Media Criticism

The New York Times Public Editor Backs James Risen's "Truth-Telling"

By Benjamin Wittes, Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, February 19, 2015, 5:09 PM

Soon after Jack posted this piece on James Risen’s attacks on Eric Holder, which Ben had criticized earlier, the New York Times’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post in support of Risen’s tweets. Reasonable people will differ over the right norms for journalists on Twitter---an issue Ben’s original post and Sullivan’s both engage. But there is one howler in Sullivan’s post, and it exemplifies a key point of both of our earlier posts.

Sullivan says of Risen’s tweets that "the insistence on truth-telling and challenging the powerful is exactly what The Times ought to stand for.” Indeed, The Times should stand for that.

The trouble is that Risen’s tweets were simply not truthful on many matters. They wildly misdescribed the law. And they wildly misdescribed the facts of Holder’s role both in the decline of the reporter’s privilege, in general, and in Risen’s case, in particular. As we both noted, in different ways, in our earlier posts, the one powerful institution that Risen and Sullivan implicitly think should not be challenged is their own. And in defense of that institution’s prerogatives, Sullivan seems not merely willing to let Risen sound un-"Timesian," as she puts it. She’s willing to describe a pattern of hyperventilating falsehoods as “truth-telling.”