Ask The Editor

May 25, 2009

The problem with Dowd’s plagiarism, Andrews’ omissions, Friedman’s fees — and The NYT Public Editor

In The New York Times yesterday, Clark Hoyt, the paper’s public editor, minimized several ethical lapses by Times’ writers.

First, Hoyt responded to revelations by Megan McArdle of The Atlantic about serious omissions in Edmund Andrews’ piece on his financial troubles, this way:

“On Thursday, [Andrews] came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.”

Andrews was writing about his and his wife’s dire financial situation. That’s the whole story. If he failed to tell the story accurately, then it’s, at best, a fudge and at worst, a fictionalized account. We can’t possibly know how much of the rest of the story to believe, given this immense omission. And, as several of those commenting on Hoyt’s column pointed out, Megan McArdle isn’t just “a blogger” as Hoyt chose to identify her (and thereby, diminish her importance). She’s probably better known than Andrews as a writer on economic issues.

Of Maureen Dowd, who in a recent column (apparently, unintentionally) plagiarized a post by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, public editor Hoyt wrote:

“I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Dowd appears to have believed she was plagiarizing the email of a friend and not the blog post of Josh Marshall. But how is that not plagiarism? She passed off someone else’s words as her own. It doesn’t change the behavior to claim that she was mistaken about who she was plagiarizing.

Next, Hoyt tackled the high speaking fee that Thomas Friedman recently had to return:

“When Friedman accepted $75,000 — his standard rate — for speaking to a regional government agency in Oakland this month, he ran afoul of a Times rule that staff members may take fees ‘only from educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.’”

If this is Friedman’s standard rate, how much effect might getting such a rate have on what he chooses to write about for The New York Times? Or, what positions he takes in his writing?

Hoyt doesn’t appear to see this as relevant. The primary concern he raises is that the group did not qualify as either educational or nonprofit. He also points out that the paper requires reporting of speaking fees above $5,000 but has been lax in enforcing the requirement.

If you read through the 90 (to date) comments on Public Editor Hoyt’s column, you see a pattern of anger and distrust. Hoyt seemed to be explaining away the lapses of his colleagues. And maybe, that’s the problem.

They are his colleagues.

If The New York Times wants to promote itself as having a “Public Editor” who is advertised as “the readers’ representative,” it may need to find someone to take on the role who is a an independent journalist or academic, or another member of the reading public, rather than a member of the club.

– Anita Bartholomew

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