Former Star publisher Arthur Brisbane, now the public editor for The New York Times, spilled some serious milk a few weeks ago when he wondered whether reporters should work harder to separate facts from falsehoods in regular news stories, and if so, how to convey that information to readers.
Brisbane’s column provoked outrage from the left, right and center. Ofcourse reporters should hold public officials to a truth standard, bloggers said. That’s what journalism is for
The commentariat may want to think a bit harder before handing reporters all the keys to the Kingdom of True. It could turn out badly. In my case, for example, I should probably focus first on spelling names correctly.
But more importantly, deciding what is and isn’t true in a political context can be a very slippery endeavor.
Here’s an example. Which of these statements is true?
Gasoline prices have gone up 80 percent since President Barack Obama took office.
• Gasoline is cheaper now than when George W. Bush was president.
• Gasoline costs about what it did 30 years ago.
It’s a trick question, as you might have guessed. All three statements are true — the price of a gallon of gas has risen dramatically since January 2009, but largely because prices dropped from their peak in July 2008. Adjusted for inflation, gas costs today about what it did in 1981.
So, is it “true” that gasoline prices have skyrocketed under Obama? The only correct answer: It depends.
As it turns out, that answer applies to more complicated issues, too. Did Mitt Romney’s firm, Bain Capital, mishandle management of a Kansas City steel plant? Are there too many firefighters in Kansas City? Are local taxes too high?
It depends. Depends on what you’re comparing it to. Depends on who you’relistening
to. Depends on how you ask the question, and when.
That doesn’t mean reporters and voters should abandon the search for facts. We’ll never solve any problems if leaders think they can mislead the public without consequences. They should always know someone is watching.
But it’s important to look beyond the truth, as well as for it. The actual price of gasoline is significant, sure, but an ad on the issue should be a starting point for a larger discussion of energy policy, the environment and the economy. We should talk about who controls the school district, but about the price of a bad education, too. And while we’re arguing over the truth of claims about the new federal health insurance law, thecost
of health care is important as well.
And that’s where reporters can help. Not just in holding politicians to some standard of accuracy, but to examine as deeply as possible the broader implications of their decisions — with the truth folded in.
That’s what I hope this weekly column can be. Once I get that name-spelling thing squared away.