Monday, December 22, 2008

Does Kennedy-Sulzberger Friendship Influence NYT News Coverage? We Ask The Times.

After yesterday's post regarding the relationship between Caroline Kennedy and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., we got to thinking: what is the relevance of their friendship to the paper's coverage?

We've been looking closely at that coverage for the last week, and reported on several instances where the Times showed a soft spot for Kennedy, and a willingness to give her generous access to its news pages.

But we've also seen several swipes taken at the candidate in the Times. Essays attacking the Kennedy candidacy in the last few days by Judith Warner ("In keeping with the times, it would be an appealing act of humility if Caroline Kennedy aimed her first shot at politics a bit lower — say, at the House of Representatives")and Alessandra Stanley ("And it’s not unfair to note that [Kennedy's] request for a Senate seat, on the heels of her crucial endorsement of Barack Obama, carries a whiff of Chicago quid pro quo — Blagojevichism with better manners") come to mind.

So what can we conclude? It's seems unlikely that Sulzberger has any direct hand in guiding coverage, but it's always possible that editors and reporters -- aware of the friendship -- work to give him what he wants (i.e. extensive, often positive coverage of the boss's friend) without asking.

Given that, we think it's legitimate and important for the Times to disclose the connection between Sulzberger and Kennedy, when relevant. For example, he warranted inclusion -- but wasn't mentioned -- in a David Halbfinger story last week about the candidate's high-powered friends. It would bear directly on any stories related to Kennedy's courting of the media in anticipation of her candidacy, in much the same way that Halbfinger noted Kennedy's efforts to get Rupert Murdoch's child admitted to Brearley. The friendship also needs to be disclosed in any editorial page endorsement of her candidacy.

By coincidence, we got a chiding comment this weekend on the website from Patrick LaForge, the editor of the City Room blog, objecting to our item earlier this week on its Q&A with the head of the Big Apple Circus. We'd noted the fact that the circus is a major advertiser with the Times -- to the tune of $450,000 in 2006 -- and that the Times had, in the span of two months, published two promotional metro features, a rave review, a fawning editorial and a toothless Q&A. LaForge attacked our failure to seek comment from the Times. He wrote:

The blog's news staff is willing to discuss its decisions and procedures with anyone who asks, and we do so frequently on the blog itself.

Had you bothered to seek a comment, I would have told you that the advertising department plays no role in selecting subjects for the Taking Questions feature. That is a news decision.

Well, that's not what we said. We never accused the advertising department of assigning the feature. We simply raised what struck us as excessive coverage of a single major advertiser. What would have been the point of asking for comment? Was the Times going to tell us that, yes, we let advertisers make our editorial decisions?

But LaForge's point was fair enough. When we have questions, we should ask them. So today we did. At 8:52 a.m., we wrote this email to Catherine Mathis, the Times's chief spokeswoman:

Dear Ms. Mathis,

In a post on our blog last night, we took the position that rumors about the private life of the Times's publisher have no place in legitimate news coverage. Our post was in response to an item on Gawker yesterday. Here is a link to that post:

However, we did point out that the friendship between the publisher and Caroline Kennedy has been a matter of public record. This raises some questions I hope you can answer.

1. Given that the Times now covers Ms. Kennedy on a daily basis in the course of her campaign for the Senate, does the Times plan to disclose that friendship to its readers in its news coverage, or on the editorial page?

2. Aternatively, does the Times believe -- and can it explain to readers unfamiliar with the workings of a newspaper, who might assume otherwise -- that such a friendship does not influence the nature or quantity of its coverage?

Thank you for your attention to these questions.


The Nytpicker

The minute we hear back from Mathis, we'll let you know. We recommend not waiting around.

No comments: