It is often said, mostly by people in the field of education, that "there are no stupid questions." This, of course, is simply not true. In fact, in the real world, stupid questions abound. "Why do they have to ask my name and credit card number when I call the psychic hot line?" is a stupid question.
Once when I was whitewater rafting, the guide warned us about a particularly dangerous rock formation. An unlucky rafter, she told us, had fallen out, gotten wedged under the rocks in the turbulent water, and it took three weeks to get his body out. A cute blonde girl from the back of the boat piped up: "Was he all right?" That was a stupid question.
You expect stupid questions from a certain subset of cute blonde girls and from the type of people who call psychic hot lines. One does not, however, expect truly brain-dead questions from the "public editor" of The New York Times.
Unfortunately, said "public editor," whose name is Arthur S. Brisbane, recently asked such a mind-bogglingly idiotic question that the majority of readers responding could not believe it had even been asked.
In his column of Jan. 12, titled "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" Brisbane wondered if "Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about." As one example, Brisbane cited the frequently made (and utterly false) claim made by Mitt Romney that President Obama has made speeches "apologizing for America."
This statement by Romney is blatantly untrue. It is, to put it plainly, a lie. Brisbane noted that Times columnist Paul Krugman called Romney's statement an example of "post-truth politics," along with other Romney canards like the one about how he'll reverse Obama's "massive defense cuts." (The defense budget has grown steadily every year so far.)
All well and good for an op-ed columnist, Brisbane said, but should a reporter do the same? Should a reporter, confronted with a statement like Romney's that is factually untrue, inform his or her readership that "the president has never used the word 'apologize' in a speech about U.S. policy or history," or that "any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president's words"?
The reaction from The Times' readership, bless them, was sharp and immediate.
"If you truly have to ask this question," a reader from Seattle wrote, "then you seriously need to think about a job change." A reader from Georgia was even more direct: "You can't be this stupid."
Perhaps the most pointed comment was made by "Stuart" from Riverside, Calif.: Was the question being asked "because NYT reporters perceive they have a real conflict between reporting the truth and being rewarded with approbation, access, career advancement and privilege by the people who benefit from the falsehoods?"
You have whacked the nail on the head, "Stuart" from Riverside, Calif. The biggest problem with the press right now, and the one that does the most to threaten our democracy, is not that they're liberal or conservative or even corporate. It's that the people tasked with reporting the truth are too close and too chummy with the people they're supposed to be watching.
Reporters who point out that a politician is lying through his or her teeth don't get invited to barbecues where the candidate lets them swing on his tire swing and makes them baby back ribs, like the "reporters" who were supposed to be covering John McCain.
They don't get invited to the cool parties at the White House. They don't get those juicy little exclusive tidbits that press secretaries feed them if they've been good little toothless lapdogs. So what you get are "reporters" who become nothing more than stenographers, taking down the lie du jour and passing it along without analysis or comment.
At best, what you get is "some say this, but others say that," without anyone bothering to ask, "Well, which is factually true?" But that's what we need reporters to do: Tell us the facts, don't just recite what some press flack has told them.
Comedian Bill Engvall has built his signature routine ("Here's your sign") around people who ask such ridiculously obvious questions that they ought to be required to wear a sign that says "I'm Stupid." So, Arthur S. Brisbane of The New York Times, I say to you: Here's your sign.