Sunday, November 30, 2008

Juliet Macur Buys Snake Oil Story, And Then Sells It To Page One.

Today's page one story on a new genetics test -- one that supposedly helps parents of young children determine their athletic potential -- turns out to be little more than a free advertisement for a company that doesn't even begin business until Monday morning, and whose product probably doesn't even work.

Under the guise of doing a story on genetics testing, reporter Juliet Macur falls prey to the promise of a new product not even yet available on the market, let alone used by anyone in her story: a $149 test that promises to predict a child's "natural athletic strengths." Most of Macur's 1700-word story focuses on the new product from a company called Atlas Sports Genetics, which as it turns out is nothing more than a flashy website. Even the scientific basis for the test -- a gene called ACTN3 -- has been discredited by doctors at respected academic instituions.

But those facts only surface after Macur's page-one piece jumps to page 34. In the six paragraphs that make it onto page one, no mention is made of any doubts about the test's efficacy, except an acknowledgement by "Atlas executives" that "their test has limitations."

Even after the jump, Macur's story only devotes only a few hundred words to the major misgivings expressed by scientists about ACTN3 testing, and then returns to devote most of her attention to the test itself, taking it seriously enough to interview a sports ethicist about the implications for sports-crazed parents, and to let Atlas executives go on at length about the test's potential.

But a close reading of Macur's reporting casts doubt on the entire enterprise, and raises questions about the story's very existence.

After mentioning that "some experts say ACTN3 testing is in its infancy and virtually useless," Macur goes on to quote two doctors -- one at the University of California, San Diego, the other at the University of Maryland -- doubting the possibility that the test would indicate any real sports potential. One of them called it "an opportunity to sell new versions of snake oil." The other, while acknowledging the test's potential to be popular, said flatly: “The idea that it will be one or two genes that are contributing to the Michael Phelpses or the Usain Bolts of the world I think is shortsighted because it’s much more complex than that."

Macur's reporting on the studies that first linked ACTN3 and athletic performance also makes clear the dubious nature of Atlas's enterprise. Despite a 2003 study that identified the connection, Macur notes that the performance a successful Olympic long jumper -- who had no copies of the genetic variant identified in the test -- suggests that environment, training and nutrition may play as significant a role as genetics in predicting athletic achievement.

Even Carl Foster, a co-author of the original study who directs the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, acknowledges that no one yet understands the connection between genetics and athletic skill. He even offers what he considers a better test than the one sold by Atlas. "Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest," he tells Macur.

Given all the caveats laced through the latter parts of Macur's story, what can explain her willingness -- and that of the Times -- to give such prominent play to a product that has yet to be used by, or be tested on anyone? How could the Times have so completely been hoodwinked into hawking a new business enterprise, about which scientists seem dubious at best?

Clearly, the catchy concept of the Atlas product prompted Macur and her editors to put aside their skepticism and to allow Atlas a massive public-relations windfall, in the form of a page-one Sunday Times takeout. But in the end, The Times has succumbed to the temptation of a clever marketing scheme, and a story unworthy of such a prominent showcase.

UPDATE: A reader emails us to note an odd aspect of the Macur article we overlooked. In Macur's summary of the testing on the ACTN3 gene, she reports that the research was conducted only on white athletes:

The ACTN3 study looked at 429 elite white athletes, including 50 Olympians, and found that 50 percent of the 107 sprint athletes had two copies of the R variant.

Our reader observes: "Two possible explanations, both cynical, are that they figured all the black athletes would have the genes anyway, and that a test based on white athletes would sell a lot better to the target audience, yuppie parents. Why else mention the racial component?"

Why, indeed. It's yet another curious aspect to a story that raises more questions than it answers.

The McCaffrey Story: Barstow, You Haven't Got It.

Robert Weiner, the public relations man who works for NBC analyst and retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, has already put out a detailed rebuttal to David Barstow's 5,174-word front-page look this morning at McCaffrey and the "deeply opaque" world of a war hero-turned-military analyst.

But the rebuttal doesn't mention what's truly wrong with Barstow's epic story: the fact that it's missing the proverbial "smoking gun" that would have justified the reporter's accumulation of detail. Instead of publishing an examination of McCaffrey that might have exposed some fundamental hypocrisy, Barstow's back-and-forth on the retired general's military connections ended up proving nothing except that the man earns some of his living as an advocate for a would-be defense department contractors, and some from work for a private equity firm with close ties to the military-industrial complex -- facts the general doesn't dispute.

And as to the story's most significant element -- that those business connections influenced McCaffrey's positions about the war in a manner that would define a conflict of interest -- there's no proof. How can there be? It's impossible to say for certain that McCaffrey would go so far as to push a military conflict, and the potential human casualties that could follow, simply for the opportunity to make a buck. And yet without such proof, there's no real story.

It would have been great for Barstow to have nailed McCaffrey; his war misconduct has already been the topic of tough reporting by The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, and the Times's Michael Gordon and Gernard Trainor. The idea of McCaffrey sounding off on military topics must rankle reporters who object to NBC's use of him as a commentator who commands respect by his association with a major news organization. That's what makes Barstow's failure today so frustrating.

This morning's story follows a lengthy and valuable look last April by Barstow into the Pentagon's efforts to influence the opinions of military analysts who offer commentary for the television networks. What made that story work was Barstow's definitive reporting; he backed up his revelations about the Pentagon's secret efforts with significant detail and documentation.

But even that story -- and today's followup -- didn't successfully tag the analysts themselves on the conflict of interest issue. Barstow's original piece worked to connect the commentaries with the Pentagon's propaganda machine, but failed; that weakness in Barstow's reporting was exposed, in detail, by media reporter Rachel Sklar on the Huffington Post a few days later.

The flaws in today's piece stem from the same failure on Barstow's part -- and ought to remind readers of that terrific turn in William Goldman's screenplay of "All The President's Men," when Ben Bradlee kills a Woodward and Bernstein scoop for its failure to deliver the goods:

You haven't got it.
(before they can reply)
A librarian and a secretary say Hunt looked at a book.
(shakes his head)
Not good enough.

Every newspaper editor in America ought to commit those lines to memory, and repeat them to reporters when relevant. Today, it was relevant; Barstow had something, but it wasn't a scoop. Just read his thesis closely and you'll see how little actual news he has to report this morning:

Many retired officers hold a perch in the world of military contracting, but General McCaffrey is among a select few who also command platforms in the news media and as government advisers on military matters. These overlapping roles offer them an array of opportunities to advance policy goals as well as business objectives. But with their business ties left undisclosed, it can be difficult for policy makers and the public to fully understand their interests.

On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC’s viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television.

But what are those corporate interests Barstow so breathlessly mentions? Just because his business interests align with his beliefs doesn't make him guilty of anything. Barstow suggests that McCaffrey's views are for sale, but never proves it -- and never makes clear how more disclosure of his business dealings to NBC viewers would enhance their understanding of his views. Either NBC believes he's a legitimate commentator -- which, as of now, it appears to -- or they should let him go. Right now, it's one news organization wagging its finger at another.

Meanwhile, McCaffrey's own consulting company openly promotes what he calls "linkages" between the government and contractors. Those linkages lead to deals like one he made with Defense Solutions, a small contractor that hoped McCaffrey could deliver them a deal to make armored vehicles for Iraq. It turns out he couldn't -- but Barstow nevertheless suggests that the general's generous television comments about Gen. David Patraeus, who led the Iraq War effort, may have been an effort to woo his support for a Defense Solutions deal.

Barstow doesn't allow for the more obvious, legitimate explanation -- that McCaffrey, who publicly attacked Iraq military strategists including former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, may share the widespread positive view of Gen. Petraeus held by most military analysts who've studiedv the war effort. The article sees all of McCaffrey's statements and opinions as generated solely to ensure maximum income for himself, and thus a conflict of interest.

A more damning example comes far later in Barstow's account, when he documents McCaffrey's involvement with a business deal that depended on the American military's continued presence in Iraq -- and his television statements in support of that presence. Still, no smoking gun.

In any case, does anyone who listens to McCaffrey on NBC consider him objective? Don't television viewers assume that a former military general comes to the topic of war with an automatic conflict of interest, the way a former professional baseball player who provides color commentary might be inclined to see the steroids scandal differently than a professional sports reporter? Barstow's thesis denies the obvious intelligence of those who consume McCaffrey's commentaries, and who realize that former generals are likely to be biased in favor of military operations.

Indeed, what's surprising about McCaffrey is that he hasn't hesitated to criticize American military strategy in Iraq, despite that obvious built-in bias.

What would have made Barstow's story impervious to criticism? Well, maybe if the reporter had shown that McCaffrey had intentionally covered up his connections to contractors in working with NBC News, where he exclusively offers his opinion. But in an interview with Barstow, NBC News chief Steve Capus makes clear that McCaffrey has disclosed all his dealings with private industry, and that no conflict exists:

The president of NBC News, Steve Capus, said in an interview that General McCaffrey was a man of honor and achievement who would never let business obligations color his analysis for NBC. He described General McCaffrey as an “independent voice” who had courageously challenged Mr. Rumsfeld, adding, “There’s no open microphone that begins with the Pentagon and ends with him going out over our airwaves.”

General McCaffrey is not required to abide by NBC’s formal conflict-of-interest rules, Mr. Capus said, because he is a consultant, not a news employee. Nor is he required to disclose his business interests periodically. But Mr. Capus said that the network had conversations with its military analysts about the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, and that General McCaffrey had been “incredibly forthcoming” about his ties to military contractors.

Again, only much later in Barstow's story do we learn that McCaffrey failed to disclose his specific connections to some business dealings to his NBC superiors. But clearly, NBC's Capus -- a journalist of impeccable credentials himself -- doesn't see a conflict of interest between McCaffrey's relationship with Veritas Capital, and his contract with NBC.

Another potential smoking gun might have been if Barstow had been able to show that McCaffrey had traded his opinions for a business deal. But it's clear, from his hedging, that no such connection could be found; instead, Barstow was forced to rely on the government's continuing (and yet-to-be resolved) investigation into his previous scoop as a justification for today's story. Here's the best Barstow could do to sell his McCaffrey reporting as worthwhile:

In an article earlier this year, The New York Times identified General McCaffrey as one of some 75 military analysts who were the focus of a Pentagon public relations campaign that is now being examined by the Pentagon’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Communications Commission. The campaign, begun in 2002 but suspended after the article’s publication, sought to transform the analysts into “surrogates” and “message force multipliers” for the Bush administration, records show. The analysts, many with military industry ties, were wooed in private briefings, showered with talking points and escorted on tours of Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon inspector general is investigating whether special access gave any of these analysts an improper edge in the competition for contracts.

General McCaffrey offers a case study of the benefits that can flow from favored access: an inside track to sensitive information about strategy and tactics; insight into the priorities of ground commanders; a private channel to officials who oversaw war spending, as the Defense Solutions example shows. In that case the company has yet to win the contract it hired General McCaffrey to champion.

More broadly, though, his example reveals the myriad and often undisclosed connections between the business of war and the business of covering it.

Myriad and undisclosed? Covering the war? McCaffrey doesn't "cover" the war for anyone; he comments on it. As for "myriad," the Barstow story gives only a few examples of McCaffrey's business dealings, hardly "myriad" by any measure.

As for the "case study" aspect, it's fair to say that Barstow's story does provide readers with a legitimate look into the "military-industrial-media complex," as the headline promises. It's fascinating reading. But wouldn't it have been better if Barstow had been pushed to deliver readers damning evidence of a conflict? In the end, today's epic leaves the reader hungry for substantial proof of any real wrongdoing. He did nothing illegal, and perhaps nothing immoral -- and certainly nothing unexpected from a lifelong military hero who now earns his living from his very public position as a supporter of the American military effort. Nothing in his commentaries proves a case of corruption or conflict of interest.

Barstow, you haven't got it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Clark Hoyt's "Blog" Needs Some Updating. So Does His Thinking, For That Matter.

Readers of have become happily accustomed to daily -- if not hourly -- updates from its excellent blogs. Even those checking now, on the Saturday night after a national holiday, will find new posts to supplement the print edition.

All except Clark Hoyt's "Public Editor's Journal," which hasn't been updated with fresh material (other than reader letters and the posting of a document) since October 3, when he posted a roundup of investigative stories on the two campaigns that offered readers the chance to do a side-by-side comparison.

Before that, Hoyt hadn't posted since August 21, when he addressed a reference to author Brigitte Gabriel, in the Times Magazine, as a "radical Islamophobe." That post prompted 92 comments, a fairly strong piece of evidence that demand outweighs supply.

Is it really accurate to call "The Public Editor's Journal" a "blog" if its chief blogger only updates it once every two months? There are kids who write letters to their parents from college more frequently than Hoyt posts commentaries on the Times website. Virtually all other Times blogs update several times a week, and some several times a day.

Okay, to be fair: Hoyt's primary job is to write columns that appear in the Sunday Week In Review section. Those columns get published twice a month, sometimes more, and include Hoyt's reporting and opinion about internal Times decision-making as it pertains to the paper's coverage.

Recent columns have included a look at a reporter who used Facebook to reach minors for a story on Cindy McCain, an examination of hot-button religious issues in arts coverage, and, tomorrow, the danger of publishing opinion pieces by news reporters. (More on that later.)

But would it hurt Hoyt to weigh in more often, and more quickly, than his current anemic rate? Frankly, the reporters and editors he judges work a hell of a lot harder than he does, and deliver a significantly greater bang for the buck. That doesn't seem right.

And besides, let's face it, it's not exactly a tough job. The guy rarely even has to press for an outside line, let alone do the sort of thorough reporting he demands of his subjects.

Even by the standards of Hoyt's predecessors, there's a lot to be desired of the current public editor, both in the quality and quantity of his efforts. Daniel Okrent inaugurated the position with a tenacity and intelligence yet to be matched. He never failed to ask the tough question or take on the top targets -- including no less an adversary than Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who Okrent accused of cooking numbers to suit his arguments. His successor, Byron Calame, never measured up, preferring to go after reporters on weak ethical issues like their acceptance of discounts.

Hoyt has failed to return the column to Okrent's heights. He obsesses with issues of bias and fairness that seem mired in an old-school sensibility; he seems less interested in elevating the Times than in spot-checking its adherence to outmoded demands for propriety. By the time Hoyt gets around to raising real questions, it's too late; the only concrete change in Times policy to result from his column is the revised signature line on Deborah Solomon's Sunday magazine interview, after he criticized her methods last fall. That's not going to get Hoyt a book deal when his two-year stint ends when he leaves the paper next May.

Tomorrow's column captures the essence of Hoyt's weakness. He slaps the wrists of reporters Joe Nocera, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Gretchen Morgenson for allowing opinions into their recent columns on the economic crisis; in particular, he objects to Sorkin's demand for the ouster of General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner and for the auto maker to declare bankruptcy, while his colleague Nocera advocated caution.

But does it even matter what Hoyt thinks? For one thing, we learn from his column that the question has already been raised and resolved in the newsroom, and that executive editor Bill Keller had already ruled that Sorkin's column "stepped over the line." But Hoyt's column goes on to say that Nocera's column did, too -- simply by expressing an opinion on a topic he covers. In Hoyt's "perfect world," as he refers to it, "I would not have reporters writing opinion about the subjects they cover."

What a waste of time to have a 65-year-old public editor pushing the Times backwards, while its reporters and editors correctly see the need for a blurring of boundaries as the print world struggles to keep itself relevant. The times we live in call for fairness and accuracy, but also for informed opinion and commentary; the best reporters, like Nocera, Morgenson and Sorkin, offer both. Their coverage of the current economic crisis has been astonishing both in its depth and insight, and their columns have guided readers to form their own opinions about topics that warrant opinions from all of us.

Hoyt needs to spend less time reliving internal Times disputes that have been properly considered and resolved, and more on matters that his bosses Keller & Co. overlook. There's plenty in the Times's methods and content to report on each day. With only six months left on his contract, it's about time for Hoyt to step up his game, and start keeping his blog up to date.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Nytpicker Is Traveling....

...and will have limited access to the Times over the next few days. (The Nytpicker's family still subsists on dial-up Internet service.) Updates will be sporadic until Monday, when The Nytpicker will resume regular daily coverage. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Plans Result In Huge Traffic Jam In Michelle Higgins's Mind.

It's as American as apple pie, as traditional as turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce -- the Times's annual pre-Thanksgiving holiday travel story.

Yes, that's right: Millions of Times readers will gather around the fireplace this morning for their ritual reading of AAA statistics, dire warnings from travel agents and predictions about endless flight delays.

It's always a comforting experience, because readers can count on the same sentences, thoughts and facts every year. Consider the familiar, lilting rhythms of the second paragraph of this morning's version, as written (this year) by Michelle Higgins:

Holidays are the busiest time of year for most travel companies, a season when they command the highest rates for popular winter destinations.

Ah, yes...we remember it well.

But wait! Did Higgins dare to write this year's version without consulting last year's classic, by Maria Newman and Anahad O'Connor? (Surely you haven't forgotten that one, when the reporters helpfully informed us: " experts are advising people to set off early to avoid delays.")

Had Higgins bothered to check her facts against those of last year's story, she would have discovered that AAA fed her phony statistics to go along with this year's estimates of those planning to drive to their destinations -- a figure designed to support Higgins's contention that the economic crisis was affecting travel plans.

In the third paragraph of today's story, Higgins reports:

But as the economy’s decline has accelerated, nervous consumers have started to shut their wallets and put off vacation plans. For the first time in six years, Thanksgiving travel is expected to decline, according to AAA, the automotive group, with about 41 million Americans taking trips of 50 miles or more from home, a dip of 1.4 percent from last year.

But that doesn't quite dovetail with last year, when Newman and O'Connor reported:

Some 38 million people are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home today as they make their way to the holiday feast, according to AAA, the automobile club, which keeps tabs on teavel habits nationwide year round."

We're no math whizzes, but that doesn't sound much like a 1.4% decline. That looks more like a 12% increase. Which contradicts Higgins's point.

But maybe it's unfair to blame Higgins for not questioning the AAA statistic. Really, if a reporter can't believe AAA's annual pre-Thanksgiving traffic estimates, then what's left to believe in?

Ouroussoff Loves The New Berkeley Museum. Only Problem: It Doesn't Exist.

No doubt architecture critic Nicholai Ouroussoff is right -- if they ever get around to building the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive that Toyo Ito has designed, it'll be freaking amazing.

But there's no getting around the fact that Ouroussoff's review this morning was of a pile of beautifully rendered mockups of a building that doesn't -- and may never -- actually exist.

This tiny caveat doesn't keep the critic from swooning over the building's sublime majesty. Somehow, Ouroussoff has looked at the mockups and convinced himself he's actually been inside the place! He rhapsodizes:

...the three-story structure suggests an intoxicating architectural dance in which the push and pull between solitude and intimacy, stillness and motion, art and viewer never ends. Its contoured galleries, whose honeycomb pattern seems to be straining to contain an untamed world, would make it a magical place to view art.

Is that something a critic can tell from looking at blueprints and photographs, or even three-dimensional mockups? That seems a stretch. Anyway, Ouroussoff tells us only that he has based his review on "renderings."

What's next? Maybe Manohla Dargis will start reviewing movies from their screenplays, and Ben Brantley can begin attending table readings for prospective Broadway shows.

Ouroussoff has an interesting point to make in his piece this morning -- that this new building doesn't deserve to fall prey to the economic downturn that threatens new construction everywhere. But it seems a bit much to measure the true potential of an architect's design before building has begun, before paintings have been hung, and before a single person has walked through its doors.

How will this new structure truly interact with its environment? That can't be known until it's finished. An architect's rendering creates an ideal that isn't always achieved by those who execute the vision. That's a fact Ouroussoff well knows, but this morning has conveniently chosen chose to ignore.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Times "Shifting Careers" Blogger Gets Laid Off. (And Who Says Irony Is Dead?)

Marci Alboher, the writer of the Times's "Shifting Careers" blog -- who for the last 18 months has been chronicling the ways Americans have adjusted to layoffs in the current economic crisis -- has herself just been laid off by the Times.

Alboher disclosed the Times's decision to let her go on her blog this morning. She didn't seem very happy about losing the gig, or about joining the ranks of those unemployed stiffs she'd regularly been writing about.

In fact, for someone who has recommended in the past that laid-off employees send their old bosses thank you notes, Alboher sounded downright bitter towards her soon-to-be former employer:

The morning I got the call giving me the news, I was shocked. A mere few weeks before, I received a very favorable “review” (inasmuch as a non-employee can be reviewed) and an increase in pay. Many of my articles had hit the most-e-mailed list and generated lively discussion in the comments. I was told my traffic was looking good (though I’d also been told not to be too concerned about my traffic). People at The Times seemed pleased that television and radio shows were calling regularly to book me for appearances.

By later that morning, I felt angry and frustrated. As I started making calls to share the news, many people were asking me why The Times had decided to cut a feature with so much relevance in people’s everyday lives. If I couldn’t answer that question for myself, how could I answer it for others?

Alboher, a freelancer who launched the blog for the Times website, acknowledged today that this isn't an official layoff, in that she's not a fulltime employee of the Times. "Yet I have been feeling a lot like someone who has been laid off," Alboher wrote. "For starters, I have tried to build a narrative based on the little information that was shared with me by my editors, who have told me they were nearly as surprised as I was about this decision."

Hmmm. Does Alboher recommend that laid-off employees write comments on public blogs suggesting that their bosses blindsided them with the news? Not a good example to set, Marci. Let's hope your replacement learns from the career mistakes you made in writing this regrettable farewell post.

What Should Have Been The Quotation Of The Day....

Sometimes the true "quotation of the day" isn't the obvious soundbite from the most celebrated speaker on page one, but a bit of truth buried deep inside the paper, from the person speaking most from the heart.

And so it was today. Instead of giving "quotation of the day" status to Michelle Obama for her comment about her friend Valerie Jarrett -- "She knows the buttons, the soft spots, the history, the context," Michelle Obama said -- The Times should have dug deeper, and awarded the distinction to a Mexican farm worker named Cirilo Perez-Torres.

The quote came at the tail end of a 1,265-word dispatch by Randal C. Archibold, a Times reporter based in Los Angeles who often covers immigration issues. It served as a touching coda to his takeout on the elderly "braceros," as Mexican migrant farm workers were once known, and a one-time government payment of back wages.

Archibold talked with several Mexican workers who had come to the Mexican consulate in Fresno in the hopes of leaving with a check, as part of the settlement of a long-simmering lawsuit Some succeeded, but others -- many over 80 years old -- left without the money, not having brought the proper paperwork. One of them, 86-year-old Cirilo Perez-Torres, had lost his papers in a flood, and with them the chance for a quick settlement.

Perez-Torres's quote provided the poignant kicker to this bittersweet story:

“I remember everything, the fields, the places, the crops,” he said afterward. “But they are not accepting my memories.”

Story Idea: A Follow-Up On Today's Lead Editorial.

The most provocative piece of investigative journalism in today's Times sits just below the masthead on the editorial page. That's where an unnamed writer takes predatory brokers to task, for the sometimes-shady dealings of loan companies that offer to help cash-strapped homeowners, for an unfair price.

In "Return of the Predators," the Times editorial page tells us that predatory brokers have come back to haunt us in the form of what it calls "loan-modification companies." According to the editorial, these low-life businesses market their services by sticking flyers on windshields offering to "reduce your mortgage rate by 4%. No refinancing -- no closing costs."

Nope -- just one percent of your outstanding loan, half of it in advance.

The editorial is careful to point out that the business isn't illegal, just immoral -- offering a service that's already available to homeowners through the government and through nonprofit agencies. It cites one such group, the nonprofit Long Island Housing Partnership, which says that these scammers often crash their meetings by "posing as troubled borrowers, then working the crowd with sales pitches."

It's a great story -- and it hasn't appeared anywhere in the news pages of the Times, or anywhere else in print, for that matter. The Times editorial page prides itself on operating with complete independence of the news operation. Often, such as today, that's to the reader's benefit.

More On Carr: Google Meets With The New York Times, Gets Puff Piece

It was revealed on Saul Hansell's "Bits" blog this weekend how it was that David Carr came up with his Eric Schmidt quote in this morning's wet kiss to Google: the Google CEO had come by the Times's Eighth Avenue headquarters for a meet-and-greet!

That would explain this coy reference to Schmidt's presence in New York in Carr's column this morning:

If Google owns me, it’s probably because I am in favor of what works.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, who was in New York last week. “We want a little bit of Google in many parts of your life.”

Hansell opened up about the meeting because he'd been writing last week about an Oxford style debate over the issue: "Google violates its 'don't be evil' motto." After a lengthy "Bits" post on Tuesday, which prompted more than 100 responses, Hansell returned to the topic on Saturday after joining the Times editorial board Thursday for its meeting with Google.

Here's Hansell's account:

Unprompted, [Schmidt] brought up Google’s motto, explaining how the company thinks about the sort of tough questions that come up in its business, like whether to identify people who search for child pornography to law enforcement agencies. (It does not because it doesn’t want to be making judgments about its users.)

“‘Don’t be evil’ is an invitation to debate,” he said. “It means we will fight over what it means.”

But not in the pages of the print edition, where, as of this morning's Carr column, Google worship still rules.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

David Carr, Who Ya Gonna Call? Ranjit Mathoda!

Two weeks ago, in his "Media Equation" column about Barack Obama's effective use of social networking, David Carr needed an expert to quote who could put things into proper historical perspective. Carr called Ranjit Mathoda, who had written an essay on his blog on that very subject, and who gave Carr an insightful analysis:

“Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and money manager who blogs at “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”

Good quote! Can you blame Carr for calling Mathoda less than two weeks later, for a quote on another column? In tomorrow's "Media Equation," Mathoda makes a return appearance, this time talking about the power of Google:

“The most powerful form of advertising is to be exceptional,” said Ranjit Mathoda, an investor and technologist who blogs at “Google has created an ecosystem that perpetuates itself by being useful.”

You know what's useful? Ranjit Mathoda! One week he's a lawyer and money manager, the next he's an investor and technologist! That sort of career morphing is very handy when it comes to talking to the press on a variety of topics.

And guess what? According to Mathoda's website, he's a bunch of other things, too:

I’ve attended the University of Illinois (where I barely escaped graduating with degrees in Aeronautical Engineering, Computer Science and Economics), Babson College (where I graduated with degrees in Finance and Operations Research), and Boston College Law School (where I obtained a juris doctorate).

I worked for the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on a world trade treaty issue, at the once great law firm of Brobeck Phleger & Harrison on corporate matters, and for many years at the law firm of McGuireWoods on commercial real estate and corporate transactions. I’ve been the primary outside legal counsel to clients such as production company SekretAgent Productions and wireless startup Voce Wireless.

I paint, writes stories and poems, read about a book a day, dabble in designing clever things that may not change the world, and have spent the last year studying the world’s best investment managers in excruciating amounts of detail for purposes that will become clear in the fullness of time.

To be sure, that bio doesn't exactly explain how Mathoda has earned the various titles Carr has given him in print -- for instance, while he's clearly a lawyer, he doesn't say anything about being an investor or money manager or technologist, unless a "technologist" is a fancy word for someone with a website.

Still reporters should take note. If you need an expert quote quickly and painlessly, Mathoda's your man. Next week is probably good, because at the moment, Carr seems to prefer quoting him only every other week.

Did Charles Isherwood Ever Hear Of a Musical Called "South Pacific"?

Theater critic Charles Isherwood loves to make sweeping, categorical statements in his reviews. But it might make sense for him to think them over for a moment before publishing them in the newspaper of record -- especially when the record proves him categorically wrong.

Take, for example, his overwrought slam of plays based on novels in today's Arts & Leisure. In it, he goes up against the entire history of American theater, and loses.

There it is, right in his lede, a bold declaration that doesn't hold up to the slightest scrutiny:

Theatergoing is both my profession and a passion, but I was a book-crazed kid and remain a book-loving adult. So you might think I’d be the target audience for the books-on-stage genre, a steady staple of today’s theater.

You’d be dead wrong. Nothing bores me more reliably, and sometimes more profoundly, than stage adaptations of celebrated novels. Offhand I can’t think of a single page-to-stage transfer that really thrilled me, that came close to equaling — or even approximating — the achievement of the book.

Maybe Isherwood forgot to include the words "this season" -- though nowhere in his 1,694-word essay did he suggest that his views were limited to those productions he chose to include in his piece. As Isherwood must realize as well as anyone, the use of novels as source material has a long and distinguished history.

To be fair, Isherwood did issue the disclaimer that his recollections were "offhand." Offhand, here's just a few examples of "books-on-stage" that Isherwood may have forgotten in his rush to make a point: South Pacific, Mame, Cabaret, Oliver, Man of La Mancha, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mister Roberts.

NYT Magazine Sells Out, For No Reason

What can explain -- or excuse -- the Times Magazine's lame use of Jennifer Aniston on its cover today? It even comes with a brain-dead Q-&-A that looks like a deal was made, Vanity Fair-style, for favorable coverage in return for a photo shoot.

Strange behavior for a magazine that doesn't sell on the newsstand, or need to cater to publicists' demands, or have any editorial justification for putting a movie star on the cover of an issue devoted to television and new media. Except for brief appearances on "30 Rock" and "Dirt," Jennifer Aniston hasn't been on television since 2004!

Never mind that the entire issue -- under the intellectually rigorous title, "How We Watch Stuff" -- reeks of a desperate effort to seem relevant to readers under 30. It even includes the byline of twentysomething former Gawker editor Emily Gould, who last appeared in the magazine on its cover with an controversial essay about her blogging life. The issues balances essays by A.O. Scott (at 42 the youngest old fogey in America, who marvels at the experience of watching "It's A Wonderful Life" on his laptop) with reporting on Netflix innovators, the future of advertising and an endless thumbsucker by an editor at Wired. Something about the Internet.

Never mind, either, that the Aniston photograph on the cover has no meaning or relevance to the issue, except to remind us that the former television star still has great hair. (And, on the inside photo, great legs.)

It's the Lynn Hirschberg interview with Aniston that most seems out of place in the Times Magazine, where the editor-at-large has delivered multiple celebrities for the magazine's cover in recent years -- among them Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola, Daniel Day-Lewis and Tyra Banks. Hirschberg was once legendary as a takedown artist at Esquire and Vanity Fair; her VF hatchet job on Courtney Love inspired the Hole song, "Bring Me The Head of Lynn Hirschberg."

These days, Hirschberg functions more the way celebrity wranglers do at other magazines -- delivering movie and television stars for various Times covers, including the "T" fashion supplements where she also works.

The excuse for today's cover story seems to be that despite her ubiquity on television, Aniston doesn't devote much time to watching herself. This point gets made ironically in the two-page "photomontage" by Ruven Afanador, who shows Aniston studying photographs of herself in a museum.

Counting the cover, the magazine devotes four pages to photos of Aniston, and one to the interview itself.

As for the Q-&-A, little is learned about Aniston that couldn't be picked up from a quick look at her Wikipedia and IMDB entries.

Some of the inane Hirschberg questions that we could find answers for elsewhere -- even from just a casual perusal of Aniston profiles over the years -- included:

When did you first appear on a screen?
Did you make a lot of pilots before "Friends?"
During the huge success of "Friends," were you anxious to parlay your popularity into movies?

Others, we would simply be embarrassed to ask ourselves, unless we were writing up the interview for Tiger Beat:

If "Friends" comes on when you're home, will you watch?
Do you find TV-screen fame different from movie-screen fame?
And now you're with Owen Wilson in "Marley & Me." Did you read the book?

We won't even mention -- oh, what the hell, we will -- that Hirschberg even managed to mangle the title of Aniston's next movie, "He's Just Not That Into You." She substituted "she" for "he," but hey, what do you expect? It's the Times. They can't be expected to keep track of movie star trivia, not when they're trying to deconstruct the future of television.

The Battle For Washington Square (Is Over).

Don't believe the headline on today's City section cover story, "The Battle for Washington Square."

Yes, there once was a battle over the city's renovation of the Greenwich Village landmark -- neighbors and developers fought hard over the Parks Department's $16 million plan, announced in 2004, to move the legendary fountain, build fences and make other repairs.

But the fight has been over for months, leading one to wonder: why is the City section writing about it after the fact, yet trying to represent the situation as current? The answer lies in longtime City section editor Constance Rosenblum's ongoing, almost bizarre obsession with New York nostalgia -- with weekly cover stories that often devote more space to reflecting the past than reporting on the present.

That Washington Square battle ended in December 2007, when the courts ruled against the protesters and allowed the plans to continue -- a fact reported by the Times in its City Room blog on December 6, 2007. That story explained that the lawyer for the protesters, while unhappy with the ruling, seemed disinclined to appeal.

The Times had covered the conflict extensively over the last three years; the first story on it, by Timothy Williams, appeared on May 10, 2005 and addressed all the same issues raised in today's takeout.

But for the purposes of creating a fresh-seeming cover story, the City section has ginned up a phony conflict to cover up the fact that its reporter missed the battle while it was actually taking place.

Here's how reporter Graham Bowley finessed the point in his 2,417-word piece this morning:

In 2004, responding to what it said were numerous calls for repairs and improvements, the parks department announced a plan to renovate the space, a proposal quickly met with bitter opposition from residents who complained that their park was being violated. In December 2007, after candlelight vigils, demonstrations and rancorous fights at community board meetings and in the courts, the city won and workers began moving in.

Many people who use the square have since accepted the changes as improvements. Yet, even though the fences are due to come down next month on Phase 1 of the redesign to reveal a gleaming, newly paved central plaza with a relocated fountain, plush lawn and sculptured bushes around the fabled Washington Arch, a core group of protesters remain unconvinced and bitterly angry.

For them, the battle for Washington Square is not over. Some refuse to visit the park, or they speak out on blogs and in person to anyone who will listen. Their frustration cuts to the core of the connection to places that are important to New Yorkers and speaks powerfully to the question of who controls the public spaces that many city residents treat as personal fiefs.

“It feels to me like an injustice happened,” said [Cathryn] Swan, [a freelance public relations consultant] who vents her frustration on her blog,, and conducts tours to point out what she sees as the impact of the redesign. “We can’t let them get away with it.”

Okay, so now it starts to become clear how today's cover fits into the City Section's ongoing romance with reverie. Bowley's story doesn't chronicle the battle, but the aftermath -- the bitter, sore losers who plan to remind us regularly how the character of their park has been irrevocably altered by the changes.

As you continue through Bowley's account, you'll find just how much in the past it's set. We eventually learn that Jonathan Greenberg, an Internet entrepreneur who was one of the plan's most vocal opponents -- and who is quoted here at some length -- has since moved to California.

Cathryn Swan is the story's lede example, to whom the story devotes several paragraphs. In the lede, Bowley shows her using a tape measure to angrily show a reporter where the new fence in the park will go. We even see her posting a flyer that reads, "Stop Mayor Bloomberg from destroying Washington Square Park."

Not until nearly the last paragraph of Bowley's account does he reveal that Swan -- who lived for eight years at Hudson and Jane Streets -- now lives in Kensington, Brooklyn.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Triumph For Hillary. But What About The Hillary Haters?

The Times weighed in today with the non-news that Hillary Clinton's fans are thrilled with her new job as Secretary of State.

But how about those Democrats who swore they would never forgive Hillary for her support of the war in Iraq -- the voters who helped elect Barack Obama as President? How do they feel today about the news that their sworn political enemy has joined his administration?

That's a story the Times curiously continues to ignore in the wake of Obama's choice.

As far back as 2001, the Times chronicled the contingent of voters known as "Hillary haters" -- Democrats who, for various reasons, had sworn never to support her Presidential ambitions. A story by Allison Mitchell on January 7, 2001, first coined the term, just after she was sworn in to the Senate:

She is the most admired woman in America, according to a recent Gallup poll, beating out Oprah. She is a figure of international stature, who once lectured China about human rights. Her friends and enemies are legion -- including a phalanx of professional Hillary-haters who were happily returned to cable television the moment she was sworn in.

Raymond Hernandez, the Times reporter who covered Clinton in her role as Senator, led his December 5, 2004 analysis of Hillary's political prospects with a similar analysis:

In a race for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a problem that has dogged her since her days as first lady: an entrenched bloc of voters who simply do not like her.

And her experience as a senator in New York shows that despite vigorous campaigning around the state since taking office, she remains an extremely polarizing figure who is unable to sway these voters to her side.

One poll after another shows that roughly one of three New Yorkers has an unfavorable opinion of Mrs. Clinton, a statistic that has not changed since she took office in 2001.

Nationally, her standing is worse, even as her aides prepare for what is emerging as a possible bid for president in 2008. Roughly 4 of 10 Americans disapprove of her, according to a recent poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

The voters who disapprove of Mrs. Clinton are numerous and unshakable, and they have been around so long that they even have a name in political circles. Hillary haters.

The coverage continued through the 2008 campaign, as Times columnists and reporters regularly returned to the theme. Many Democrats disillusioned with Hillary's support of the war -- and unwillingness to denounce it with the same vehemence as Obama -- supported Obama as a result.

How do they feel now that Obama has reached out to his rival to run his foreign policy? You won't learn the answer from the Times.

Instead, the paper has focused its energy on the easier stories. Jodi Kantor's roundup of interviews today with the usual suspects (Gloria Steinem, Christine Quinn, and other friends and supporters of Hillary) took the obvious tack of reporting that women continue to thrill at Hillary's power. Tomorrow's Times has a page-one story by Elisabeth Bumiller detailing the political machinations behind the deal.

Valid stories? Yes. Surprising stories? No.

It would be more insightful -- if more challenging -- to now ask anti-Clinton Democrats, who took to the streets only three weeks ago in joy over Obama's election, how they feel about four years of Hillary in the Obama cabinet. Or go even deeper and find out whether Obama's own advisers feel betrayed by his decision to embrace his rival. It's a harder story to pull off, but a more important one for our new President to read as he works to balance his hopes against political realities in the weeks ahead.

Is The NYT Paperback Best-Seller List "Rigged"?

Take a look at this Sunday's nonfiction paperback bestseller list in the Book Review section and you'll see one book that doesn't belong.

Hint: It's not by Barack Obama.

Making its debut at #20 this week is Ben Mezrich's "Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai," published by Harper Perennial.

The book had some brief success in the fall of 2007, when the hardcover came out; the story of the formation of the Dubai Mercantile Exchange landed on the Times's extended best-seller list. What makes its appearance notable now is that the book doesn't show any signs at the moment of being anything close to a best-selling book.

The paperback came out on August 12 -- more than three months ago, an eternity in book publishing -- and has made a few recent appearances on the Times's extended paperback bestseller list, as it climbed to #25 last week before landing on the landing on the published list in tomorrow's Book Review.

But who's buying it, and where? The Times's sales figures don't match up to anyone else's list.

A check of the two largest Internet book retailers shows that the paperback isn't selling well at either. Amazon ranks "Rigged" at #54,394 on its list; the other 19 books on the list range in rank from #8 (Obama's "Audacity of Hope," number-one on the NYT list) to #687 (Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up," now in 14th place). Barnes & Noble doesn't report any better sales, putting "Rigged" at #17,120 on its list.

While there's often a slight discrepancy between Internet sales and the NYT bestseller list (which weights independent stores, supermarkets, etc) there's rarely such a substantial gap between Amazon figures and the Times list. It's worth noting that this week, all other 19 books on the Times's paperback bestseller list -- except Mezrich's -- have sales in the top 1,000 of Amazon's bestsellers.

How could this have happened? Sometimes books get a sudden spike from news events, and Mezrich's book is based in a part of the world that generates headlines almost constantly. But a check of news reports in recent weeks finds no mention of Mezrich or his book, making that scenario unlikely. Nor do there seem to have been any Mezrich interviews or developments that suggest a sudden run on his book.

Here's how the Times explains the methodology behind its nonfiction paperback best-seller list:

Rankings reflect sales, for the week ending Nov. 15, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of general interest books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. An asterisk (*) indicates that a book’s sales are barely distinguishable from those of the book above. A dagger (†) indicates that some bookstores report receiving bulk orders.

Curiously, Mezrich has himself written about the manipulation of markets in his nonfiction previous books. Most famously, Mezrich's "Bringing Down The House" told the story of a group of MIT students who used a sophisticated card-counting system to
win millions in Las Vegas casinos. (That book became the basis of the movie "21.")

Earlier this year, both Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe reported that Mezrich may have invented scenes and characters in that book, which was labelled nonfiction and itself ended up on the Times's best-seller list.

More recently, Mezrich attracted attention for his plans to write about the fight over the origins of Facebook; that book, which has yet to be published, has already been optioned by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who's writing a Facebook movie.

For Christmas: The Isaac Mizrahi Times Tote Bag, Or The Barack Obama Commemorative Coffee Mug.

Want to carry the bag that screams "PRINT IS DYING!" over your shoulder this holiday season?

The clearest signs yet of the Times's desperation -- remember, it has nearly $400 million in debts to pay to banks by spring, to avoid a worsening of its already-precarious fiscal condition -- come not from news of layoffs or its depressed stock price, but in the form of ads for new Times Store products in this morning's paper.

One is for a "New York Times Limited-Edition Tote Bag," designed by Isaac Mizrahi. This "practical and stylish" overnight case comes with a New York Times Store label (guaranteed to depress your friends) and a card indicating the bag's individual number. We're told that Mizrahi took his inspiration from the colors used by architect Renzo Piano in his design of the new Times headquarters on 8th Avenue. (That's the building they may have to sell their stake in soon to raise more capital.)

It costs $249.95, and remember -- only three totes per customer! A matching Mizrahi Times scarf can be yours for only $124.95. Perfect for tying around your neck in a desperate suicide attempt when your Times stock drops to nothing.

An entire page of Barack Obama memorabilia is also available in the Times store -- framed front pages ($199), bound commemorative editions ($89) and a framed photograph of Obama from the campaign trail, autographed by Times photographer Damon Winter ($689).

For those of us on a limited Obama gift-giving budget this holiday season, the Times offers a pair of sleek white mugs with a reproduction of the "Obama" election-day front page on the side, for only $24.95.

And remember, if you buy one, you're doing your part to save the American newspaper industrty. The Times needs to sell only 100 million mugs to wipe out one of its bank credit obligations.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Clyde Haberman Columns.

The MTA's likely service cuts and fare hike has put Times metro columnist Clyde Haberman in a rather morose mood. This has made the highly philosophical Haberman prone to some dark pronouncements this morning.

After launching his Friday NYC column by saying that some New Yorkers call the proposal a "doomsday scenario," he goes on to describe the current New York City transit situation this way:

So now we know what doomsday looks like for New York. It looks an awful lot like an ordinary weekend.

For several years, New Yorkers who ride the subways on Saturday and Sunday have had a sneak preview of what hell (assuming it exists) has in store for them. It means traveling through eternity on trains that don’t go where they are supposed to, or that don’t go at all, or that skip stations, or that stop well short of their normal terminuses and force people to board unfamiliar shuttle buses.

Traveling through eternity! That must be a reference to the L line.

Then, after conjecturing that subway and bus fares will rise to $2.50, Haberman presents this disturbing metaphor:

An image forms of the damned fellow in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on a wall of the Sistine Chapel. His face is contorted as demons drag him to his fate in the nether regions. He is horrified. He also knows nothing can save him.

Hmmm, think he's referring there to the Chambers Street platform at 8:40 a.m. last Tuesday, when Jesus Christ stopped trains in both directions for a "police action."

Next Haberman turns to the MTA's board meeting on Thursday, when ordinary New Yorkers were invited to speak out about the proposed cuts. The meeting, Haberman said in typically understated tones, "might have been a torchlight-and-pitchfork moment for fed-up New Yorkers." Instead, it was only such a moment for Haberman himself.

The columnist's deep, dark pessimism extended to the prospect that Richard Ravitch, a former MTA chairman, might offer some solution to the system's problems. "Mr. Ravitch and his anticipated recommendations were repeatedly invoked by board members on Thursday," Haberman wrote, "as if he were Moses preparing to deliver the Ten Commandments to his people." Let's hope Moses didn't take the F train to the Promised Land, after midnight, when it turns into the G train.

Then, in a final blast of existential woe, Haberman writes:

Waiting for Ravitch. With so much at stake, everyone can only hope that it doesn’t turn out to be equivalent to the pointless waiting for Guffman or for Godot.

Or, worst of all, waiting for the M101 bus.

John Broder's Word Choices Devastatingly Ineffective

In reporting Representative Henry Waxman's win yesterday over Representative John Dingell for an important committee chairmanship, John M. Broder went a little wooly over the result.

Here's the second paragraph of Broder's page-one piece this morning, which Waxman is currently having framed and mounted over his mantle:

Mr. Waxman, 69, of California, who mounted a quiet but devastatingly effective two-week campaign against his longtime Democratic colleague, won the chairmanship with a 137-to-122 vote in the Democratic Caucus.

What exactly was so quiet about it? Several major stories reported on the battle, including a page-one piece by Broder on November 16 that then described the campaign as a "nasty intramural brawl."

The Wall Street Journal's Greg Hitt had previously done a extensive takeout on the fight on November 10.

Maybe it was "quiet" in the sense that Waxman didn't debate Dingell in prime time, or criss-cross the country in search of votes. His spokeswoman did tell the Times that he didn't want to wage his campaign in the media. But no one in a position to care -- let alone vote -- wasn't aware of Waxman's vigorous and public challenge of Dingell for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, considered one of the most powerful in Congress.

And "devastatingly effective" seems a bit of bombast to describe a victory decided by 15 votes. "Successful" or "winning" might have sufficed.

Rewriting History on the Times Website

The Times apparently now corrects mistakes in its online archive by simply rewriting old stories, without indicating what was changed to "repair" its reportorial errors.

For example, in a page one story in Thursday's Times, reporters Peter Baker and Helene Cooper wrote definitively that Penny Pritzker, a Chicago businesswoman and Obama fundraiser, "was in the final stages of vetting for Commerce Secretary." That information was attributed, vaguely, to "Democrats with knowledge of the process."

(As an aside, is party affiliation really a relevant attribute of a source? Shouldn't there be a clearer distinction whether the source works in the executive or legislative branch, or as part of the transition team?)

On Thursday Pritzer stepped forward to say that she would not be a candidate for the job. An extensive recap in Friday's Times, by Charlie Savage, outlined the many potential pitfalls that might have surrounded a Pritzker nomination, in connection with her business holdings.

So what happened? Were the Times reporters misled, or misused, by their source? Or did they simply make a mistake? Not only will we never know, but future readers of the Baker-Cooper story online will never even know about that story's mistake.

Now, when you read that Thursday story online, it has been "updated" to reflect the latest developments:

One candidate for a cabinet position has taken herself out of the running. Penny Pritzker, a Chicago businesswoman and national finance chairman of the Obama campaign, was thought in the final stages of vetting for commerce secretary when she withdrew from consideration on Thursday.

By adding the single word "thought," some Times editor has altered the story significantly, and removed any responsibility for the Times's inaccurate reporting. Instead the story now suggests some kind of false consensus behind the Pritzker nomination that she halted with her withdrawal.

Even Savage's story this morning dispels that notion -- the headline now refers to Pritzker's possible nomination as "rumors." But he does so only in passing, deep in his story, and without any real explanation of what really happened:

It was not clear why [Pritzker] put out the statement on Thursday, but some news outlets, including The New York Times, reported late Wednesday night that she was in the final stages of being vetted. An Obama transition spokesman said Thursday that those accounts were incorrect.

The Times has apparently decided that it can use its website to wipe clean any record of its earlier error. (Fortunately, The Nytpicker keeps the print edition handy for precisely this reason.)

But is that appropriate? Shouldn't readers of the Times have access to how the paper reported developments at the time, and then see the path from mistake to correction to truth? By adding words to old stories that change their original intention, readers are robbed of the record -- and for a newspaper that calls itself "the newspaper of record," that seems itself a serious mistake.

Also, today's story should have owned up better to its previous mistake. Readers depend heavily on the reporting of transition correspondents Baker and Cooper for news about the new Obama government. They need fuller explanations of how that information is gathered, and when -- not to mention why -- it turns out to be false. Otherwise there's an unfair gap between what reporters know and what readers believe.

As is often the case, the dependence on anonymous sources has yet again led the Times into an error. It's time for the paper to correct and explain its record on the Pritzker story.

Update: Apparently, Americans Do Fear The Economy. Check Back Later For More Updates.

Jack Healy, the Times reporter who reported that bizarre quote mentioned below from analyst Ryan Detrick about Americans and fear, has done an about-face in the last 12 hours -- and in the paper's lead story on page one.

Healy has dropped the Detrick quote and instead (with reporter Vikaj Bajaj) quotes an analyst making the exact opposite point. In fact, the entire thesis of today's lead story derives from the notion that the markets are consumed by fear. Consider the lede:

As a new bout of fear gripped the financial markets, stocks fell sharply again on Thursday, continuing a months-long plunge that has wiped out the gains of the last decade.

So Americans are afraid! That's what we thought.

Healy has replaced his Detrick quote with one that better fits his new thesis:

“This is a response to real fear,” said Marc D. Stern, chief investment officer at Bessemer Trust, an investment firm in New York. “We each have to look inside and say, is the fear warranted?”

It's worth recalling that FDR's famous "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" line came from his first Inaugural address in 1933, and in response to widespread fears among American who had lived through four years of a brutal economic collapse. It might make sense for reporters like Healy and Bajaj to give some serious thought to the role of fear in fueling the markets, fore blithely inserting conflicting opinions about it in their daily updates.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Quote Of The Day, So Far...

This baffling quote just appeared in Jack Healy's roundup of bad news in the markets, posted six minutes ago on Anybody know what the hell this guy Ryan Detrick is talking about?

And a new report that jobless claims had crested to their highest levels in 16 years reminded investors that the frail economy continues to weaken.

“We think it’s going to continue to go lower,” said Ryan Detrick of Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “We don’t think people are scared enough. They’re just not showing enough fear. People are numb to this, they’re almost immune to it.”

Ryan Detrick really needs to get out more.

Everyone we know is scared to death of this economy. And no one we know is immune.

Henry Blodget: Deal Or No Deal!

On his Silicon Valley Insider website today, former Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget -- who in July offered to buy the Times's digital operations for $1 billion -- has reduced his offer to $400 million.

Blodget's original bid was bold and serious: he proposed that the Times buy him out, and then spin off both his company and NYT Digital in a plan that would bypass the need for shareholder approvals. Perhaps it seemed like a joke to Times management at the time, but now that the stock has dropped from $12 (when he pitched his plan) to $6 (at this moment) maybe it's worth taking more seriously.

Here were the two main components of the original Blodget proposal:

#1. Sign a contract with you that allows us to reprint all New York Times content for three years. This will give us some time to build our own news organization, one unencumbered by the various cultural, economic, and contractual baggage that is currently preventing you (and other papers) from saving yourselves.

#2. Immediately make offers to the 20% of your journalists and editors that we think can make the transition to digital (24/7 real-time blogging). These folks won't be hard to find, given that some of them are writing excellent blogs already. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, Floyd Norris, David Carr, Joe Nocera, Gretchen Morgenson, Brian Stelter, Saul Hansell, Paul Krugman, Landon Thomas, and a few dozen other folks jump to mind.) By the way, we don't mind if these folks continue to distribute their stuff in the paper, too, so don't worry about losing them. In fact, that would be great exposure for us.

The appeal of Blodget's plan, in part, was that it represented a 33% premium over the value of the entire New York Times, just for the website. He even had a means to make the plan work without legal fees or shareholder approval:

We'll agree to let you acquire us for, say, $100 million of New York Times stock. Then, in a simultaneous closing, you can spin us and New York Times Digital out as a separate public company--via a special dividend to shareholders. (You can load us up with enough debt to make the numbers work, and then we'll convert it to equity).

Blodget's offer may have been tongue-in-cheek, but his perceptions of the Times's dire straits have been dead-on. He has posted regularly about the company's cash crisis -- the fact that its bank credit lines are in jeopardy as the stock price plummets and the company's assets decline in value. Like many, Blodget worries that the Times may have so mismanaged its current business that it won't survive the next six months.

That's why, with the stock dropping by the minute -- as this post is being written at 3:50 p.m., the stock has reached a new low of $5.74 a share -- Blodget implores Times management to maximize the value of its greatest asset, its website.

"So how about it, Janet and Arthur?" Blodget wrote in July. "$1 Billion. More than a third of the current enterprise value of your entire company--just for the web site! You get to keep the paper, the building, the Red Sox, the Boston Globe. It's the deal of a lifetime!"

Maybe not the deal of a lifetime at today's offer of just $400 million, but it might be worth considering before Blodget drops the price yet again. Or before the Times declares bankruptcy.

Failing Home Journalism

Two days ago, in the website feature "Talk to the Newsroom," Times home reporter Penelope Green defended herself against a reader who charged that Home section stories focus mostly on people "at the top of the economic ladder."

"We do try to explore the experience of home at all levels," Green replied, "not just the high end."

But Green's 1895-word cover story in today's Home section proves the reader's point. The piece, "Failing Home Economics," addresses the ways Americans have struggled with the economic downturn, and have been forced to figure out ways to effectively cut costs.

Here's who Green writes about:

--Jill Andresky Fraser, a New York-based financial journalist and author (who has previously written for the Times herself), wondering whether she should have bought $7 artichoke hearts at an overpriced Upper West Side grocery.

--Rick Angres, a screenwriter in the affluent city of Santa Monica, California, pondering the disproportionate amount of money he spends on lilies and orchids.

--Carol Prisant, American editor of The World of Interiors Magazine, who wonders whether she should have recently spent $500 for two oyster-colored dog beds.

--Richard Winkler, an executive producer at Curious Pictures, a television production company in Manhattan, who is so upset with hidden charges on his Verizon bill that he may soon drop premium channels from his cable menu.

--Terence Lance Buckley, a Manhattan public relations executive who just spent $400 on an electric fireplace, to help cut his monthly heating costs.

A professor of behavioral economics at MIT also shared with Green the example of the student who, numb from the meaning of a $40,000 drop in the value of his stock portfolio, just went out and spent $4,000 on a mountain bike.

How, in light of her response to the complaining reader this week, does Green justify her narrow focus today on the spending habits of a privileged few? Surely she knows that her examples hardly reflect the real dilemmas facing fixed income workers around the country -- or even this city -- as they make painful choices in order to survive the current crisis.

How did Green end up with this mix? A reporter getting an interview with a public relations executive doesn't represent much of a challenge. Two writers and an editor? Given that Green has been both, these likely came from personal connections. And he fact that Fraser has appeared in the Times before -- as both a writer and an anecdotal quote -- should have disqualified her, but didn't.

And can anyone figure out how a reporter from the Home section might have gotten an interview with an editor of an interiors magazine?

But the issue here isn't just Green's laziness.

To readers -- if not to Green and her editors -- it's that the trials and tribulations of screenwriters, publicists, TV producers and editors seem trivial by contrast to the real world problems of New Yorkers who can't figure out how to make ends meet.

The Worst Lede Of The Day...

goes to William Yardley for this inscrutable summary atop his report on the first press conference of Alaska Senator-elect Mark Begich:

Irascible will be out. Approachable will be in. That oil drilling and federal earmarks? They will still be a go.

If you happen to keep going, you'll get lost in the maze of clauses that comprise his incomprehensible second paragraph:

Alaska’s senator-elect, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, held a news conference in Anchorage on Wednesday, the morning after he unseated the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, Ted Stevens, and promised to be more of a listener and a consensus builder than he said Mr. Stevens had often been.

Maybe Yardley got so tongue tied in homage to Begich himself, whose own comments could use a bit of explaining.

“What I want to do,” [Begich] said, “is repackage some of the messaging of what we have here that will have an impact on this country.”

Yes, some repackaging of that message is definitely in order.

Study Finds That Internet Socializing Is A Form Of Internet Socializing

In Tamar Lewin's report on a MacArthur Foundation study of Internet socializing, we learn that kids today know how to use the Internet, like, really really well.

After promising "good news for worried parents" in her lede, Lewin concedes -- in the third paragraph -- that "the study, conducted from 2005 to last summer, describes new-media usage but does not measure its effects." Well, if they didn't measure its effects, then how do they know parents have nothing to worry about?

But the study's author does offer this conclusion from the research: kids who use the Internet seem to know more about how to use the Internet than kids once did.

“It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it’s on MySpace or sending instant messages,” said Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, “Living and Learning With New Media.” “But their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.”

And what about those pesky parents? According to the $50 million study, their attempts to control their kids' use of the Internet don't work any better than the Cleavers' efforts to clamp down on misbehavior by Wally and the Beaver.

Because of the adult sense that socializing on the Internet is a waste of time, the study said, teenagers reported many rules and restrictions on their electronic hanging out, but most found ways to work around such barriers that let them stay in touch with their friends steadily throughout the day.

Ito even goes so far as to speculate that based on her observations -- Ito's researchers interviewed "more than 800 students and their parents" -- fears of predators and other dangers are "overblown." And how does she know that? Lewin doesn't let on, but hey -- it's the MacArthur Foundation. They're geniuses, kinda.

Anyway, Lewin tries to back up the study by going to a Bronx classroom to confirm the "findings." Remarkably, no one confesses to her that they are "obsessed" with the Internet.

So how does Lewin learn so much from a study that offers no specific information about the impact of the Internet? She turns to experts, of course. And they tell her that the theory sounds pretty reasonable to them.

“It certainly rings true that new media are inextricably woven into young people’s lives,” said Vicki Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of its program for the study of media and health. “Ethnographic studies like this are good at describing how young people fit social media into their lives. What they can’t do is document effects. This highlights the need for larger, nationally representative studies.”

It rings true! That sounds pretty scientific.

But Rideout's right about one thing. The study highlights the need for more study. And Lewin's article highlights the need for less dependence by journalists on studies that reveal nothing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Shame On You, Barry Gewen

It slipped into view but will not soon be forgotten -- Barry Gewen's offensive and uncalled-for attack today on the reputation of one of the great journalists of the 20th century, I.F. Stone, using no less inflammatory a device than Adolph Hitler as his weapon.

Gewen, an editor at the Times Book Review, took Harvard University to task on the Times's "Paper Cuts" blog for naming a journalism award after Stone. Casting aside Stone's legendary reputation as a muckraking journalist who fought the Vietnam War and McCarthyism with equal fervor, Gewen disqualifies Stone for one reason: his argument that Stone failed to attack the fascist rule of Soviet leader Josef Stalin until three years after his death, in 1956.

To hear Gewen tell it, that negates the enormous achievements of Stone's career. But when you think about it, Gewen's single-minded thinking is itself a McCarthyist tactic -- holding patriots like Stone wrongly accountable for their belief in the ideals of a political movement that failed them.

Gewen's argument ignores the landmark contributions of "I.F. Stone's Weekly," his self-published journal that made its mark by being the first to investigate, and challenge, Lyndon Johnson's use of the Gulf of Tonkin incident to incite the war in Vietnam. It bypasses Stone's extensive use of government documents (he famously read the Congressional Record every day) to uncover wrongdoing and fraud. It denies Stone's enormous influence over an entire generation of young journalists -- including a former intern, Carl Bernstein, who went on to bring down a president for the Washington Post.

But most important, it allows readers of the Times to think that the newspaper condones the summary judgement of a man's career by one decision made early and in error. Likening Stone's support of Stalin to Martin Heidegger's Nazi leanings does a gross injustice to Stone and to the Times itself.

Here is how Gewen uses the Hitler-Heidegger connection to launch his specious argument against Stone:

Like millions of others, I have long been troubled by the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s political associations: he was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler and, for a while at least, a member of the Nazi Party. Shelves of books have tried to work through the connection between his thought and his politics, and though I personally don’t have any easy answers, what I do know is that as much as I value his ideas, I would never praise him for his “spirit of independence, integrity, courage and indefatigability,” or be happy to see a major educational institution name an award in philosophy after him. These thoughts came to me when I learned that the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has recently established an I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Heidegger, a German philosopher, joined the Nazi Party in the 1930s and supported Hitler through the entirety of World War II, making public speeches on his behalf. As the rector, and later, member of the faculty at the University of Freiberg, his endorsement of National Socialism was definitive and influential. (It's worth noting that Stone was actively opposed to Hitler's rise in the 1930s.)

People who drag Hitler and the Nazi movement into their arguments never deserve to win -- it's dropping a live grenade into a civilized debate. And to liken a Nazi like Heidegger to am idealistic left-wing American journalist (and make no mistake, Gewen wants you to think of them in the same breath) is a narrow-minded and mistaken attack unworthy of the Times.

A Loony Editorial

The Times has gone a little moonstruck.

In an editorial today called "The Moon View," The Times waxes eloquent on the recently restored photo from NASA that shows a view of the Earth taken from Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. After explaining a bit about the restoration of the photo -- which added new dimensions to the moon's surface, and shifted the cloud patterns -- the writer goes on to riff on the changed physical appearance of Earth.

Yes, that's right. In the last 42 years, Earth has aged. Or maybe the writer of the editorial is projecting a little?

What is most evocative is the awareness that this is our planet in 1966, which feels like a very long time ago. A train of thought immediately presents itself. If scientists can recover extensive new information from old electronic data, shouldn’t there be some way to peer beneath those clouds, back in time, and see how this planet looked when it had only half its current population?

It is probably not possible to say that one Earth is ever more innocent than another. And yet there is a feeling of innocence hanging over that beclouded planet, which was just about to get the first glimpse of itself from the Moon.

Who knows, maybe the Times is right, and Earth looks a little less innocent, more world weary after the abuses of the last four decades.

But from where we sit, even with nearly seven billion inhabitants, the Earth still seems in pretty good shape. It may be 4.5 billion years old, but really, it doesn't look a day over 4.4 billion.

Who Is David Cole, And Why Does The Times Quote Him So Much?

There's a fascinating, peculiar piece buried in the business section today, debunking a recently-cited statistic by bailout supporters -- that the beleaguered auto industry should be saved because it supports one in 10 American jobs.

Kudos to the Times for doing a little nitpicking itself. It's right; the statistic comes from old numbers no longer valid in the current climate.

But the piece unwittingly raises questions about the Times's ongoing and inappropriate dependence on an auto-industry-supported research group for analysis of the ailing American car business -- and, in particular, on its chairman, David Cole.

Today's story was written by Catherine Rampell, who contributes to the Times's "Economix" blog and who first published these findings there on Monday. It casts doubt on figures attributed to the Center for Automotive Research. In her Monday blog post -- though not in the version published in the print edition today -- Rampell offers links to several stories in the Detroit News, Washington Post and other reputable news organizations that used the figure.

Rampell points out, correctly, that the study uses data from 1998 to 2001, and also lumps in jobs that wouldn't be eliminated even if a car company went bankrupt -- for example, jobs in the car-wash industry.

But what Rampell doesn't address in her story -- nor do the multitude of Times reporters who cover the car industry -- is her paper's own dependence for information on the source of that data. It came from the Center for Automotive Research (CAR!) in Ann Arbor, a "nonprofit research group" that, in fact, gets its funding in part from its ties to the industry it studies. Its stated mission, as noted on the Guidestar website that tracks nonprofit groups, makes it clear that the center depends on the auto industry's survival for its own.


But only occasionally will the Times temper its mentions of the group with caveats such as the one that appeared in Rampell's story this morning, which mentions its "ties to labor and government." Most stories identify it only as a nonprofit research firm, failing to add that some of its funding comes from sources within the industry, such as labor unions and trade groups.

And while the group doesn't acknowledge getting money from the auto companies themselves, who else would benefit from its development of new automotive manufacturing technologies?

The center has been cited in 137 different Times stories since 2001, most of them quoting David Cole -- who has been variously identified by Times reporters as its "director," "executive director," "president," "chairman" and "head." (CAR's website give his title as "chairman.") Cole, an engineer and Ph.D. who holds an academic position at the University of Michigan, has close ties to the industry; his father was a manager at Chevrolet, and his long list of credentials includes work in automotive design and marketing.

But these days, Cole's full-time task appears to be as a commentator on the auto industry for reporters in need of a quote -- especially at the Times. He's certainly a knowledgeable source, having worked alongside auto executives for years. But is he an objective analyst of the auto business, given his dependence on its survival for his own?

Twice since Saturday, Times reporters have quoted Cole on auto-industry problems.

Last Sunday, Katie Thomas put a Cole quote in the third paragraph of her story on the potential trickle-down effect of the auto industry's problems on the world of sports:

But as G.M. faces a financial crisis that has executives pleading with Congress for a federal bailout, many are wondering how far the company’s troubles will extend into the sports industry, which is already struggling to attract advertisers and sponsors in a weakened economy.

“It’s one of those trickle-down effects that people don’t look at,” said David E. Cole, the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit research organization. “It has already hit hard.”

This Tuesday, Detroit bureau chief Bill Vlasic quoted Cole in his piece on beleaguered GM chief Rick Wagoner. This time, Cole's quotes landed him the coveted kicker spot -- in large part because of Cole's three decade-long relationship with Wagoner. In Vlasic's story, the reader is given no information about the center, or Cole, aside from the name and title.

If Mr. Wagoner cannot sway Congress this week to come to G.M.’s aid, the company will be forced to hang on until President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January and presents his own auto bailout strategy.

“That might be the most rational approach, to see what type of plan Mr. Obama and the new Congress will take,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Mr. Cole, who has known Mr. Wagoner for nearly 30 years, said he hopes that any decision on his future with G.M. is not taken lightly by officials in Washington.

“I hope they take a deep look at what G.M. has done to fix its business, make an assessment, and then pass judgment,” he said. “Knowing Rick, whatever is best for the company is what he will do.”

On November 8, Vlasic quoted Cole in support of the bailout plan -- again, with no background given to inform readers of his point of view, or qualifications to comment -- aside from his title atop an official-sounding organization.

About three million American jobs are directly tied to the Detroit automakers, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A federal bailout, Mr. Cole said, is essential to prevent the rippling economic impact of a failure of one or more of the Detroit companies.

“The bottom line here is that on a cash basis, the cost of keeping these guys going is less than the cost of a collapse,” Mr. Cole said.

This isn't to suggest that Cole isn't qualified to comment on the car industry or its problems. Clearly he brings knowledge and experience to conversations with reporters, making him an indispensable source in times of crisis.

But the Times ought to give its readers some perspective when quoting industry sources, particularly ones whose incomes derive from the very business they tout. Cole -- and the Center for Automotive Research -- ought to be more properly identified when given a platform in the Times to comment on the car business. With the endless cacophony of opinions and ideas at play right now, readers need all the help they can get in sorting through the coverage.


Here's an interesting footnote on Catherine Rampell, whose first New York Times byline appeared in August of 2008.

Rampell, who wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post before joining the Times, was a columnist for the Daily Princetonian in March of 2007 when she wrote a prescient piece called "True Confessions of an Obamaniac." In it, Rampell said that when asked in job interviews who she liked in the 2008 presidential field, she replied:

"Right now, I support Barack Obama, and for entirely irrational reasons."

This certainly didn't win me any points. Instead, it elicited some nervous, somewhat disapproving laughter, as they waited for me to redact the comment. But, I had told the truth.

Rampell went on to explain her position, and even acknowledged the potential problem of a prospective journalist supporting a specific candidate:

My recent job interviewers may have looked down on me for confessing to my irrational, pro-Obama bias when I claim to be a rational, objective journalist. But I suspect they — if they're reading any of the same publications that I do, anyway — might be affected by the same foolish affliction. And the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

The second step is to stop writing about it in newspapers.