise, a vestigial outgrowth of some misguided notion of "balance," which translates into being overly accommodating to nonsense spouted by people in power.

Mr. Brisbane tried to clarify, after Times editor Jill Abramson had to stop whatever she was doing to respond that , yes, The Times does "rigorous fact-checking and truth-testing as part of our jobs as journalists." That didn't soften the criticism coming from the internet.

Mr. Brisbane quickly earned his own fake Twitter feed that tossed off blithe credulity in 140-character bursts. My favorite had to be to an exchange with another fake Twitter handle, one that cropped up when The Times accidentally fired off some spam recently:

@TimesPublicEdit I have a mega lucrative international business offer I'd like to arrange via misspelled emails that USE loTS OF CAps. U in? 21 hours ago via web powered by @socialditto

@NYTSpam I see no reason why I should question your motives or bona fides at all 21 hours ago via web powered by @socialditto

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