Helping the NY Times Become 'Truth Vigilantes'

Last week, Arthur Brisbane -- the public editor of the New York Times -- asked: “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?”

Apparently many of the Times' readers count on the paper to cast a skeptical eye on dubious claims of politicians. (Based on Brisbane's examples, the word "politicians" should be modified with "Republican.") In response to an email, Brisbane sets out the problems he needs to resolve:

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.

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Brisbane's column got me thinking: could being a "truth vigilante" actually improve the New York Times? I believe so.

I don't pretend to be an expert in everything published in the Times, but I am pretty familiar with its coverage of the Middle East. So if Brisbane would like examples of how his employer could "set the record straight" in a way that is "objective and fair," here are examples related to news stories that appeared in the Times is 2011.

On January 1, 2011, Isabel Kershner reported “Tear Gas Kills a Palestinian Protester”:

A Palestinian woman died Saturday after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces a day earlier at a protest against Israel’s separation barrier in a West Bank village.

A hospital director, Dr. Muhammad Aideh, said the woman had arrived on Friday suffering from tear-gas asphyxiation and died despite hours of treatment.

Kershner followed up a few days later with “Israeli Military Officials Challenge Account of Palestinian Woman’s Death”:

The army routinely fires CS tear gas against the protesters to keep them away from the barrier and to disperse stone-throwing youths. The gas is toxic and can be lethal in closed environments but is considered nonlethal in the open air. Israeli military officials said the gas used on Friday was exactly the same as that used every week.

Pro-Israel advocates quickly pounced on the Israeli military official’s anonymous conjectures, accusing the Palestinians of fabricating the story of death from tear gas for propaganda purposes. The Palestinians riposted, saying the Israelis were making an underhanded attempt to discredit them and cover up army actions. The Palestinian government’s media center called the Israeli arguments “reprehensible,” describing them as “half truths,” “misinformation” and “lies.”

You see Brisbane's dilemma: How does the reporter know which claim to challenge and which to let stand? So by presenting both, Kershner demonstrated balance. And shouldn't balance be the goal of any newspaper? Well, in this case there's an objective truth that undermines the claims of one side. A "truth vigilante" paragraph in either article would have read:

There are no documented cases of people dying from tear gas inhalation in open spaces as alleged by the Palestinian witnesses to the death of Jawaher Abu Rahma. This casts doubt on the veracity of their testimony that was reported uncritically.

In general, when the Times reports on Israeli violence against Palestinians, it seems that any charge made by the Palestinians is worth reporting without skepticism. Similarly, the Times accepts nearly every claim made by Palestinian leadership at face value.

In March, following the slaughter of the Fogel family, Kershner reported “Abbas Condemns Killing of Jewish Family”:

The new focus on incitement against Israel, together with Israeli dissatisfaction over the Palestinian response to the brutal attack, seemed to pose a question about the Israeli government’s readiness to deal with Mr. Abbas as a serious peace partner -- even though Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad are widely considered moderates who have repeatedly said they would never resort to violence.

Mr. Abbas rejected the claims about incitement in mosques, telling Israel Radio that the Palestinian Authority mosques have adopted a unified text for sermons, written by the minister of religious affairs. He called for a joint Israeli-Palestinian-American working committee to investigate claims that Palestinian Authority school textbooks incited violence.

Two paragraphs of "truth vigilantism" would have stated:

Despite his carefully cultivated image as a moderate, incitement in the official Palestinian Authority media remains prevalent under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Abbas himself has been documented publicly extolling terrorists and offering aid to their families.

Contrary to the assertion of the reporter, Israel's current focus on incitement is not new. Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded an end to it during his first term as prime minister, as well.