Tuesday, January 02, 2007

# Posted 10:55 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE NY TIMES VS. REALITY: In the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal, the NY Times found itself compelled to appoint an ombudsman, to whom it gave the title of "public editor". To the Times' credit, it seems to have chosen independent-minded public editors and given them sufficient access to the newsroom and editorial staff. But the credit the Times deserves may pale in comparison to the damage done by the public editor's revelations.

The current case in point is public editor Byron Calame's column this past Sunday about how the Times' editorial staff displayed rank incompetence and disturbing dishonesty in its handling of a controversial story about abortion.

Eight months ago, the NYT Magazine ran a cover story about harsh anti-abortion policies in El Salvador. It alleged that the Salvadoran courts sentenced women, including Carmen Climaco, to 30 years in jail for having an abortion. But that simply wasn't true.

What the Salvadoran court found was that Ms. Climaco committed infanticide after delivering a healthy baby. In her defense, Ms. Climaco claimed the death resulted from an abortion. It turns out that the article's author didn't even read the court's official decision before writing that Ms. Climaco had been sentenced to 30 years in ail for having an abortion.

That's bad, but as they say in politics, the crime matters less than the cover up. In response to complaints about the article, NYT editors drafted a statement that asserted "there was no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported." Why did multiple editors at the most prestigious paper in the world stake their reputations on such a recklessly reported article?

I don't know. But perhaps the greater mystery is why editors at the most prestigious paper in the world continue to deny their culpability after being confronted with the facts by their paper's own public editor. Here's how Calame describes the Times' response to his inquiries:
After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error [in the April magazine story], Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers...

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision...

I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”
Funny, I thought the NY Times prided itself on membership in the reality-based community.

The bottom line here is about accountability. As this example illustrates, even the best journalists and editors in the world must be subjected to external scrutiny. As journalists never tire of reminding us, the rhetoric of powerful men and women, be they presidents, senators, or corporate executives, should never be implicitly trusted.

And as bloggers (myself included) never tire of reminding their readers, journalists are also powerful individuals whose statements of fact and opinion must be carefully dissected. Although we pajama-clad amateurs tend to think a lot of ourselves, the fact is that we are nothing compared to the NYT, the WaPo, NBC or CNN. What we really need is for journalits to watch each others, the way Democrats watch Republicans and vice versa.
(2) opinions -- Add your opinion

What is interesting is the apparent presumption by the NYT in this matter and others that they can continue in this fashion and retain credibility.
The same goes for other media outlets. Get busted, stonewall, lie, try to wait it out, and still be surprised when news consumers express skepticism.

I did some harsh back&forth on Pressthink about a couple of NYT howlers.
It was interesting that the professional journos' view was, according to one who didn't agree, that the errors didn't really matter and outsiders like myself didn't have standing to complain.

I really don't see how they can be so certain they will continue to be believed.

The alternative is that they don't mind being busted regularly by the alert, considering they will be misinforming a much larger group and the two groups, the misinformed and the alert, will not be communicating.
Maybe that's their idea of the math works out.
But journalists do watch each other the way Dems and Pubs do - avidly, unless a common interest is threatened. CNN has no more interest in correcting the Times than Hastert had in letting the FBI into William Jefferson's office.
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