Sunday, May 04, 2008

Public editor chastises New York Times

In July 2004 its then public editor Daniel Okrent asked rhetorically: "Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper?"

“Of course it is,” Okrent told readers, none of whom should have been surprised by Okrent’s blunt admission.

But Times readers today may be surprised by what current public editor Clark Hoyt, generally viewed as more an editor for the Times than for a public increasing skeptical of the fairness and balance in the paper’s news columns, has to say.

Here, in italics and indented, are excerpts from Hoyt’s column concerning The Times' coverage of what he calls “the unapologetic re-emergence of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.”

…While The Times was aggressive with its coverage on the Web, it was slow to fully engage the Wright story in print and angered some readers by putting opinion about it on the front page — a review by the television critic of his appearances on PBS, at an N.A.A.C.P. convention and at the National Press Club — before ever reporting in any depth what he actually said, how it squared with reality and what it might mean as Democrats ponder Obama as their potential nominee.
I don’t agree The Times was “aggressive with its coverage on the Web.” This election cycle major news organizations, faced with coverage competition from bloggers and campaign Net news sites, simply have no choice but to “keep up with the competition.”

On the Wright story, The Times worked on the Web to keep up, but was far from aggressive.

I'll leave it at that.

What’s more important is that the rest of Hoyt’s paragraph is spot on and a damning indictment of the newspaper which still claims to be “the journal of record”
Carol Hebb of Narberth, Pa., spoke for many when she wrote that she found the newspaper’s initial coverage “very strange.”

If editors did not think Wright’s remarks were newsworthy enough to be on the front page, she asked, why did they put the review by Alessandra Stanley there? “I was very surprised that her piece was not accompanied by a ‘factual’ article reporting the content of Mr. Wright’s comments more completely and perhaps adding some meaningful context.”

Stanley’s review called Wright “the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention.” The pastor, Stanley wrote, “doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice.” Virtually the identical opinion could be found that same day on the Op-Ed page, in a column by Bob Herbert, who said Wright was “living a narcissist’s dream.” …
It was a stunning decision even for the NYT. Opinion on its front page is nothing new, but there’s been the pretense of putting it in the news columns. In this case, The Times decided to “drop the mask” and run Stanley’s column in place of a “news report.”

Hoyt presents The Times explanation for what it did
“We didn’t think that he made that much news that was relevant to Obama, which is, after all, why we’re paying attention to him at all,” said Richard Stevenson, the editor in charge of presidential campaign coverage.
Then he rightly responds as a public editor should:
But as Obama struggles to win the support of white blue-collar voters likely to be offended by Wright’s most extreme views, having the clergyman back on stage was potentially a big issue, and the PBS interview was just the first stop in a three-city tour building to a crescendo at the National Press Club.

Monday’s paper carried an even shorter article about Wright’s second appearance, at the N.A.A.C.P. event in Detroit, where he said he was “descriptive,” not “divisive” and talked at length about differences between blacks and whites, including the assertion that blacks learn with the right side of their brains, while whites learn with the left side, a view regarded as myth by neuroscientists.

Then came his speech at the National Press Club on Monday about the history, traditions and theology of the African-American church in America, followed by a stormy question-and-answer session in which Wright said the controversy over him was an attack on the black church, that he was merely quoting a former American ambassador to Iraq when he said in a sermon shortly after Sept. 11 that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” and that Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, was “one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century.” …

Bill Keller, the executive editor, and Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, decided to take Stanley’s review, pungent and colorful, to the front page and to put a news article about the speech and reaction to it inside.

Obama spoke later in the day, and he became the top of the news article, causing Wright’s actual remarks to be condensed into four paragraphs in the middle of it.

Keller, Abramson and Stevenson said they wished that more of Wright’s words had gotten into the paper. But Keller and Abramson defended the front-page review. “This was a story that was playing out on TV, and we have a reviewer who is a smart viewer,” Keller said. Abramson said, “She had a lot of interesting things to say that didn’t go over the news-opinion divide.”

I thought it did go over that divide, and I thought The Times should have been faster and more complete in anticipating and answering the questions of Hebb, Weltner and other readers.
Good for public editor Clark Hoyt. I plan to send him an email commending him for today’s column.

As for Stanley’s review with “a lot of interesting things … that didn’t go over the news-opinion divide[,]” do you think her review would have made it to the front page if Stanley had called Wright’s remarks what they are: racist and anti-American?

That’s an easy question which tells us a lot about the NYT.

At least that’s what I think. What about you?

Hoyt's entire column is here.


Anonymous said...

John -

The NYT at this time is nothing but an opinion piece masquerading as a once great newspaper. Until Pinch Sulzberger steps down, the paper will continue to be unreliable. While he is at the helm, the masthead shouldn't read, All the News That's Fit to Print; rather it should be, All the Opinions We Mint, That's What We Print.

Jack in Silver Spring

Archer05 said...

John, On another thread I mentioned that a blogger in Minnesota scooped the MSM. (Al Franken’s worst nightmare: Conservative blogger)

“Today, I see this article in the New York Post: “The Minneapolis Star Tribune, reeling under a heavy debt load and plummeting advertising sales, is on the brink of bankruptcy, The Post has learned.”

Now I am sure where (what’s his name) should seek his journalism career. Locals call the paper the "Red Star."

Anonymous said...

Even liberal journalists like Hoyt can't stomach what passes for journalism at Sulzberger's New York Times.

Anonymous said...

David Graham would fit right in.