Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kocieniewski Vs. Rangel: Who Gets The Last Word?

This afternoon on its website, The Times has posted an extensive letter from Rep. Charles B. Rangel in response to David Kocieniewski's November 25 page one investigation of the congressman. But what's even more extensive is the response: the Times has given its own reporter the chance to challenge, point-by-point, all of Rangel's objections.

Is that appropriate? Or should a letter to the editor get a chance to stand on its own, in response to an article that should be expected to speak for itself?

The original report was exhaustive, complex and riveting -- a 2,696-word, blow-by-blow account of Rangel's's actions on behalf of Nabors Industries, an oil-drilling company that contributed $1 million to a public service school named for the congressman at City College of New York. It examined in detail the various Rangel maneuvers that meant tax breaks for the company, efforts he allegedly made at the same time he was soliciting the contribution.

After reporting denials from both Rangel and Nabors's chief executive that any quid pro quo existed, Kocieniewski asserted:

What is clear is that Mr. Rangel played a pivotal role in preserving the tax shelter for Nabors and the other companies in 2007. And while the issue was before his committee, Mr. Rangel met with Mr. Isenberg and a lobbyist for Nabors and discussed it, on the same morning that the congressman and Mr. Isenberg met to talk about the chief executive’s potential support for the Rangel center.

Mr. Rangel’s opposition to closing the loophole surprised his Congressional colleagues, who had viewed him as an outspoken ally in the effort to eliminate the tax shelter.

The House ethics committee is now investigating Mr. Rangel’s solicitations for donations for the school, along with several other issues involving his personal finances and fund-raising. Mr. Rangel used Congressional stationery when he wrote to many potential donors to the project and, after criticism, asked the ethics committee to determine whether or not he violated any rules.

The Times had previously been aggressive in reporting Rangel's various alleged misdeeds, including an investigation by Kocieniewski last summer into rent-stabilization breaks he was allegedly receiving on four apartments in a building owned by a top New York City developer. The latest expose dug even deeper into Rangel's image, suggesting a level of corruption that could threaten to destroy his long, successful career in Congress.

But today's back-and-forth between Rangel and Kocieniewski raises an interesting question: should the subject of a negative story be allowed to address the allegations against him, without having his response immediately undercut by a response to his response?

Rangel's letter, dated November 26, is a 713-word point-by-point refutation of several specific elements of the original piece. To make Kocieniewski's response to his letter more readable, the Times helpfully added footnotes to Rangel's letter, and Kocieniewski replied in numerical order.

Introducing the two letters, the Times offers this brief explanation of their decision to address Rangel's letter this way:

The article was based on weeks of reporting, including an extensive review of Congressional records, public statements and news media accounts of the legislation as it was written, as well as interviews with dozens of people involved in the creation of the law — from members of Congress and Congressional staff members to lobbyists, corporate executives and other interested parties. In an effort to provide a fair and complete depiction of Mr. Rangel’s account of events, he was repeatedly asked for an interview, and when he declined those requests, his lawyers were given the opportunity to convey his recollections — which they did in face-to-face discussions, more than two dozen telephone conversations and via e-mail, over the course of several weeks. Those recollections were reflected in the article itself. Mr. Rangel’s letter, written after the article was published, appears here unedited. Accordingly, it is accompanied by a response from The Times.

Kocieniewski's reply appears under the headline, "Response from The New York Times." But to be accurate, the published response is not from the Times; it is signed by Kocieniewski himself. And in that response -- at 1,542 words, more than double the length of Rangel's letter -- the reporter refutes all of the congressman's claims. That's not the Times talking, that's the reporter who has just been accused of making mistakes.

Given that the Times yielded nothing to Rangel, the paper could have chosen other ways to reply, or to communicate its defense in the face of Rangel's objections. It could have simply posted the letter with an editor's note that simply said the newspaper stood by its story -- a time-honored and respectable response that acknowledges the newspaper's responsibility to makes its case in its original story, or not at all. After all, is it fair for the Times to present two different versions of the same facts, while Rangel has only one shot at the reader's judgement?

Presumably the Times didn't want the "we stand by our story" option in part because of the topic's complexity; Rangel's letter parsed the facts in a way that contradicted Kocieniewski's piece, and perhaps editors were concerned that Rangel could leave readers with a false impression of the facts. But by giving the reporter the last word, the paper has allowed Rangel no recourse to defend himself against Kocieniewski's re-statement of his reporting.

Another option might have been to submit the story, and Kocieniewski's reporting, to the newspaper's Public Editor for his evaluation. A third possibility would have been to reply to Rangel's letter with an unsigned response from the Times's editors, informing the reader that editors reviewed the congressman's complaints against Kocieniewski's reporting, and judged the story to be accurate. In that context, a point-by-point review would have been more objective, and thus more valuable.

But by allowing the reporter himself to respond -- and to essentially repeat, in new language, the information he presented the first time -- the reader is left uncertain about the objectivity of the response. Of course Kocieniewski is going to defend his own story; but are we to believe that a signed letter from a reporter, clearly biased in his own favor, represents the position of the Times itself?

Had the Times taken the time to have its editors investigate Rangel's rebuttal -- instead of posting it a week later, with Kocieniewski's reply -- readers would have been more likely to accept the newspaper's contention that the congressman got it wrong, and the Times got it right.

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