Should the NYT and the ACM report facts?

Last week, the public editor of the New York Times wrote a post asking the following question: when the paper reports a statement from a public figure which is not true, should it also report the fact that the statement is false?

The post received hundreds of comments, mostly of the form “Wait, what? Is this even a question?” and it has stimulated a rich online discussion, mostly as incredulous that this would even be a question. In fact, the reluctance of mainstream media to report facts (as opposed to reporting statements) has been a long-standing problem. More than eleven years ago, Paul Krugman wrote “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical.

Krugman was joking, but something rather similar happened when reports of prisoner abuse surfaced during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Times was taken to task for never referring to the abuse as “torture” and eventually there was an article (from the public editor at the time? I wasn’t able to find it) explaining that since the Administration had taken the position that whatever happened to the prisoners was not torture, to say otherwise would have meant choosing sides in a political controversy.

If you are reading in theory you are probably aware of two bills making their way in the Senate and the House, called PIPA and SOPA, respectively, which have the goal of shutting down sites that illegally contain (or link to) copyrighted material. While the DCMA already allows the shutting down of web site in such cases, it can only be enforced within the US. PIPA and SOPA would allow copyright holders to go after a foreign website by requiring Domain Name Servers to stop resolving the domain name, and requiring search engines to stop linking to the website.

Objections to the bill include concerns about the unintended consequences of giving the state the power and the technical ability to “censor” websites, about the security vulnerabilities that would arise from any tampering with the DNS protocols, and the ramification, both in terms or quality of results and of free speech considerations, for search engines.

Meanwhile, the Research Works Act would forbid the NIH and other federal agencies to mandate open access publishing of the papers resulted from sponsored research. The intention of the bill, which is to restrict access to federally funded research, is an attack to the academic community, for which open access is an unqualified good thing.

As the leading association of technical and academic computer science professionals, one would expect the ACM to publicize the technical issues involved with SOPA and PIPA (the free speech issues are clearly a political issue on which the ACM might want to stay neutral) and to come out strongly in opposition of the Research Works Act, especially considering that ACM is a member of the Association of American Publishers, which has been the main lobbying force behind the bill, so that not speaking out is essentially the same as supporting the bill. The MIT press, for example, which is a member of the AAP, has come out against the Research Works Act.

The President of the ACM, however, has stated his intention of keeping the ACM away from any discussion of SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works ACT. (An ACM technical committee might produce a statement on SOPA and PIPA, but it would not be a position statement of the organization as a whole.)

Edited to add: the White House has come out against the DNS-blocking provision, and there are moves under way to amend both legislation to remove DNS-blocking. Meanwhile, as Doug Tyger correctly points out in the comments, the United States ACM Public Policy Council has sent letters to congress highlighting the technical concerns raised by the proposed legislation.

11 thoughts on “Should the NYT and the ACM report facts?

  1. Thank you for bringing this up for discussion. Some very troubling things are happening in the US right now. They’re not as severe as, say, the patriot act, but it’s still troubling that these things are happening, particularly under the Obama administration.

    Is the NYT one of the newspapers that reported as truth the “facts” about Iraq’s WMDs? I remember that the WSJ did, and I vaguely remember that the NYT did as well, but I’m not sure.

    By the way, there seems to be something wrong, grammatically, with the sentence “Meanwhile, the Research Works Act would force the NIH and other federal agencies from mandating open access publishing of the papers resulted from sponsored research.”. A missing word, perhaps?

  2. Yes, thanks, something was wrong with the sentence.

    As I remember it, when Powell went to the United Nations to give his presentation on Iraq’s alleged WMDs, the international press reported the presentation as inadequate and unconvincing, while the NYT reported that Powell had made an irrefutable case that Iraq had WMDs. A few years later, the NYT published a half-hearted apology for its reporting during the run-up to the was in Iraq.

  3. Doug, thanks for the links and the updates.

    My point is that those technical concerns (e.g. about the insecurity of DNS blocking, which is now moot) are matters of fact, not matters of public policy, and although it would have been inappropriate for the ACM president to say “SOPA is censorship”, or “write to your congressperson and senator to oppose SOPA/PIPA”, it would have been perfectly appropriate to say: “the following technical issues are raised by the legislation: …”. In his blog post Chesnais doesn’t distinguish between the two, and claims that any discussion of pending legislation is inappropriate for him and has to be delegated to the USACM Public Policy Council, which I think is wrong.

  4. Just to set the record straight, what the president of the ACM stated is that we would not take a *political* position, but would focus on technical assessment of SOPA and PIPA instead, as we always do in such matters. Those assessments have now been made public. USACM has sent letters to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees about the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act) pending legislation. You can see the letters and accompanying documents at our WWW site:

    Click to access SOPAletter.pdf

    Click to access PIPAletter.pdf (SOPA Analysis) (PIPA Analysis)

  5. Isn’t ACM a strong opponent of open access to scientific papers? Even the STOC papers that I wrote they will not let me read off-campus! Why would they speak out against the Research Works Act?

  6. Check your facts: ACM was one of the first scientific organizations to set up our copyright policy to explicitly allow authors to post the refereed copy of their article on their own and on their institution’s web sites. We have since followed up with the ACM Author-izer service ( allowing authors to post a link on their site that grants anyone who clicks through free access to the content.

  7. How much is the current ACM stance on SOPA/PIPA (as opposed to the US ACM stance) a result of wanting an ACM role in China? Has ACM come out against Chinese internet blocking? If not, it would be hard to suddenly argue against SOPA/PIPA. However, if we think about the parallels, it also seems hard to argue that the right course is for ACM to say that ACM is leaving it up to the Chinese ACM chapters to protest, given the potential consequences.

  8. Alain: I am completely underwhelmed. Thanks for backing up my point. ACM wants to lock up our papers forever.

  9. Alain: Regarding the Research Works Act, If ACM really was in favor of open-access, they would (a) leave copyright to authors and instead just demand a non-exclusive license for publishing under the ACM imprimatur, and (b) drop the paywall. USENIX already does both, so how is the ACM leading here?

    In fact, various SIGs are already pushing strongly for open access (as SIGOPS voted for almost unanimously at the recent SOSP), and their interests are instead being curtailed by the ACM publications board.

    I fail to understand at this point who ACM (and IEEE) are representing by their policies. It’s certainly neither their researchers nor the general public.

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