Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kudos to Larry Penner Of Great Neck, On Your Letter To The Editor Today -- That's 46!

With today's editorial-page missive on transit-fare increases, Larry Penner of Great Neck, N.Y. reaches a new personal milestone -- it's his 46th letter published in the Times in less than ten years!

In the wake of last week's Times publication of a fake letter from the Mayor of Paris, Penner's ability to land his opinions on the Times's editorial page so often reveals yet another lax standard in paper's letters department.

Or do they just like the idea of limiting the views expressed in the paper to a tiny handful of regulars?

Maybe. Today's page also includes a letter from Joe Martin in Seattle, his eighth; Andrew Ludasi of East Windsor, N.J., his fifth; four letters from writers with one previous letter published, and only three letters from first-time correspondents.

Penner's letter-writing career in the Times began on April 14, 1999, noting the technological changes in the media then altering the newspaper business:

Many more people are now receiving their news from the Internet; others are tuning in to allnews radio and television news stations. Even more may be using cable television channels that provide the fast-breaking news that tends to become stale by the time it reaches print.

How true! Perhaps buoyed by his prescience, Penner kept those cards and letters coming. The next month -- on May 23, 1999 -- he got his second letter published, a defense of Staten Island. On August 13, 1999, the Times printed a third Penner letter, this one on Republican politics. A fourth letter appeared on October 22, 1999 addressed public funding for stadiums.

Penner was clearly on a roll! In 2000, the Times printed seven more letters from Penner -- five on the editorial page, and one in the business section. After a letterless lull in 2001, Penner picked up the pace in 2002 (3 letters).

Penner has done well ever since, though a particular high point had to be the period between March 30 and April 13, 2003 -- when, in less than a month, he had three separate letters published in the Times on different topics!

The Times has always tended to bundle Penner's opinions close together. Who can forget the Labor Day weekend in 2004, when it published a Penner letter about Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday, September 2 -- and then another Penner letter about Hillary Clinton the following Sunday, September 5?

But hey -- 2004 was a banner year for Penner, who had ten letters published that year, a personal best.

Today's letter marks Penner's sixth for 2008. Larry, here's wishing you a happy, healthy New Year with lots of fresh, succinct new opinions on important matters.

Nicholas Confessore And Jeremy W. Peters Want Kennedy To Be More, Well, Kennedy-Like.

Why has the Times turned so aggressively on Caroline Kennedy? What began as a swooning love affair has turned into near-daily diatribes about her lack of passion, her reticence, and her failure to live up to the abstract expectations that have guided its coverage of her candidacy.

Today's story, "For Kennedy, Self-Promotion Is Unfamiliar," by Nicholas Confessore and Jeremy W. Peters, sinks to a new low in placing impossible demands on Kennedy, an admitted political novice. At one point it actually holds her accountable for not reacting more audibly to the sight of Kennedy family photos at a political meeting in Rochester:

When Ms. Kennedy visited the Democratic headquarters in Rochester recently, local officials ushered her eagerly into a conference area known as the Kennedy Room, decorated with pictures of her father, her mother, her younger brother, and Ms. Kennedy herself as a little girl. Ms. Kennedy, while polite, did not appear particularly moved.

“She never responded to the pictures,” recalled Robert Duffy, the mayor of Rochester and the meeting’s host. “She looked and perhaps nodded. She never said a word about it.”


What was Kennedy supposed to do? Launch into anecdotes about hiding under the President's desk? Weep uncontrollably at the sight of her dead family's photos? It seems obvious that Kennedy has had to deal with the unexpected presence of family images throughout her life, and has learned to keep her responses private -- as they should be.

But that won't do for the Times. The paper wants her to behave in a manner that conforms more closely to its expectations of her -- that is, more like the charismatic Kennedy image projected by her father. Anything short of that represents a political liability, if not a personal failure:

Others pointed out that Ms. Kennedy was also laboring under a colossal weight of expectations. Some people seem to expect her to be more, well, Kennedyesque — gregarious and extroverted. But Ms. Kennedy’s own political style seems to have more in common with that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once held Mrs. Clinton’s seat: cerebral, restrained, wry.

In an age when flamboyant displays of warmth and empathy seem almost like an obligatory feature of campaigning, Ms. Kennedy simply seems to prefer keeping her feelings to herself.


But if that's because Kennedy is campaigning for the vote of only one man -- Governor David Paterson -- then perhaps she should have realized sooner that she should also have been campaigning for Confessore's support. He, David Halbfinger and Jeremy W. Peters have focused their coverage almost exclusively on Kennedy's weaknesses, her failures and her flubs.

In today's story, the reporters go so far as to compare her unfavorably with Hillary Clinton, whose seat she hopes to hold.

"And many described [Kennedy's] approach as striking for someone who is not only seeking a high office, but one held by Hillary Rodham Clinton," they wrote, "who in her own first bid for the Senate never left New Yorkers wondering how badly she wanted the job, and how hard she was willing to work to get it."

That seems to be the crux of the Times's argument against Kennedy: that she doesn't want the job enough, or at least act as though she wants it. That has been a continuing theme in Times stories in recent days, and reappeared yet again as the concluding note in today's story:

Ms. Kennedy’s whirlwind introduction has raised some doubts about her temperament and political hunger. One person who discussed the Senate job with Ms. Kennedy, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of retribution from her supporters, said that she did not convey a thirst for the job, adding, “It was hard to discern if she wants this or if she’s doing this out of a sense of duty.”

Why do Confessore, Halbfinger and Peters keep pushing the same point? It almost seems as though they want drive Kennedy out of the race, or ruin her chances of getting Paterson's approval -- perhaps to demonstrate the influence of the Times in New York State politics. Or are they just miffed that Kennedy hasn't more fully answered their silly questions about her motives, or their premature questions about financial disclosure?

They, and others, cannot seem to wrap their minds around the fact that Kennedy has not spent the last two decades as a full-time political animal, honing her glad-handing skills and practicing her Kennedyesque charm. Instead she has been busy raising a family, working on causes and writing books. There's a sexist undertone to these articles, implying some sort of character flaw in her lack of an aggressive nature.

“She’s never been aggressive,” Maura Moynihan, a friend and college classmate of Ms. Kennedy’s and the daughter of the senator, told the Times. “She’s never been an egomaniac. She’s never pushed her way before the cameras.” That makes her an unusual kind of Kennedy -- and, perhaps, a welcome one.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

John McCain's Lobbyist "Friend" Sues NYT For $27 Million Over Alleged Defamation.

If Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman wins her lawsuit against the Times over its February 2008 story about her alleged relationship with John McCain, maybe the company should just give her the Boston Globe.

Iseman -- the focus of a blockbuster Times story that intimated the possibility of a romantic relationship between the Senator and the lobbyist -- has filed a $27 million defamation suit against the Times in U.S. District Court in Richmond. The suit names executive editor Bill Keller, Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, and the four bylined reporters on the piece: Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, Stephen Labaton and David D. Kirkpatrick. (Thompson has since gone to work for The Washington Post.)

The 3,026-word story ran on February 21, and focused on the fact that McCain aides were troubled by the Senator's close ties to Iseman in 1999, when she was a telecommunications-industry lobbyist and McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee. The Times went so far as to publish this denial of any romantic relationship in the fourth paragraph:

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

But the damage was done, and considered so severe that it inspired much debate in the media community over the propriety of the investigation. Three days later, Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt weighed in with harsh criticism of the piece, and the Times's handling of the story:

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

“In their attack on Senator McCain, the [defendants] were willing to sacrifice Ms. Iseman as acceptable collateral damage, recklessly indifferent to the avalanche of scorn, derision and ridicule Ms. Iseman would suffer,” the lawsuit charges.

The lawsuit includes this sordid depiction by Iseman's lawyers, of the damage done by the article to Iseman's reputation and mental health:

To be portrayed as someone who would engage in an inappropriate romantic relationship with a Senator before whom she conducted business on behalf of clients, was to cut to the heart of all that Ms. Iseman was, stood for, and believed in.

The external damage to Ms. Iseman's reputation led to a corresponding deterioration of her interior mental, emotional and physical health. As days and weeks went by, and the cruel gossip, whispers, blogs, rumors, confrontations, and innuendo about her continued, her despondency over the publication of the article and its impact on her life grew. Ms. Iseman suffered intense and severe emotional, psychological, and medical distress and damage as she experienced the destruction of her reputation, identity, and sense of self-worth.


And as for the Times:

Liberals may live to love The new York Times, and conservatives may live to hate it, but all must admit that it has been among a handful of American media outlets that occupy a unique niche of authority and respect within American and world culture. The very position that The New York Times occupies in American society, its reputation as a "newspaper of record," as "The Grey Lady," underscores both the damage caused by such reckless reporting and the egregious fault of The New York Times Defendants in publishing the defamatory article....

Readers read The New York Times in the belief that the paper neither states nor implies a fact unless it has the evidence to back it up. In publishing an article clearly implying that Ms. Iseman had an unethical, illicit romantic relationship with Senator McCain, The New York Times defendants betrayed that trust.

The Times issued a statement this afternoon standing by its story. It better have the facts on its side, because it sure doesn't have the money.

Former Times Reporter Chris Hedges Reveals: "Why I Am A Socialist." Yikes!

Five years after leaving the Times -- after an illustrious 15-year career that included sharing in a 2002 Pulitzer Prize -- former reporter Chris Hedges has finally come completely clean about his political biases: he is a socialist.

For those who regularly attack the Times for its liberal leanings, Hedges has handed over some serious ammunition in the form of an essay he published yesterday on a website called truthdig.com. In it, Hedges declared his political philosophy in no uncertain terms:

The Democratic and Republican parties have become little more than squalid clubs of privilege and wealth, whores to money and corporate interests, hostage to a massive arms industry, and so adept at deception and self-delusion they no longer know truth from lies. We will either find our way out of this mess by embracing an uncompromising democratic socialism—one that will insist on massive government relief and work programs, the nationalization of electricity and gas companies, a universal, not-for-profit government health care program, the outlawing of hedge funds, a radical reduction of our bloated military budget and an end to imperial wars—or we will continue to be fleeced and impoverished by our bankrupt elite and shackled and chained by our surveillance state.

Shackled and chained! Sounds bad.

These views probably don't come as much surprise to those who've followed Hedges's career closely. He left the Times in 2003, shortly after making a virulent anti-war commencement speech at Rockford College that led to a critical Wall Street Journal editorial. Since leaving the Times, Hedges has written several books -- including, most notably, "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning," a 2002 book that became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hedges's outspoken leftist views have filtered through much of his work since leaving the Times, including several books on religion.

But Hedges's socialist declaration yesterday marked the most heated political commentary yet from the former Times reporter, who took on capitalism in his essay with the same vehemence he once reserved for George Bush:

Corporations have intruded into every facet of life. We eat corporate food. We buy corporate clothes. We drive corporate cars. We buy our vehicular fuel and our heating oil from corporations. We borrow from corporate banks. We invest our retirement savings with corporations. We are entertained, informed and branded by corporations. We work for corporations. The creation of a mercenary army, the privatization of public utilities and our disgusting for-profit health care system are all legacies of the corporate state. These corporations have no loyalty to America or the American worker. They are not tied to nation states. They are vampires.

Life must be tough for Hedges. The Times is, of course, a corporation; he must have been seriously chafing under the shackles of the corporate overlord during his days on West 43d Street. It couldn't have been any easier for Hedges to hold the Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship at Princeton in the spring of 2006; Philip Anschutz, who helped endow the chair in 1997, is a well-known financier of conservative Christian causes, was recently ranked as the 31st-richest person in America by Forbes Magazine, and helped fund the 1992 Colorado constitutional initiative that overturned laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.

It's tough to be a socialist in the United States these days. We wish Hedges the best of luck.

Sloane Crosley Complains To Times Readers: I Wasn't Told There'd Be Puke.

Can there be anything less endearing than the memoirs of a drinker confessing her first vomiting experience?

Give the Times's new "Proof" blog time; it's only been nauseating readers for a few weeks with its first-person perspectives on "alcohol and American life" -- a topic it addresses as though literature hasn't had its way with it, and brilliantly, for centuries. But last night's post by essayist/publicist Sloane Crosley sets the cause of personal narrative back by several decades with her reflections on too many tequila shots in high school, and her incipient alcoholism.

Crosley -- whose recent collection of memoirish riffs, "I Was Told There'd Be Cake," ended up on the best-seller list earlier this year -- recalls being at a high school party where a tequila shot competition was underway. Thus begins an essay that any decent high school English teacher would send back for a rewrite:

I sat down across from a guy who was sincerely Mexican and who strongly encouraged me not to do this to myself, but I wouldn’t listen. This marked the first and last time I would slap my palm onto a table and say the words “hit me.” Six shots and two beer chasers later, I grabbed the nearest receptacle — a half-empty extra-large bag of Lay’s potato chips — and released the contents of my stomach into it.

Anybody know what Crosely means by the phrase, "sincerely Mexican," and why it was worth mentioning? Do Times website editors peruse blog copy for irrelevant ethnic references?

Crosley proceeds from there into an account of her drinking history that's so contradictory and incoherent that it defies a reader's ability to follow. Here's a few sentences, in order, from the middle of the piece that suggest the way alcohol may have left Crosley slightly confused:

At least tequila, like rum, is a somewhat expendable booze, shining in the summer and pretty much hibernating for the rest of the year. One’s maiden voyage on the overdose train is always scarring (I can’t eat gummy bears either, due to a lost game of “truth or dare” as a child). A bad drug or alcohol experience can be a taste-altering thing, like a tattoo if tattoos were assigned at random. Or an afterlife in which you are doomed to wear the outfit in which you expired for all eternity. We become engrained with our first grain. It makes me grateful that I wasn’t mainlining vodka that night.


So that means she's hooked on tequila, right? Wrong:

Now I drink. I am a drinker. At the age of 30, I have grown to love a myriad of beers. One of my closest friends is such an oenophile that she has worn off on me and I comfortably pretend I know things about white Rioja even when I’m not with her.


Okay, so beer, wine and tequila. Those are Crosley's crosses to bear. But wait, there's more!

Wine and beer aside, I’m a Maker’s Mark girl in the winter, a martini girl in the summer and a vodka-soda girl when I walk up to the bar and my mind blanks. I make the best French 75 you’ll ever have. The other day, I bought a bottle of elderflower (though, admittedly, it feels like it’ll be some time before I open it).

The confusion contines. Crosley then tells us she doesn't really like drinking that much -- or does she? Here's where the narrative goes completely off the rails:

Suddenly, I was in college and still couldn’t stand drinking. Actually, I could stand it, but I just couldn’t understand it. It wasn’t peer pressure that drove me to keep trying so much as it was the variety. There must be something to this drinking business when there are 80 types of cider alone.


Okay, so she can't stand drinking, but she is drinking, but only because there's so many varieties to choose from. What next? Now she's not drinking again!

But every time friends procured bottles of liquor from beneath their futons, I found myself declining. Perhaps my high school tequila trauma had been so bad, it had spilled over and contaminated other beverages. Why could I not appreciate the subtle fruit notes of Peach Schnapps? Or the simple pleasures of shotgunning a Budweiser can?


Maybe it's because Crosley was so busy working her way through the cider bottles.

After that comes a brief narrative detour in which Crosley compares her drinking habits to her use of public bathrooms. "Men tend to think my restroom speed should be a source of pride," Crosley writes. "Instead, it just makes me question my own hygiene habits." Ewwww.

So next Crosley moves to Scotland, where the population drinks without giving it much thought:

Did the students drink terrible beer? Yes. Were they completely irresponsible with their whiskey consumption? Yes. Did they get black out drunk and pass out in gutters? Yes. But it took them hours instead of minutes to do this, which I somehow found more worthwhile.

Lost? Crosley's litany of experiences with booze have obviously left her so guilt-ridden and confused that she can't come up with a coherent explanation for her habit, which she has no desire to break:

It’s been months since I’ve been drunk drunk. Years since I’ve been drunk drunk and not remembered whole swaths of conversation. But with our holiday calendars expanding and our wallets thinning, you would think now is the time to go out and buy the cheapest booze possible and lots of it. And you’d probably be right.

As for me, I will be standing in the corner, sipping whiskey and ginger ale at my own pace. Because the thing I can’t afford is to throw up on candy canes and gingerbread people. I like them too much.


Nope, she'll just throw up on the Times blog, and get paid for it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Correction Of The Week.


From this morning's Times:

An article on Thursday about the latest generation to take over the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vt., misstated the religious background of the family matriarch, Maria von Trapp. She was a candidate for the novitiate at a Benedictine convent in Salzburg, Austria, before she become a governess for the children of Baron Georg von Trapp, whom she later married. She was not a nun.

Obviously.

NYT Just Lost Tim Rickards, A Ten-Year Print Subscriber in Austin, Texas. He Explains Why.

From the blog of Tim Rickards, a copywriter/creative director in Austin, Texas, posted yesterday afternoon:

We moved to Austin, Texas, the Times failed to deliver three weeks in a row, we called to complain, they did nothing, we called again, they did nothing, so we walked.

So instead of shuffling to my driveway to look for the blue plastic bag, I'll just walk/drive up the street to buy the paper. If I feel like it, that is, if some other task or interest doesn't take my attention first. Besides, I can always just go online and read the content there.


Three weeks of no delivery. Two complaint calls ignored by the customer service department. Another cancelled subscription. Is it any wonder the Times is $1 billion in debt?

If Arthur Sulzberger Jr. reads Rickard's reasons for cancelling his subscription, he'll understand why he's got an angry mob of shareholders, investors and industry analysts asking for his head.

It turns out it's not just the corporate end of the business that's being grossly mismanaged; it's also the retail side that's screwed up. Any businessman knows that good customer service is essential in keeping a business viable. When good customers like Tim Rickards give up on the Times, is it any wonder the business community has started to give up on the Times, too?

Fortunately for Sulzberger, Rickards hasn't lost faith in the product itself, at least in theory:

But here's what I find interesting about this mundane event: I LOVE reading the Sunday Times.

Even though the sports section talks incessantly about the stupid Yankees, Knicks and Giants, even though the Sunday Styles page trumpeted the goings on of the rich and clueless, this paper, with its great columnists and amazing international coverage, has become an important weekly ritual, one I share with my wife and parents. Sundays are just not quite complete without it. And I subscribed even though there was no financial incentive to do so.


And Rickards has done Sulzberger the ultimate courtesy of collating his thoughts into a coherent and considered list of rants about the Times, and suggestions for how to win him back.

First of all, Rickards can't understand how the Times let him cancel his subscription to begin with:

I was a loyal subscriber who always paid on time, and the Times let me go without so much as a "make-up" offer. I estimate they'll lose at least 50% of my yearly spend. That was money in the bank, direct debit. All they had to do was deliver my freakin' paper....When my wife called to cancel she was offered NOTHING to keep her. Nothing at all. The phone rep processed her cancellation like an address change.

He then notes that the customer-service failure bodes poorly for the future of the business:

Maybe all the attention and worry paid to electronic content delivery has made them forget the importance of keeping promises to customers. This is like a phone company that can't assure you of a dial tone.

Rickards then goes on to offer the Times some suggestions for how it could improve its subscription business. They're simple, smart and easy to implement, and worth reprinting here in full:

1) Pay attention to your physical delivery channel. This is not rocket science.

2) Consider offering a financial incentive to subscribe. As I mentioned, I received zero cost benefit for my subscription. Convenience only goes so far. Offer me a special, year-end collection of articles or a calendar or every Krugman/Friedman column or something.

3) Since paper is disappearing, research the next format of "delivery." I think people will still pay to have special content sent to them somehow. Yes, Times Select didn't work, but paying for content is inevitable and common (HBO, Sirius, iTunes, cable). Just because it's "news" doesn't mean it's a commodity. C'mon, you guys can figure this out. (For starters, spend two hours researching Crossfit.com and The Crossfit Journal.)

4) Don't forget that as humans we're biased and regional by nature. Technology exists to customize information delivery. Use it. Give me my Times. Use predictive modeling (or whatever they call it) to suggest stories I might find interesting. Allow me to choose to read stories that are diametrically opposed to my point of view. Give me a social and personal reason to want to read you. TimesPeople may be a start, but to me it looks like a lot of work. I want the news SERVED to me.

5) Divide up your audience and serve each one. Painfully obvious, the Silents, Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennials each have different ways of staying up on things. I don't see any reason why NYT content and/or nytimes.com can't keep up with them all.

Smart guy, Tim Rickards.

Hey, Mr. Sulzberger -- how hard would it be to offer Tim Rickards an incentive rate to re-subscribe? And what about sending him (and other loyal print subscribers) a calendar or a Krugman collection -- or even something from your freaking Obama store -- as thanks for maintaining home delivery of the paper?

Giving some thought to his bigger ideas wouldn't hurt, either. He's right, TimesPeople looks like a chore.

You have to wonder how many people like Tim Rickards are out there right now, ready to pay for the print edition but unwilling to do battle with a customer service department content to ignore them, and a web-obsessed newspaper ready to give up on them.

Pay attention, Mr. Sulzberger. Print isn't dead. Not yet.

Not For The Column: Nicholas Kristof Builds A Junior High School In Cambodia.

On his Times blog this morning, Nicholas Kristof disclosed that he and his wife, former Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn, have built a middle school in a town two hours east of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He said he won't be writing about it in his newspaper column.

"I’ve been visiting Cambodia for the last dozen years and have been particularly moved by the horrific sex trafficking here," Kristof explains. "One of the antidotes to prevent trafficking is education, and Cambodia is desperately short of schools."

So he and WuDunn decided to devote money earned from the advance for a new book coming out this year -- "Half The Sky," about women in the developing world -- to building the school, through the auspices of a group called American Assistance For Cambodia.

"In my speech to the new school," Kristof writes, "I told the kids that I sometimes wondered why America was so rich and Cambodia was so poor. It’s not because Americans are smarter or more industrious than Cambodians, because Cambodians are sharp as a whistle and incredibly hard-working. One of the factors, I believe, is the educational gap, and we’re just so pleased to do our part to reduce that gap."

Kristof took his family -- including his three children, ages 11 to 16 -- to the school's opening ceremony this month. This morning he wrote eloquently about the experience, and how it came to pass; he also described other ways Americans have made contributions to Cambodia, including a woman who teaches English to children at a Phnom Penh garbage dump.

Kristof also mentions that the school is looking for an American teacher. He suggests contacting the principal if you're interested.

Reading Kristof's post this morning calls to mind the axiom attributed to H.L. Mencken about journalism's role "to afflict the comfortable, and to comfort the afflicted." The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a committed, passionate champion of the world's underprivileged, it's hard to think of a reporter who takes that credo more to heart than Nicholas Kristof.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Interview Transcript Reveals: NYT Kept Asking Kennedy The Same Question Over And Over.

The Times posted the complete transcript of its interview with Caroline Kennedy online tonight, and it diverges significantly -- both in tone and substance -- from the news account published in Sunday's paper.

It turns out, for example, that reporters David M. Halbfinger and Nicholas Confessore devoted more than two thirds of their questions to partisan politics and personal issues -- grilling her with repeated and aggressive questions about her motives for running, the tick-tock of her decision, her family's involvement in her candidacy, her wealth, her husband, and her children.

Their story declares that Kennedy "seemed less like a candidate than the idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

But anyone reading the transcript would come away with the impression that the reporters were less interested in defining Kennedy on the issues than in getting her to reveal anecdotes and narrative details from her private life, and portraying her as an entitled, out-of-touch candidate with insufficient experience. They asked Kennedy no questions about the economy, foreign policy, health care or immigration. They dwelled on education for a few minutes, but mostly to determine whether she -- or her friends -- may have misrepresented the extent of her involvement in the New York City schools.

But if anyone misrepresented in the interview, it was the Times reporters.

Take, for example, the end of the news account of the interview, in which Halbfinger and Confessore try to represent Kennedy as having artificially cut off the conversation by interrupting them:

As things wrapped up, a reporter tried to pose another question, but she interrupted him.

“I think we’re done,” she said.

But according to the transcript, it was Confessore and Halbfinger who brought the interview to an end; when seen in context, Kennedy's comment comes off far differently:

CONFESSORE: I think we’re done.

HALBFINGER: I think so, yeah.

CONFESSORE: Thank you very much for your time.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

HALBFINGER: If I can just throw one more question out there —

KENNEDY: I think we’re done.


By that time, Kennedy had reason to be happy that the reporters had offered to call it quits. For much of the interview, they'd pressed her for an answer to questions that seemed to have little bearing on her views on the issues. They seemed far more obsessed with getting Kennedy to admit that she only wanted the job by appointment, and wouldn't commit to running for the seat in a 2012 electoral contest. Kennedy kept demurring -- "This is where we are right now," she said, exasperated -- and they kept pressing. Finally, her frustration boiled over:

KENNEDY: Is that it? You guys want to ask that again? (Laughter)

HALBFINGER: Well, we did have another way of coming at it.

KENNEDY: Go ahead, let's ask that some more.


The conversation then turned to Teddy Kennedy; the reporters wanted to know if her uncle would have been disappointed had she chosen not to run. Kennedy replied that he only wants what's best for her, and that she didn't think he'd be disappointed. That answer didn't satisfy Confessore, and led to this embarrassing interchange that the reporters left out of their article:

CONFESSORE: I guess another way of thinking about it is that Jennifer Aniston movie, where she tells her boyfriend, ‘I want you to want to do the dishes,’ you know? And I wonder if Senator Kennedy wanted you to want to do it.

HALBFINGER: “The Break-Up.”

KENNEDY: (Laughter) I hope you’re going to put this in the article, not just the answer. OK?

HALBFINGER: I mean, was there anything wistful about it. Do you think he was hoping that you would really want to do it?


At which point Kennedy repeated her previous answer, and the conversation moved on to weightier topics -- such as pushing the candidate to reveal more narrative details about the moments leading up to her decision, and the effect the Senate seat would have on her family. After referring to varied professional ventures of her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, Halbfiinger interrupted her.

"He's had a really cool career," Halbfinger said. At last, something everyone could agree on!

The reporters then moved on to Kennedy's home life, and whether she had a household staff that might have provided her with management experience. As usual, they went at the topic with an aggressive, almost accusatory tone:

HALBFINGER: Do you have any?

KENNEDY: In my house, is that what you're asking me?

HALBFINGER: Yeah. It gets to the whole, is there a Nannygate issue down the road.


The tone got even harsher when it moved to money and wealth:

CONFESSORE: How much money do you live on each year?

KENNEDY: Um, you know, I’m not really going to answer those kinds of specific questions. If I’m chosen for this, I’m going to comply with every kind of disclosure that’s available. If the governor has questions about my finances, I’m happy to talk to him.

CONFESSORE: Is it $2 million? Is it less than $2 million? Is it more than $5 million? How much do you live on each year?

KENNEDY: Um, you know, as I said, if I’m selected, I’ll probably be able to answer all those questions, but I’m not going to go into that right now.

Reading the full transcript, there's one aspect of the conversation Confessore and Halbfinger got right: the tone.

"On an appearance Friday night on NY1, Ms. Kennedy was more lighthearted, and also more personal," the wrote. "But on Saturday morning, Ms. Kennedy was all business and seemed in a more lawyerly frame of mind."

Maybe it's because she was being cross-examined by the Times, in a case the paper seems to be building against her candidacy. What a remarkable turnabout in less than two weeks. And what a squandered opportunity by Halbfinger and Confessore, who turned their Kennedy interview into an inquisition, and their news account into a commentary calling her entire candidacy into question.

Kennedy may not deserve the Senate seat, but she does deserve better reporters on the beat than Halbfinger and Confessore.

UPDATE: Kennedy No Longer "Eloquent But Elusive." She's Now "Forceful But Elusive."

Less than two hours after posting its interview with Caroline Kennedy under the headline, "As A Candidate, Kennedy Is Eloquent but Elusive," the Times has had second thoughts about her eloquence.

Its freshly-revised headline now reads: "As A Candidate, Kennedy Is Forceful but Elusive."

In the third paragraph of the story, the word "eloquent" has also been removed, and the word "forceful" has been substituted. It now describes Kennedy as "forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

It's a fascinating editorial change that underscores the harsh tone of the story, and reflects the highly subjective nature of journalism. It also raises an interesting question: were reporters David M. Halbfinger and Nicholas Confessore overruled by editors in their assessment of Kennedy as "eloquent," or did they reconsider their own opinion?

Which was she, eloquent or forceful? You make the call!

eloquent: "expressing yourself readily, clearly, effectively."

forceful: "characterized by or full of force or strength (often but not necessarily physical); powerful.

Kennedy Accuses NYT Of Asking Questions Worthy Of A "Woman's Magazine." She's Right.

Caroline Kennedy took on the two Times reporters covering her campaign for the U.S. Senate this morning, and she won, hands-down -- until the reporters got back to their desks and eviscerated her in print.

David M. Halbfinger and Nicholas Confessore walked away from an interview with Kennedy this morning at the Lenox Hill Diner battered and empty-handed. The story they scratched out in a few hours reflects less news than annoyance, and adds to the confusing tone of the Times's coverage of Kennedy -- alternately fawning and undermining, and rarely balanced in tone or content.

"In an extensive sit-down discussion Saturday morning with The New York Times," they wrote in a page-one Sunday story posted online at 1:52 pm today, "[Kennedy] still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: eloquent but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

The reporters describe "weeks of criticism" that Kennedy has not opened up to the press. But Kennedy only entered the competition for the Senate seat on December 15, less than two weeks ago.

In any case, Kennedy seemed well-prepared for the interview -- not necessarily to answer the specific policy and personal questions the reporters asked, but ready to brush them off as inappropriate to the process.

When Halbfinger and Confessore asked her to describe the decision-making process she went through in deciding to seek the Senate seat, Kennedy showed exactly the sort of straight-ahead spunk that ought to endear her to voters, if not reporters. And you can see in the reporters' prose just how prickly the conversation turned at that point:

And with several weeks to go before Mr. Paterson makes his decision, she is doling out glimpses of her political beliefs and private life. But when asked Saturday morning to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat, Ms. Kennedy seemed irritated by the question and said she couldn’t recall.

“You guys ever think about writing for a woman’s magazine?” she asked the reporters. “I thought you were the crack political team.”


Kennedy was right to wonder about their skills. Halbfinger and Confessore showed a remarkable inability to get Kennedy to come clean on policy issues or on her motivations, a failure that rankled them no end.

Never mind the fact that most prospective appointees never have to document their motives or their political views; to these Times reporters, Kennedy has already violated the public trust in her gentle avoidance of a substantive policy discussion, or personality profile. Listen to them complain:

New Yorkers appear to have a favorable view of Ms. Kennedy and fond memories of her family. But they know little about her positions or what has driven her to seek office after years spent mostly avoiding the spotlight.

Kennedy tried to remind the reporters that she's not campaigning for voter approval and acknowledged that an actual political campaign would be a better context to address all the questions she has been asked:

"I think that, actually, a campaign would be an easier way, because I think it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, to get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work," Ms. Kennedy said.

But that distinction means nothing to Confessore and Halbfinger, who express near-outrage every time Kennedy ducks specifics about upstate New York, about specific policy questions, or about financial disclosure -- all issues Kennedy has no obligation to discuss except with David Paterson, the man who might appoint her.

The reporters kept reverting to one key transitional word in their unbalanced reconstruction of the interview: "but." The word came in handy whenever they wanted to juxtapose Kennedy's views to their vision of some more appropriate answer.

Some examples:

"As a Candidate, Kennedy Is Eloquent but Elusive" -- the headline.

She praised Mrs. Clinton, but said it was too soon to say how she could improve on Mrs. Clinton’s performance as a senator. She said she had been personally affected by the economic crisis but sidestepped questions about her wealth, declining to say how much money she lived on each year.

Ms. Kennedy has already taken positions on issues like same-sex marriage, which she supports, and school vouchers, which she opposes. But in the interview on Saturday, she said she hoped to be a consensus-builder, and declined to describe her positions on some other pressing public issues — even in an area like education, where she has been personally active. Ms. Kennedy would not say, for example, whether she supported proposals to abolish tenure for teachers and offer them merit pay instead.

Asked how much of a role her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, might take in her political career — on the hustings in Watertown, say, or other political way-stations in the north country — she hinted that he might be busy elsewhere, given his own career as the head of a prominent design firm. But she said no one could have a more supportive husband.

Ms. Kennedy said she had spent some time in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, but when asked her favorite place in the state outside of the city and Long Island, she said, “I like visiting historical sites. I loved visiting the battlefields of Saratoga.”

Ms. Kennedy said her finances had been affected by the economic crisis, though “not as badly as a lot of people’s. I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home, and my husband still has a job.”

But she declined to discuss details.


And, of course, one last "but" at the end:

As their interview wrapped up, one of the Times reporters tried to pose an additional question, but she interrupted him.

“I think we’re done,” she said.


The interview may have been done. But Halbfinger and Confessore had the last word, determined to leave Times readers with the distinct impression that Kennedy had avoided, obfuscated and tap-danced her way through an interview with the state's most powerful newspaper. In that, they succeeded.

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Let's Hope Yoko Ono Didn't Get Paid By The Word For Her NYT Op-Ed Piece Today.

It's Christmas Eve, But Thomas L. Friedman Is Not Having a Very Yabba-Dabbo-Doo Time.

"Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones."
--December 24, 2008

"A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons."
--May 4, 2008

"Look at our infrastructure. It’s not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones."
--September 30, 2007

"With all due respect to the U.S. military, and the brave men and women who fought here, this contest was surely one of the most unequal wars in the history of warfare. In socioeconomic terms, we were at war with the Flintstones."
--May 21, 2003

"For all the talk about the vaunted Afghan fighters, this was a war between the Jetsons and the Flintstones -- and the Jetsons won and the Flintstones know it."
--January 6, 2002

What's the meaning of Thomas L. Friedman's obsession with America's modern stone age family? It appears that the Times columnist sees them as an ongoing, all-purpose metaphor for a decaying society.

In today's column, Friedman cites the dingy terminals, the lack of WiFi, the $3 cost of a luggage cart, the messy Amtrak platforms at Penn Station, all as reasons for his very foul pre-Christmas mood. These matters of considerable inconvenience and annoyance have led Friedman to conclude that our entire country needs a "reboot" to rid us of our current problems.

"My fellow Americans," Friedman writes, forgetting for a moment that he is not the President of the United States, "we can't continue in this mode of 'Dumb as we wanna be.'"

Friedman, made quite miserable by the fact that his cell phone service went out three times last week on the Acela train to Washington, goes on:

To top it off, we’ve fallen into a trend of diverting and rewarding the best of our collective I.Q. to people doing financial engineering rather than real engineering. These rocket scientists and engineers were designing complex financial instruments to make money out of money — rather than designing cars, phones, computers, teaching tools, Internet programs and medical equipment that could improve the lives and productivity of millions.

For all these reasons, our present crisis is not just a financial meltdown crying out for a cash injection. We are in much deeper trouble. In fact, we as a country have become General Motors — as a result of our national drift. Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.


Maybe Friedman should consider switching his phone service before declaring the entire nation as equivalent to a failed auto company.

Of course, America isn't all bad, Friedman says. We don't censor our newspapers the way China does. "Censorship restricts your people's imaginations," he writes. "That's really, really dumb."

Yes it is. Really, really, really dumb.

"Obama needs to lead us on a journey to rediscover, rebuild and reinvent our own backyard," Friedman concludes. If Obama's paying attention, he knows what Friedman means. He wants the JFK international terminal cleaned up pronto Tonto, an immediate overhaul of Penn Station, and universal WiFi everywhere he travels. Everything else can wait.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yes, Virginia, There is Yet Another Clyde Haberman Column About You In Today's Times.

Does Clyde Haberman's column today about the "Yes, Virginia" letter sound familiar? Maybe that's because it's essentially the same column he wrote on the subject four years ago...and five years ago...and nine years ago.

In today's column, Haberman writes about how the home of Virginia O'Hanlon -- the 8-year-old girl whose letter to the New York Sun in 1897 prompted the famous response, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" -- is now the home of the Studio School at 117 West 95th Street.

Haberman reviews the history of the letter, talks to a local who wrote a letter to Virgina at the school, and interviews the school's headmaster, Janet Rotter, and a creative writing teacher, Marie Helene Lane.

Did Rotter and Lane not recall that only four years ago, Haberman published near-identical interviews with both of them, on the same subject?

On December 24, 2004, Haberman's NYC column -- "A City Memory Lives, as Real as a Girl's Belief" -- reported that Virginia's house had become the school's home. In classic Haberman fashion, it fulminated on the fact that the city doesn't properly honor the home of such a venerable New York institution.

Haberman's 2004 interviews with Lane and Rotter produced these quotes:

"Our school was born the year she died," said Marie-Helene Lane, Studio's director of communications. "I like the symbolism."

"I don't see how we cannot have a plaque up for Ms. O'Hanlon, given who she was and who we are," Ms. Rotter said. "It would be unimaginable."

Haberman's 2008 interviews with Lane and Rotter went this way:

“It served as a reminder of how really important the Virginia O’Hanlon story is to us all,” said Marie Helene Lane, who teaches creative writing to children, ages 7 to 9.

“The important thing is that the children fill this space with their imagination and their hope,” [Rotter] said. “That, I think, is what Virginia’s letter did. And I’m afraid it’s what adults forget to do.”


Haberman first wrote about the house at 115 W. 95th Street in December 21, 1999's NYC column. That was the year he first noted the lack of a plaque:

Inquiries produced polite shrugs or don't-bother-me clicks of the intercom from the few people living at No. 115. Their reaction should have been anticipated. After all, this is a city of impermanence; collective memory often lasts about as long as sand castles at high tide.

Still, one thought that there just might be a plaque or some other indication that, in this house 102 years ago, an 8-year-old girl wrote a letter that produced perhaps this country's most enduring secular affirmation of hope and faith.

Four years later, on December 21, 2003 -- and only one year before the 2004 Studio School/Virginia column -- Haberman returned the house at 115 W. 95th St. That one again objected to the plaque-less historic home of Virginia O'Hanlon:

The house lacks any grandeur that it once may have had. When visited the other day, it showed no sign of life. Tiles at the front gate were broken. Intercom buzzers did not work. Windows were boarded up.

Curiously, it made no mention of the Studio School's existence next door. Perhaps Haberman -- whose fondness for recycled phrases and ideas has previously been noted by the Nytpicker -- was saving that scoop, knowing he'd need a column for next Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

NYT Quietly Launches "Represent," A Web Feature For Political Junkies And Time-Wasters.

You can believe David Carr's column this morning about the New Jersey newspaper that makes its money by ignoring the Internet, or you can believe the actions of the newspaper that keeps Carr employed.

Want to know what trouble Charles Rangel got into today? Curious who your state senator is? Wonder what the boundaries of your congressional district are? Have a ridiculous amount of spare time on your hands?

For you, the Times website has quietly begun testing the prototype of an interactive feature called "Represent." Among the things it represents is the future of the Times website, as it builds yet more user-friendly local news content into its infrastructure. Anyone with doubts about the Times's long-term commitment to the web (all three of you) will put them to rest when they check out "Represent."

It's simple: you just type in your address, and the blog web feature instantaneously produces a list of all your state and local elected officials, followed by a list of recent mentions in Times coverage, and accompanied by maps of the districts.

Truth is, though, in its current format it's hard to imagine using "Represent" for anything other than wasting time. If the Times wants to make this of any value to its readers, it ought to provide links that let us contact our congressmen and Senators through one click, or offer us addresses, phone numbers and emails. Instead of just packaging more ways to click on Times articles, consider the real reason most of us want to know who represents us -- and give us some news we can really use, not just another aggregation of old headlines.

NYT to Nytpicker: "The editors do not believe there to be a rationale to include a mention."

In an 12:02 p.m. email to The Nytpicker, New York Times senior vice president and chief spokeswoman Catherine Mathis responded to our questions, raised in an email to the Times this morning and an earlier post, regarding the friendship between Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Caroline Kennedy. We asked Mathis two questions:

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

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

Here's the Mathis reply, reprinted in full:

Dear NYTpicker:

In this case, the editors do not believe there to be a rationale to include a mention. With regard to your second question, when The Times was acquired by Adolph Ochs in 1896, he said that the definition of journalistic integrity for newspapers is "to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved." This definition is as relevant today as it was when it was written more than a century ago. We strive to maintain the journalistic independence and integrity of The New York Times in all our coverage. As part of that, the publisher does not tell reporters or editors what to write in the news columns. It is left to the judgment of our journalists.

Best,

Catherine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Dear Ms. Mathis,

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

http://www.nytpick.com/2008/12/should-nyt-report-rumored-sulzberger.html

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

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

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

Thank you for your attention to these questions.

Sincerely,

The Nytpicker


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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Should The NYT Report Rumored Sulzberger-Kennedy Affair? Gawker Says Yes. We Say No.

A post today at Gawker.com, the media gossip website, repeats the rumor it first published several months ago -- that Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. may be romantically involved with Caroline Kennedy -- and argues that it's "a mostly legitimate question to ask."

It isn't.

Today's Gawker post by Alex Pareene reports that the Times City Room blog rebuffed a request from "this guy" who attempted to post the following comment on its website:

Will the Times report on the public gossip that CKS is having an extramarital affair with the publisher of the Times? It's very relevant that someone who wants one of the highest political offices in the state is in a romantic relationship with the publisher of the most influential newspaper in the state. Since Paterson had to answer questions about his marriage, it doesn't seem out of bounds to ask CKS about hers.

The Times blog sent the request back with this response:

please don't repost comments; we don't report stuff like this, regardless of people involved. Paterson called a news conference.

A brusque and too-general answer, but the Times was right not to post the question. Rumors of a romantic relationship between Sulzberger and Kennedy don't fall under the umbrella of the public's right to know.

Pareene concluded his post by saying: "The Times certainly does report on the sexual lives of public figures, all the damn time, from Giuliani to Spitzer to Paterson. But reporting on the Sulzbergers not so much."

What is Pareene talking about? The Times wasn't covering the sex lives of those men; it was covering their public statements, their political activities, or their possible violation of laws.

The Times's coverage of the Spitzer scandal grew out of a criminal investigation related to sex, not the act itself. Paterson raised the matter of his sexual indiscretions on his own; the Times only reported on his statements, it didn't investigate his private life. The Times's interest in Giuliani's personal life only extended to how it affected his political career, or issues of favoritism.

And does Pareene really think it appropriate, or logical, that the Times report on its publisher's sex life? Does Gawker cover Nick Denton's sex life? Come on.

Gawker has been subtly peddling the unsubstantiated Kennedy-Sulzberger rumor since last spring. The smear campaign began with this blind item by Nick Denton on May 21:

Which recently separated newspaper publisher has been seen regularly in the company of a woman from an even more famous dynasty? They're longstanding friends; she's still married; and she's too preoccupied with an illness in the family to think about the future. But that hasn't stopped the speculation. (Okay, so the newly separated newspaper publisher is pretty obvious: the New York Times' moose-loving Arthur Sulzberger. But the identity of his supposed lover is a surprise.)

In June, another Denton item went a bit further, reporting:

As with the supposed relationships of Clinton's husband Bill, recently aired in Vanity Fair, there's no hard evidence to suggest that Sulzberger's friendship with Caroline Kennedy is anything more than that. The two are longstanding family friends, so much so that Caroline Kennedy even spoke at a roast for the moose-loving and often clueless New York Times boss a few years ago. And Caroline Kennedy is married. But Sulzberger's recent separation has prompted Manhattan dinner-party speculation about the woman for whom he left his wife. It would be almost too delicious if these two liberal dynasties, backers of competing candidates during the primaries, were to come together for more than just the toppling of the Republican régime.

In all these items, Gawker has been careful not to categorically accuse the two of having an affair. But it has been equally careful to make sure the notion of it remains firmly planted in our minds, by repeating the rumor the website itself started.

But what Sulzberger and Kennedy do in the privacy of their bedrooms, together or separately, has no bearing on their lives as public figures. The media have no justification for investigating -- or writing about -- the sex life of either one.

In passing, Gawker does touch on a legitimate point. The well-documented friendship between Sulzberger and Kennedy -- a newspaper publisher and a political candidate -- does deserve to be covered in the Times:

Whether or not they're having sexy sexy old rich scion sex, the special friendship between Sulzberger and Kennedy is well-documented. And when the publisher of your paper is BFF with a public figure, asking whether that friendship affects coverage of that public figure is certainly fair game.

Gawker's right. The fact that Kennedy has cultivated a friendship with the Times's publisher is fair game for reporters, and deserves mention in the Times. The Times certainly didn't shy away from reporting, earlier in the week, that Kennedy had helped Rupert Murdoch's child get admitted to Brearley. It's hypocritical for the Times to leave Kennedy's friendship with Sulzberger unreported.

But Gawker demeans itself -- and debases the discussion -- by being the only media outlet to have suggesed a possible extramarital relationship between Kennedy and Sulzberger. (Kennedy's still married; Sulzberger announced a planned divorce from his wife through a brief Times story on May 10, eleven days before the first Gawker item appeared.) Even the National Enquirer, which in July quoted a friend saying her marriage is "pretty much over," didn't go as far as Gawker in raising the possibility of an affair.

Friendship among powerful public figures is fair game for legitimate media outlets. Sexual relationships between consenting adults -- who aren't elected officials betraying the public trust (or breaking the law) by their private behavior -- is fair game only for sleazy gossip websites. The fact of Sulzberger and Kennedy's friendship is our business, but the nature of that friendship is their business.

Correction Of The Week.

From Sunday's Styles section:

An article last Sunday about a $105-million robbery at the Harry Winston jewelry store in Paris on Dec. 4 referred incorrectly to the four thieves, who are believed to be members of the Serbian Pink Panther gang. If that is indeed the case, their accents would be Slavic, not Slovak.

Indeed.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christopher Plummer, How Does Alex Witchel Love Thee? Let Us Count The Ways.

1. "Now that Plummer has published In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, it is the most welcome of surprises to discover that this actor writes and reports almost as well as he acts."

2. "But the result for anyone who loves, loves, loves the theater, not to mention the vanished New York of the 1950s and ’60s, is a finely observed, deeply felt (and deeply dishy) time-traveling escape worthy of a long stormy weekend."

3. "Just grab a quilt and a stack of pillows. No need for a delectable assortment of bonbons. They’re in the book."

4. "More than 50 years later, Plummer’s ear is pitch perfect."

5. "Make no mistake, Plummer’s master story­telling is also a master diversionary tactic. There is little introspection here, though every once in a while he looks at himself with eyes wide open and tells nothing but the truth."

6. "In spite of himself — his relentlessly high artistic principles; his penchant for playing the underdog, even when he was the star; his keen ear, equally attuned to the precision of Elizabethan verse and to what passes as truth across a whiskey at 5 a.m. — this man has experienced a life rich in textures, and he is able to give most of them glorious voice."

7. "His is a life in the theater lived hard and true, in the grand tradition of those distinguished players who went before, whom he has surely made proud."

8. "Good sir! I raise my glass to you."

-- from Alex Witchel's mostly-positive review of Plummer's new memoir, "In Spite Of Myself" in tomorrow's NYT Book Review.

Deborah Solomon Comes Out Swinging, With Representative Henry Waxman.

For those who think Deborah Solomon's interviews have become progressively softer since being reined in on her methodology by Public Editor Clark Hoyt last year, consider this aggressive opening salvo from tomorrow's "Questions for Henry Waxman" in the New York Times Magazine:

Q: Congratulations on your new post! You are about to take over one of the most powerful subgroups in Congress, the Committee on Energy and Commerce, which handles climate change, health care and much else.

A: Thank you.

***

Then comes this bare-knuckle follow-up:

Q: You are currently the outgoing chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Why do Congressional committees have such ominous-sounding names?

A: It was originally just called Government Reform, but I wanted to emphasize the oversight.

(POST WRITTEN, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY THE NYTPICKER)

Friday, December 19, 2008

NYT Spots Caroline Kennedy Today In Midtown Hotel! (Or Did She Tell Them She'd Be There?)

After yesterday's pack coverage of Caroline Kennedy's lunch with Al Sharpton at Sylvia's, the candidate just got some exclusive and friendly Times coverage this afternoon of a quiet midtown meeting with Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

How did the City Room blog post happen? Did the Times just stumble onto Kennedy at Russo's Restaurant in the Sheraton Manhattan on Seventh Avenue at 51st Street? Or did Kennedy's handlers tip the Times for an exclusive? The Times doesn't say. In fact, it deliberately avoids any explanation of how it got the story, seemingly to protect Kennedy's privacy -- and her right to give the paper exclusive access.

The story went online at 1:21 pm, under the headline: "With Little Fanfare, Kennedy Meets Weingarten." But that headline would only be correct if the Times had found Kennedy with no help from the candidate. Alerting the Times to your whereabouts qualifies as "fanfare" to most Americans, who typically don't notify the press when they go out for coffee.

Yet the City Room account, by Jonathan B. Hicks, goes to great lengths to make it seem almost accidental that the Times witnessed the Kennedy-Weingarten meeting. Here's how the post began:

Today’s stop on the whirlwind Caroline Kennedy listening and political-exploration tour could not have been more different from the circus-like atmosphere that has been a fixture of her meetings with notable New Yorkers in recent days.

Ms. Kennedy’s meeting on Friday with Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, took place in a hotel restaurant where hardly anyone seemed to take notice of the daughter of America’s 35th president.

Sitting at a table by the restaurant’s front door, Ms. Kennedy sat alone for a short time until Ms. Weingarten arrived. The two embraced warmly and spoke in an animated fashion for about an hour over nothing more than coffee, with Ms. Kennedy frequently taking notes on a notepad.


How did Hicks have any idea how long Kennedy had been there, or how the meeting went? Without attribution, he makes it apparent -- although not explicit -- that he was an eyewitness to these events. Underscoring that impression is the photograph with the post, taken by Times staff photographer Ruby Washington. It's a shot of Kennedy and Weingarten taken in apparent closeup, again suggesting the cooperation of both.

Another clue to the fact that the event was staged for the Times: after it was over, Kennedy and Weingarten stopped to answer a few questions from the Times reporter, accompanied by Kenndy's political consultant Josh Isay. (It's not clear whether Isay was at the meeting as well; he doesn't appear in the photograph, and Hicks doesn't elaborate.)

As usual, Kennedy revealed nothing in her brief interview:

“We had a productive discussion and we look forward to working together,” Ms. Kennedy said, in the very few words she uttered to a reporter afterward. “I look forward to working with her.”

But wait -- that comment does reveal something, doesn't it? In fact, it almost sounds as though Kennedy and Weingarten have struck a deal! But Hicks lets the quote pass without note or followup, and continues with his non-interview:

Before leaving with her political consultant, Josh Isay, Ms. Kennedy was asked her impressions of the last week, since her interest became widely known in the United States Senate seat now held by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It’s been really interesting,” she said, heading out of the hotel.

It's worth noting -- and Hicks does, eventually -- that Weingarten herself has been mentioned as a candidate for the Senate seat being created by Hillary Clinton's departure. Hicks pressed Weingarten for her opinion of Kennedy as a possible Senator, but got no clear endorsement or dismissal. “The governor has to make this decision and it’s only for him to make," Weingarten told Hicks.

After addressing the meeting and interviews, Hicks then marveled for a few paragraphs about how Kennedy pulled off a private encounter in the midst of so much media attention. Again, no mention is made of how -- or whether -- the Times came upon this meeting through shoe-leather reporting or with the aid of Kennedy herself.

Throughout, Hicks tries to imply that the story may have resulted from reportorial ingenuity, without explicitly saying so:

Still, it seemed unusual that Ms. Kennedy could sit unnoticed in such a public place, particularly in a week where her image has been on television, in newspapers, and on blogs and in Internet video.

One explanation could be that the restaurant primarily caters to hotel guests in the morning, many of whom are from other countries.

(Indeed, one man in his early 30s, visiting from Germany, asked “why the lady at the table next to us was being photographed? When told that it was Ms. Kennedy, he said: “Isn’t she running for something?”)

Dana Walcott, the food and beverage manager of Russo’s Steak, Seafood and Pasta Restaurant, where Ms. Kennedy and Ms. Weingarten met, offered another explanation for the lack of notice.

“I didn’t especially notice them, but then, we are in Midtown,” Ms. Walcott said. “We’re a high volume place. And when people have a busy morning, they pretty much go about their business and don’t pay too much attention to others.”


But all this belies the obvious fact that Kennedy and Weingarten weren't alone -- a Times reporter and photographer were there to record the meeting, and with their knowledge.

So is Hicks just gloating over the fact that no one tipped his competitors to his exclusive? Or is he deliberately trying to cover up the seemingly obvious truth that yet again, the Times has been manipulated into covering a controlled Caroline Kennedy media event?

One thing is for sure: you won't learn the answers to those questions from reading the Times.

Woodward Forgets To Move Flower Pot On Balcony; Deep Throat Leaks Last Scoop To NYT.

In the end, Bob Woodward couldn't count on the greatest source of his career to hand him his final scoop.

At 12:10 this morning, the Times broke exclusively the death of W. Mark Felt, the Justice Department official most famous for furtive garage meetings with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. Dubbed "Deep Throat" by editor Ben Bradlee, Felt became one of Woodward's best sources on the scandal that brought the Nixon Presidency to an end.

Felt was also pivotal to the career of screenwriter William Goldman, who attributed to Deep Throat the most famous one-line piece of advice in journalism via the movie All The President's Men: "Follow the money."

So, where was Washington Post reporter Woodward late last night? Probably asleep in his sprawling Georgetown townhouse in his canopy bed with 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, paid for by Felt's assistance on the story that made his career.

Woodward's byline on a Felt obit didn't appear on the Post website until 1:02 a.m. this morning, nearly an hour after Times reporter Tim Weiner's exclusive 1,700-word Felt obituary showed up.