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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January 4, 2010

The New York Times and freelancers (A.K.A. filthy non-staff writer scum)

Clark Hoyt, The New York Times public editor, has continued his predecessor’s attack on freelance writers. He doesn’t exactly call us an odious bunch as his predecessor did but seems to feel it’s perfectly fine to impose draconian rules on non-staff writers while refusing to pay their reporting expenses or a decent pay rate, and to ignore the huge transgressions of staffers and stars.

Hoyt points to three freelancers who “transgressed” and were tossed by
the Times, but the offenses are minor compared to those of Times’ stars who are still with the paper.

  1. Mary Tripsas, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School wrote a column about innovation and included 3M in her column without disclosing that 3M paid her expenses to go to their site. Because her university research involves checking out such sites, if 3M hadn’t paid Harvard certainly would have. And presumably, that would have been okay with the Times. Otherwise, her career as a professor, which qualified her for this column, would have been viewed by the Times as an ethical failing and also disqualified her for this column.
  2. Mike Albo, who accepted a travel-sponsored junket to Jamaica but didn’t write about it for the Times. Hoyt fails to mention that few travel publications or columns pay travel expenses to travel writers.  So writers who wish to write about travel have three choices: pay their own expenses (usually greater than the assignment fee); accept complimentary trips from travel companies; or stop writing about travel.
  3. A third freelancer, Joshua Robinson, identified himself as a writer for the Times while soliciting photography work from airline magazines — and asking the airline magazines to cover his airfare. Wouldn’t any of us, if pitching an airline magazine A) promote our major credits and B) ask the magazine to cover the travel and other expenses of the project?

Virginia Postrel was asked by The New York Times to write the column that Tripsas eventually accepted and was fired from. Postrel turned it down due to the Times’ measly pay and refusal to cover research expenses. However, she says, had she taken the gig, she also would have been disqualified on “ethical” grounds.

She had a correspondence with Hoyt about the hypocritical so-called ethical stance of a media outlet that demands purity from freelancers but refuses to pay in full for the research and reporting it profits from. Worth a read.

– Anita Bartholomew

Post has been updated to remove a statement that Hoyt didn’t mention that Tripsas’ expenses could have as easily been picked up by Harvard. Hoyt did mention this.

October 27, 2009

More.com gets into the writer exploitation game

On a writers listserv I subscribe to, a writer posted a message that she’d been asked to write for More.com — the online presence for More magazine.

But…

More.com wants her to write for free. And this writer wonders if it will be good exposure for her to do so.

Here’s my take. You can expose yourself, night and day, all over the web. And it will get you exactly nothing. Why would you think that the exploiter will pay you for what you’re giving away for free? Why would other magazines rush to offer you big money if they know you’ll write for free (and trust me, they’ll know).

The only time it makes sense to write for exposure is when you’re publicizing something else that you want readers to know about and buy (your book, for example). If you don’t have something to sell to readers, working for nothing gets you exactly that.

Don’t allow profit-making ventures to make money from your labors.

But for those who still aren’t convinced, who think it might make sense to write for “exposure” only, here’s a suggestion. Contact one of your favorite charities and offer to write something that lets the charity spend its limited funds on doing good deeds. In these difficult economic times, that would be a great way to get web exposure while helping out those who really need your help.

– Anita Bartholomew

 

September 9, 2009

ASJA, NWU, argue against their own Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick settlement in Google objection

This is pretty amazing.

As some of you know, I am one of the objectors to the class action settlement reached by ASJA, NWU and the Authors Guild with Reed Elsevier and other databases and periodicals publishers. There, as in the Google case, large corporations had infringed the copyrights of a huge number of writers.

My objection in that earlier case was simple and mirrors the reasons I’ve protested the Google settlement. The writers’ organizations — ASJA, the Authors Guild and NWU — agreed to hand over, to the Defendants, the future rights of anyone who didn’t file a claim or opt out.

(See the Tasini case for the genesis and a bit of background; also see Irv Muchnick’s blog, which outlines every move since,  in excruciating detail).

Defendants also got the only thing they should have been given, what Defendants normally get in a settlement: release of the claims of past wrongdoing.

I objected to the theft of the rights of absent class members, first to the leadership of ASJA and then, when I could not get them to budge, to the court.

Fast forward to yesterday, and ASJA as well as NWU (as part of a group called the Bloom objectors) have filed an objection to the Google settlement.

Their key argument?

“… after approval, Rightsholders will be deemed to have granted a license by virtue of doing nothing.”

In other words, ASJA and NWU, both of which once agreed to give away, to Defendants in the earlier class action, the future rights of periodicals writers who fail to opt out or file claims, now object to giving away the future rights of book authors who fail to opt out or file claims.

ASJA’s aggressive support for what I saw as theft in the Freelance settlement is the primary reason I resigned from that organization. That was no small thing for me. I’d been a very active volunteer on the First Amendment  and other committees, and had served on the board.

I’m glad to see that ASJA, under the new leadership of Salley Shannon, finally appears to understand that it’s unethical to bargain away the rights of some writers in exchange for better terms for the writers you represent.

Better late than never.

– Anita Bartholomew

August 7, 2009

Where are the responsible adults? Certainly not in the newsroom.

Yesterday, a mob (no other word for it) of misinformed, angry people who, when interviewed, said they were part of a group formed by Glenn Beck, shut down a heath care reform town hall in Tampa.

The local NBC television affiliate, when reporting on this, gave no context on what’s behind such events. Instead of analysis, the station just showed angry demonstrators and then said, go to our website and give us your opinion.

Give your opinion? Based on what? Zero reporting of what inspired the demonstrators? Zero reporting on whether that inspiration had any basis in fact?

So, why should anyone be surprised that the situation is now escalating and, on Twitter, an anti-health insurance reform leader is telling fellow protesters to bring guns to use against union leaders and community organizers at subsequent town halls?
When American television news became infotainment and ratings trumped all, we lost an important means of educating people. Almost nobody is well-informed in this country, despite making the effort of watching so-called 24-hour news stations. CNN, calling itself an all-news network, hosted Glenn Beck until he was wooed away by Faux News, and still hosts the race-baiter Lou Dobbs!

With the simmering racism that’s stoked by Beck, Dobbs, and others, we have a populace, or a large swathe of it, that’s about as ignorant and probably close to as resentful as the poor undereducated masses of some oil-rich countries. Over there, they believe bin Laden. Over here, their American counterparts believe Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

As a result, many are nursing pseudo-grievances that can and do lead to violence.

And now, we have the former Republican VP candidate, stirring the flames, crazily claiming that the president’s “death panel” wants to euthanize her Downs Syndrome child.

All of the above are acting in the service of the health insurance industry so insurers can keep their near-monopolies in their respective areas, and suck the lifeblood out of the very people they’re manipulating into hate and potential violence. But the mainstream news media won’t report that. Instead, everything is treated with so-called balance, with opportunities for he said/she said, as if there were no actual truth to be uncovered, just opinion that you form based on the words of flacks and then, go post on the TV stations’ websites.

This insanity is the fault of news executives who care nothing about fact and everything about ratings. They hire industry mouthpieces and nutcases who can manipulate the ignorant into a frothing frenzy.

Is there a Cronkite in the house? When will the mainstream media finally stop playing games and tell it like it is? Or are they going to wait until those twitterers show up with their guns and start blasting away?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 2, 2009

New York Times’ public editor’s inexcusable excuse about reporter errors

A friend read yesterday’s blog post on sloppy reporting at The New York Times and pointed me to Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column in today’s Times. It’s about an error-ridden obituary that the paper published upon Walter Cronkite’s death. I found one section particularly telling:

THE TIMES published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily [emphasis Anita’s] and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

I quickly checked whether The New York Times was still publishing the work of Alessandra Stanley, the entertainment writer/critic/obit writer who has a “history of errors,” according to Hoyt, and who hit the error jackpot on this one. Clicking on her name in the public editor’s column, I discovered she has had three pieces published in the Times since the errors in her Cronkite obituary came to the editors’ attention.

Clark Hoyt makes clear that Alessandra Stanley wasn’t  rushing to meet the deadline on this obit on the day Cronkite died; she’d written it on June 19, almost a month before it ran, and turned it in without fact-checking it.

Let me pause here and say I can’t imagine any competent writer turning in work he/she hadn’t ascertained was factual.

I just had to head off a potentially embarrassing situation with a magazine I won’t name. After turning in a thoroughly fact-checked (by me) article, the magazine emailed its “edited” version to me for a final review. I discovered that the magazine had introduced at least 19 factual errors including an entirely new section I’d never seen before (and certainly hadn’t written). The editor or someone else had apparently decided that the article should include information on an issue about which this new writer had no knowledge or understanding. This person had then written approximately 100 words-worth of wildly inaccurate conclusions.

Although I provided corrections to the sections where the magazine had introduced errors into my own copy, I didn’t have the time to double-check all the new material written by someone else. Simply knowing that, in the sections originating with me, someone had turned carefully checked fact into something less was enough to convince me to distance myself from the piece. I demanded that the magazine remove my byline.

I point to the above because I’m confident that most professional writers would do something similar: either ensure accuracy or, if that weren’t possible, make certain their names weren’t associated with inaccurate copy. To be less vigilant can amount to professional suicide.

But, if I’m reading Clark Hoyt’s column correctly, The New York Times doesn’t have the same concerns about reputation that I believe most of my freelance writer friends have. Despite being forced to run a column about correcting the copy of “a television critic with a history of errors,” and at a time when thousands of competent journalists are out of work, The New York Times gave this person several more chances to potentially embarrass the paper of record.

It does boggle the brain, doesn’t it?

– Anita Bartholomew

July 30, 2009

The exploited writers’ anthem; sing to the tune of “Born Free”

From my friend and colleague, Erik Sherman, a little ditty to remind writers where writing for nothing will get them:

Here’s a snippet. Sing along to the rest on his site at this link:

Write free
As free as the grass grows
Who cares where the cash goes?
Write free, and follow your heart

Work free, and readers surround you
Exposure astounds you
Although you live in a car …

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