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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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

August 1, 2009

Where does The New York Times get all these lazy reporters?

I admit I have a love-hate relationship with The New York Times. I count on it being what a newspaper is supposed to be (and it often is). So when it lazily just quotes the interested parties in a story without digging for what the real story is, as it seems to do about once a week,  it feels like more than a disappointment. It borders on a betrayal.

Scott Horton, in his blog post about the difference between the Times and Washington Post reporting on the same story, points to WaPo having done real reporting. Reading the WaPo piece, you see that he’s right. The reporter quoted the interview subject, in this case, Karl Rove, then checked his claims against the evidence and refuted a number of Rove’s statements. The New York Times reporter, by contrast, swallowed Rove’s statements whole simply to regurgitate them onto newsprint.

To my mind, this pattern of laziness casts doubt on the value of all Times‘ reporting whether political or medical or sociological or legal or otherwise, at a time when news reporting is in deep crisis and needs to prove its worth:

… Karl Rove, violating his agreement with the House Judiciary Committee (which I discussed here), gave “exclusive” interviews to the Times and the Washington Post, in a determined effort to spin the bad news about his role in the firing of the U.S. attorneys and his unseen hand in the work of the Justice Department generally. The Post’s piece, by Carrie Johnson, shows an appropriate level of balance and skepticism about Rove’s self-serving and highly misleading claims. Not so the Times. Indeed, the headline tells the whole story: “Rove Says His Role in Prosecutor Firings Was Small.” The problem, of course, is that the evidence the Judiciary Committee has collected, and the investigation by special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, show precisely the opposite. They put Karl Rove squarely in the center of the effort to remove the U.S. attorneys fired in the December 7, 2006 massacre…

– Anita Bartholomew

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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