We live in the Era of the Neologism. How many new words or radically new meanings have erupted from new media volcanoes? LulzSec, Occupy, unfriend, Obamunist. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
“Truth Vigilante,” the latest incisive word to pop from the Interwebs, comes from Arthur Brisbane, The New York Times’ public editor. It could just as easily come from Steven Colbert or from The Onion. In a column that has been universally denounced, Brisbane seeks “reader input” about the wisdom of journalists “challeng[ing] ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” In other words, if the reporter catches a politician or CEO in a bald-faced lie, do reader expectations (to say nothing of journalistic ethics) require the reporter to call out the lie in print?
One example Brisbane uses is Mitt Romney’s insistence that President Obama has been “apologizing for America” to those scurrilous social democrats running Godless and anti-capitalist Europe into the ground. Needless to say, Romney’s words are at best a distortion and at worst a strategic lie.
Brisbane asks "Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another?" Apparently, Brisbane worries that to correct one lie would require The Times to correct all lies. What a travesty!
Brisbane also asks whether news reporters should have the freedom of op-ed columnists to "call out what he thinks is a lie." A quick review of the comments section suggests a number of methods for drawing attention to the lie without risking journalistic objectivity by mutating reporting into "advocacy" journalism, analysis or commentary. The reporter need only follow the lie with the following statement of fact: "A LexisNexis search of the President's statements reveal no case of the president using the word 'apologize' or any of its synonyms in any European speech." The reporter could also ask the Romney campaign to support its claim with evidence. The reporter could weigh the campaign's evidence to see if its interpretation of the president's words were in fact justified. If not, the reporter should not allow the quote to appear without a caveat. All of these methods could effectively challenge lies without jeopardizing the journalist’s credibility.
After the Judith Miller and Jayson Blair controversies, The Times can ill afford much more crisis of credibility. Yet in our age of tattered authority, Brisbane scores an own-goal. It’s a foregone conclusion that readers no longer trust most news sources. The Times, through Judith Miller, helped lead the US into the Iraq War . CNBC cheer led the financial sector into ruin. Fox News consistently misleads and misinforms its viewers. Lazy or dishonest news sources routinely repeat lies by politicians and business leaders as if their words should be trusted simply because of their hallowed positions in our corrupt and rapidly de-democratizing society. A conspiracy theorist might suspect a more diabolical undercurrent.
But this post adds little to the conversation. After all, many Internet commentators have more eloquently made these points. My anger notwithstanding, I want to thank Brisbane for carving out a linguistic slot for plutocracy-serving MSM “news.” Brisbane draws a line in the Establishment sand. Any journalist who corrects a politician’s or a CEO’s lies will henceforth be known by the deplorably newspeak phrase “Truth Vigilante.” As J-school grad commented (on 12 Jan. 2012 @ 2:12 pm):
I also think "Truth Vigilante" is a great sort of Orwellian phrase - ah, so now someone who bases their thinking on facts and confronts people knowingly spreading falsehoods with factual information to the contrary isn't just an "honest person", they're a Truth Vigilante. Next stop - Truth Terrorist.
With rhetorical ju jitsu, Brisbane stains honest journalists everywhere with the shameful and wrong-minded actions of union-busting thugs or Charles Bronson clones. At that, let us now praise famous men, in particular Woody Guthrie. The following video depicts Truth Vigilantes as they descend upon Mitt Romney, as metaphorized by a shiftless crowd.