Ask The Editor

January 18, 2010

Yet another disappointing column by The New York Times’ public editor

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times’ public editor, has belatedly discovered that sources quoted by reporters may not always be disinterested observers of the issues on which they comment.

Hoyt points to several people who were quoted by reporters who had business interests intertwined with the issues they were discussing. Included among these sources is Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who has been a paid analyst on health care reform to the Obama administration.

There is no question that Gruber should have disclosed his relationship. But there is also no question that Hoyt, in identifying a squeaking mouse in the corner of the pantry,  ignored the herd of elephants regularly stampeding through the building.

What about the tendency to quote political figures making false statements that reporters know are false, without pointing to the actual facts that refute the statement? You can find a New York Times’ report, blog or column that quotes a political leader making a false statement virtually every day. I challenge anyone — but especially Mr. Hoyt — to show me where the reporter informed readers where the truth actually lay after acting as a stenographer of such quotes.

Here’s a typical example. And no, I didn’t have to look hard to find it. My first click after reading Hoyt’s column brought me to this doozy.

In writing about the problem Democrats will have passing healthcare reform should Ted Kennedy’s seat go to a Republican, David Herzenhorn quotes Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying the following:

“This arrogant attempt to have the government take over one-sixth of the economy on the heels of running banks, insurance companies, car companies, taken over the student loan business, doubling the national debt.”

Nowhere in the Herzenhorn column will you see any mention of the facts, easily accessible to any Times’ reporter or blogger,  that show that McConnell’s claim about a government takeover of healthcare (his one-sixth of the economy claim) to be utterly false.

Nothing in the healthcare bills under consideration involves a government takeover of healthcare. The House and Senate bills would, among other things, regulate insurance companies; create exchanges where people could buy private insurance; make insurance available to 30 million more people; end denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions; and subsidize the purchase of insurance for most middle-income Americans. Most important, given the claim of the speaker, the bills are projected by the CBO to reduce the deficit over time.

Quoting, without context, someone’s false statement concerning something with such massive consequences as healthcare reform, is a far greater failing than quoting someone who has a business interest without disclosing that business interest.

Hoyt continues to go after fringe failings at the paper of record, while ignoring the immense ones that contribute to the public’s confusion about the most important issues of their lives. We saw this in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and in so many other issues that have life-altering effects.

These are the issues news organizations exist to inform us about. And they’re failing — not just the Times but most news organizations. I point to the Times only because of its stuffy insistence, in Hoyt’s columns, that it is rooting out problems when it’s doing nothing that even comes close. Hoyt’s columns point to a self-satisfaction at the Times which is likely to dissuade those in charge from addressing the serious issues.

- Anita Bartholomew

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