The new public editor at the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, dedicated her first column (9/16/12) to factchecking and false balance. Her conclusion:
It ought to go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership–and the democracy–will be.
It's good news that Sullivan thinks this way–and an improvement over her predecessor's much-maligned column wondering if the Times should try to figure out if politicians tell the truth.
The bad news, though, is that there are editors at the paper who don't seem to agree with Sullivan's sensible take. The issue used to illustrate the argument over false balance is voter fraud. The facts are clear: This is basically a nonexistent problem that Republicans and conservative groups are using to push laws make it more difficult to vote.
The media problem is that reporters treat both sides of this "debate" as if they are more or less equally valid. Sullivan says she's heard from readers who want the Times to be clear about what the facts are:
In his article, which led last Monday's paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements–rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said the Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
"I hope it's not the Times's policy to move this matter back into the 'he said she said' realm," he wrote.
Disclosure: Ben Somberg is a former FAIR intern, still doing media criticism.
The most valuable part of Sullivan's column is here:
The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. "There's a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides," he said. One side says there's not significant voter fraud; the other side says there's not significant voter suppression.
"It's not our job to litigate it in the paper," Mr. Sifton said. "We need to state what each side says."
Mr. Bronner agreed. "Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other," he said. "The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out."
While he agreed that there was "no known evidence of in-person voter fraud," and that could have been included in this story, "I don't think that's the core issue here."
The admissions are remarkable. An editor at the Times likens providing useful context to readers to "litigating" an argument. If you're a vote-suppressing Republican, this is music to your ears; it confirms that an editor doesn't seem to think checking the integrity of your argument is the business of the Paper of Record.