Friday, December 26, 2008

Public Editor's Blog Wheezes Back To Life With Two Posts Defending His Employer.

After taking a two-and-a-half month break from blogging, the Times's Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, has returned in recent days with two big online-only posts -- in both cases, defending the Times against outside criticism.

Is that what a Public Editor is for? It's an odd coincidence that these back-patting exercises come at the same time executive editor Bill Keller announced plans to renew Hoyt's two-year Public Editor contract for an extra year.

The first post came on December 16, when Hoyt weighed in on reader complaints that the Times had avoided the use of the word "torture" in recent news stories. The Times's use of the word "terrorist" had been the topic of a Hoyt column in the print edition -- yet another opportunity Hoyt took to agree with Times policy.

This time, a reader was taking the Times to task for using what she called "euphemisms" to describe the treatment of hostages at the Jewish Center seige in Mumbai earlier this month. A headline had described them as "abused" and the article said they'd been "treated savagely."

“Those are euphemisms and, generally, the purpose of a euphemism is to conceal or soften a harder truth,” the reader wrote to Hoyt. “Why does The New York Times have an interest in concealing a hard truth about the Mumbai attack?”

Hoyt allowed foreign editor Susan Chira to explain that Times reporters had specifically ask Mumbai police if the hostages had been tortured. The police, she said, "could not say so definitively." Hoyt's conclusion:

Seems reasonable to me. The newspaper reported what it was able to find out in a chaotic, fast-moving situation and gave readers as much of a description of the treatment as it was able to obtain.

But that wasn't the point. The reader wondered whether the Times's subjective choice of words represented a soft-pedaling of events. And Hoyt's endorsement of the Times's view doesn't do anything to deal with the question at hand: are reporters and editors choosing their words too carefully? Are they avoiding words to avoid criticism? Do they strive too hard for objectivity, and forget their own ability to judge what they see?

An associate professor of literature at Bard College asked Hoyt, in a letter, whether the Times's avoidance of the word "torture" to describe waterboarding (in a story by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane) was "actively deceiving its readers."

After noting that Barack Obama, John McCain and others had used the word "torture" to describe the interrogation technique, Hoyt again sided with the Times's conservative view -- buttressed only by the Bush administration's unwillingness to officially brand waterboarding as torture.

That means there's a debate. And where there's a debate, Hoyt and the Times both apparently think it best not to take sides. That's what newspapers like to call "objectivity" -- a phony concept that describes the unnatural human act of not having an opinion:

Douglas Jehl, Shane’s editor, said, “We always need to be very careful about taking sides in any debate.”

Mazzetti and Shane made it pretty clear what waterboarding was – and that it is widely regarded as torture – without declaring an opinion on the matter by adopting the T-word as their own. I think that was the right thing to do, no matter what I may think of waterboarding.

Three days ago, Hoyt again took to the blogosphere in defense of the Times. The latest installment in the paper's series on the economic crisis, "The Reckoning," had just placed blame for much of it on the Bush administration, and the White House had issued a statement in its own defense.

The premise of Hoyt's post this past Tuesday night made sense. It's exactly what a Public Editor should be for -- to offer perspective on a debate over fairness in a Times takeout, especially one between the paper and the President.

But Hoyt's handling of the story amply demonstrated his weakness as a media watchdog. Instead of doing a detailed analysis of the Times's extensive piece last Sunday, Hoyt glossed over both its content and the essence of Bush's rebuttal -- which was that the Times had ignored a Bush speech earlier this year that laid out the root causes of the crisis.

A sophisticated side-by-side look at Bush's speech and the Times piece might have illuminated the debate. But instead, Hoyt took the less labor-intensive approach of listing the Times's previous stories in the "Reckoning" series -- "a remarkably rounded account," Hoyt called it -- and berating Bush for not seeing the Sunday piece as one part of an extensive whole.

But is that Bush's job, to be a media critic who considers the overall fairness of a newspaper's coverage? His administration took the paper to task for this installment, which went to considerable effort to cast Bush as the villain in recent events.

Hoyt points out that the article specifically noted that Bush policies weren't the only contributing factor our current economic woes. "The series does not suggest that President Bush was wholly to blame," Hoyt writes, "and Sunday’s article said as much in its eighth paragraph."

But he fails to even bother quoting -- or linking to -- the eighth paragraph. In case you're interested, here's what it says:

There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.

Not to take Bush's side or anything, but in the context of a 4,892-word front-page story on Bush's own failures, that's a pretty flimsy summary of the context.

Apparently it was enough to satisfy Hoyt. Without presenting any specific responses to the criticisms in the White House statement, Hoyt quickly concludes:

I do not see anything in the White House statement that calls into question the facts in the article, although their interpretation can be debated. And some of what the White House said was missing from the article was contained in other parts of the series.

Hoyt's vague, generalized responses to criticism don't do anything to help the Times when he decides to endorse their decisions. It's a shame the paper doesn't demand the sort of reporting and depth from its Public Editor that it requires of its news-gathering staff.

As usual, Hoyt's analysis is too little, too late.

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