Thursday, January 29, 2009

NYT Now Reports News In The Lobby. Smart Idea -- It Promotes The Real Estate, Plus Saves On Cab Fare.

Note the convienient address in the lead item of Florence Fabricant's "Off The Menu" column in yesterday's Dining section:

Opening This Week

SCHNIPPER’S QUALITY KITCHEN Retirement did not suit Jonathan and Andrew Schnipper, left and right in photo, who founded the Hale and Hearty Soups chain and sold it three years ago. So they decided to create a self-service restaurant with diner food, like fish tacos, burgers, milkshakes, macaroni and cheese and such. Their spacious place in Midtown will open on Jan. 31: 620 Eighth Avenue (41st Street), (212) 921-2400.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Joshua Brustein Wrote A Great Story In The Metro Section Today. Whoever He Is.

Every so often, a new voice shows up in the NYT to shake things up. It doesn't happan as often as it did in decades past -- when the paper could afford to hire new talent on a regular basis, and when it put as much emphasis on hiring writers with style as it now does on snapping up experienced reporters from other papers with recent Pulitzers.

Today's metro story by Joshua Brustein about the return of the Holland Bar on 9th Avenue -- the best piece of writing in today's NYT -- brought back memories of those days. He's had a few bylines on the NYT website and a few previous clips in the paper, suggesting that he may be a low-level clerk working his way towards a full-time reporting gig. A check of his Facebook page -- where the current update reads, "Joshua Brustein thinks that having to watch snowboarding on television while working on a Saturday is a terrible tease." -- implies that Brustein hasn't exactly earned reporter status just yet.

Too bad -- because Brustein's a better writer than just about anyone on the Metro desk these days. Every Brustein byline shows talent and promise. A piece last May about a shortage of migrant workers on local farms, next to a story from Stamford about trouble with a proposed new train station, reflect a gift at the tricky balance between reporting and voice.

Brustein's story this morning is his best yet, at once an elegy to the past and a report from the recent present, that begins this way:

Three men appeared when Gary Kelly lifted the steel gate one weekday afternoon on what used to be the Holland Bar. They used to drink there, and were eager to know when their exile would end.

“I feel like a homeless person without a cardboard box,” said one of the men, who gave his name only as Harry because he did not want his girlfriend or boss to learn more about his drinking habit than they already knew.

“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Kelly, who had only stopped by that day to talk to his electrician. “I’ll get you your cardboard box.”

From there Brustein delivers a funny, touching, and counter-intuitive look at a neighborhood institution that has returned to existence despite a rent increase that had temporarily closed its doors. It's the sort of unexpected slice of life that reminds readers of this city's endless supply of fresh yarns and characters.

Maybe Brustein's story will even rattle the cages of metro NYT columnists like Susan Dominus and Clyde Haberman, who pick topics as though there's a gun pointed at their temples on deadline.

Maybe, even in the NYT's diminished future, there will still be room on its staff for vivid stylists like Joshua Brustein, a gift to readers who value a little voice with their morning coffee.

David Kelly Doesn't Like Women Who Like Sex, Or Lesbians Who Like Television.

A regular contributor to the NYT's "Paper Cuts" blog named David Kelly has, in four paragraphs posted this afternoon, managed to insult millions of women at once without making a single coherent point.

The post begins as a muse on the murder of a character on "The L Word" and ends with a sweeping condemnation of romance novels and the women who love them.

Among Kelly's observations:

For those of you who don’t have Showtime, the premise of “The L Word” is that beautiful women like to have sex with one another.

Kelly's thoughts on the death of Mia Kirshner's character, Jenny:

It’s possible someone murdered her just because she was one of the more annoying characters on television.

More about Kirshner:

Her character on “The L Word” also had a brief stint as a stripper, for which loyal viewers are still grateful.

Regarding Kirshner's contributions to "I Live Here," a recent non-fiction book about displaced women and children:

Part travel narrative, part graphic novel, part “paper documentary,” it proves that George W. Bush got at least one thing right: “One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”

Kelly's comment on a recent Salon Slate essay by June Thomas about the appeal of female Secret Ssrvice agents in romance novels:

Further proof, if any were needed, that romance novels remain what they have always been: pornography for women.

Who exactly is David Kelly, anyway? Anyone know? We've combed the Internet and the NYT website for a clue and can't find anything. We're pretty sure he's not the guy married to Michelle Pfeiffer.

Corrections Of The Week: Alessandra Stanley Edition.

With three mistakes in the last week, NYT television critic Alessandra Stanley has resumed her reign of error in the newspaper of record -- and has made yet another mistake in today's review of TNT's new series, "Trust Me."

Fortunately for Stanley, the error-prone critic remains close personal friends with NYT stars Maureen Dowd (with whom she recently went to a Florida spa, chronicled in the NYT travel section) and managing editor Jill Abramson -- an apparent immunity from the dangers that usually face journalists with her record of inaccuracy.

The most recent Stanley correction appeared in yesterday's Week In Review, with two mistakes corrected in her Mickey Rourke essay from the previous week:

An article last Sunday about France’s affinity for the actor Mickey Rourke misstated the time frame during which his latest film, “The Wrestler,” was picked up by an American distributor. It was after the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, not before. The article also misstated the month that the Toronto festival was held. It was September, not October.

That followed Friday's correction of a misspelling in Alessandra Stanley "TV Watch" column in Wednesday's paper about the coverage of the Obama inauguration:

The TV Watch column on Wednesday, about President Obama’s inauguration, misspelled the surname of a former 1960s radical whose association with Mr. Obama was raised as an issue in the campaign, but was not prominently mentioned on Fox News coverage of the inauguration. He is William Ayers, not Ayres.

That brings Stanley's 2009 error total to three, which puts her on pace for a record-shattering 52 corrections this year. In 2008, Stanley recorded just 11 total corrections.

Stanley correction-counters can look forward to the year's fourth, later this week, presuming the NYT corrects today's mistake -- her reference to the creators of tonight's new TNT series "Trust Me" as former "executive producers" of TNT's "The Closer." Writers Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny were, in fact, only co-executive producers of "The Closer."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

NYT's Culture Editor Sam Sifton Explains: "Stars" Good, "Golden Spatulas" Bad.

In a WSJ piece yesterday on newspapers' use of the "star system" to rate movies and restaurants, NYT culture editor Sam Sifton self-righteously declared the paper different from newspapers that assign stars to reviews.

"We don't seek to reduce our arguments about a particular piece of art to a number, or letter grade, or golden spatulas, or whatever," Sifton told the WSJ. "These are numbers that aren't based on any rational or countable thing."

When asked by the WSJ about the fact that the NYT has long had a star ranking system to review restaurants, Sifton described that as "the exception that proves the rule here."

So let's see if we have this straight. According to Sifton, the NYT won't "reduce" its arguments on movies to a star system. It also won't use "golden spatulas" to rank restaurants. It will, however, continue to use stars in its restaurant reviews.

NYT editors usually have coherent, well-considered arguments to explain the paper's policies. Sifton appears to be the exception that proves the rule.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Bet Your Life Savings On The Carpetbagger's Oscar Predictions? Our Condolences.

Oscar bettors may want to check out the Carpetbagger video recorded at 5:00 A.M. this past Tuesday, just a half-hour before the nominations were announced, before relying on the blog's reporting in the future.

Here were The Bagger's final, last-second predictions, after weeks of NYT-funded Oscar reporting and interviews in New York, Los Angeles and Sundance:

We're going to find out if Brad and Angelina get shut out. Yes, probably. Is "Gran Torino" and Clint Eastwood going to sneak in? Yes, probably. And will "Dark Knight" be one of the five Best Picture nominees? You can bet on it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Were Caroline Kennedy 's Marriage, Taxes Or Nanny An Issue Or Not? NYT Still Won't Say.

Normally, the newspaper of record -- that would be the NYT -- makes certain its stories comprehensively answer all relevant questions. Or, if it can't, it will at least include the unanswered questions in its reporting.

But in the curious case of Caroline Kennedy, you'd have to read multiple news outlets to piece together the saga of the last 48 hours, and in the end you'd be hard-pressed to summarize what's true and what isn't. Reading the NYT will only confuse and confound a reader looking for answers.

That's an unfortunate but oddly fitting end to the NYT's biased and mediocre coverage of the Kennedy candidacy over the last several weeks, as it veered from fawning to venomous -- and then back to fawning -- in its jaundiced assessments of her qualifications for the Hillary Clinton senate seat.

This morning's story, which adds Albany reporter Danny Hakim to the mix, feebly attempts a tick-tock to explain the changing positions of the Kennedy and Paterson camps over the last 24 hours. In the wake of Kennedy's withdrawal from consideration from the job, political operatives on both sides clearly strategized to save face: Kennedy by linking her decision to the illness of her uncle, and Paterson by suggesting that other issues (the all-purpose "nanny problem") may have surfaced to derail her candidacy.

Either way, we're led into a messy back-and-forth that only further confuses readers who keep wondering whether there's more to it than that -- including the rumor of "marriage issues" that made it onto the Times's website in the form of an Associated Press story that moved at 11:43 last night, under the headline, "Kennedy Withdrawal Creates A Political Mystery," with no byline:

Caroline Kennedy's mysteriously abrupt decision to abandon her Senate bid gave rise to an ugly swirl of accusations Thursday and feverish speculation over whether she jumped or was pushed.

The 51-year-old daughter of President John F. Kennedy was widely considered a front-runner for the Senate seat until she sent a midnight e-mail to reporters and Gov. David Paterson saying she was withdrawing for what she described only as personal reasons.

Even though many Democrats had thought Paterson was going to appoint Kennedy any day now, a person close to the governor said Thursday that Paterson had no intention of picking her because he believed she handled herself poorly in introducing herself as a candidate.

The person also said there were concerns about possible tax problems for Kennedy, a potential ''nanny problem'' involving a housekeeper, and media rumors that her marriage was on the rocks.[Emphasis added.] The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he wasn't authorized to speak for the governor, would not elaborate.

That marked the first acknowledgment on the Times website of an issue that had swirled through the press yesterday after being raised in the New York Post -- including the paper's publishing of a longstanding and unsubstantiated rumor of a romantic relationship between Kennedy and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

A New York Post story posted at 3:02 a.m. on Thursday first raised the issue, and of course attributed it to gossip columns:

In a stunning revelation, a source close to Gov. David Paterson insisted this afternoon that the governor "had no intention" of picking Caroline Kennedy for New York's vacant senate seat - because she was "mired" in an issue over taxes, her nanny and possibly her marriage.

Kennedy was "mired in some potentially embarrassing personal issues," the source said, citing tax liabilities and worker compensation liabilities connected to the employment of a nanny.

The source also said the state of her marriage may have presented a problem as well.

"She has a tax problem that came up in the vetting and a potential nanny issue," the source said. "And reporters are starting to look at her marriage more closely," the source continued, refusing to provide any specifics.

Gossip columns have reported for more than a year that Kennedy's marriage to Ed Schlossberg is essentially over, and the gossip site has reported rumors that she's been linked to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr..

Kennedy denied any issue over her marriage in an interview with The Post last month. Aides to Kennedy and a Times spokesperson couldn't immediately be reached.

But here's the truth: that speculation, which led to the Post story and even the AP wire article on the Times website, stems mostly from a single, unreliable source: Gawker.

Yes, Gawker -- alone in the American news media, and with no evidence or reporting to back its assertion -- has freely speculated for months that Kennedy and Sulzberger might be having an affair. It's known that the two are friends -- but that's it.

The lack of actual information didn't stop Gawker's Alex Pareene from raising the question on December 21, when he complained that the City Room blog censored a question raised about the relationship in a comment, and then posted:

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 "public gossip" Gawker referred to, of course, was its own. Lately Gawker has been attributing that gossip to the National Enquirer, but it in fact first surfaced in a post by Nick Denton last June 4, under the headline "rumormonger," that printed the rumor of a relationship while being careful to mention that there was no actual evidence of it. (Denton had already posted a blind item about the possible affairin May, implying but not naming Kennedy or Sulzberger.)

And it should be underscored here that while the National Enquirer did report that Kennedy's marriage to Edwin Schlossberg might be "over," the tabloid made no mention of an affair, or of Sulzberger. Gawker has been on its own in pushing this scenario.

Nytpicker asked the Times about the Kennedy-Sulzberger relationship in December -- specifically, we wanted to know why the Times hadn't reported the public friendship between the two in its Kennedy coverage. Catherine Mathis, the paper's chief spokesperson, replied that "in this case, the editors do not believe there to be a rationale to include a mention." She didn't offer a reason.

What then followed -- as has been chronicled steadily on Nytpicker -- was a serious of harsh, damaging pieces on Kennedy's candidacy, riddled with errors and seeming bias that suggested an effort by the Times editorial side to distance itself from a perception of helping a friend of the publisher. As time went on, the friendship between the publisher and the candidate seemed increasingly at odds with the Times's curiously harsh news coverage.

That suddenly shifted in January. In the last two weeks, the paper published two long, flattering profiles of Kennedy that read as though she'd already gotten the job, and quoted friends and supporters repeating endless glowing anecdotes. One -- a 2,541-word page-one takeout, "In A Most Private Kennedy, A Lure Of Public Duty," published on January 19 -- was written by NYT star reporter Deborah Sontag, who had no previous involvement with the paper's Kennedy coverage.

Now that Kennedy has pulled out, the NYT has turned the story back over to Nicholas Confessore, whose piece this morning (with Danny Hakin) ricochets all over the map with conflicting theories and spinning by both sides. It's a hopelessly confusing takeout that tells the reader nothing of what actually happened over the last 48 hours to derail the Kennedy candidacy. The NYT has yet to even own up to the fact that it was its own website that first floated the notion that she'd withdrawn because of her uncle's health -- an issue that seems to have floated away.

So many questions remain, and have yet to be even raised by the Times, let alone answered. It's time for the paper to stop handing out anonymity to politicians who are clearly misrepresenting the truth to serve one side's interests, and prepare a definitive account of what has happened -- based on reporting, not on political spin. Among the questions that need to be answered:

Why did the NYT first falsely report that Caroline withdrew because of her uncle's health? We need to know the source of that, and get comment from Kennedy's side as to whether that played a role or not.

Was Kennedy going to get the job, or not? Right now Confessore and Hakim are hedging too much on this point, quoting anonymous sources contradicting each other. When that happens, it means someone is lying. They need to find out who's lying, and expose them. Anonymity is not designed to allow sources to lie to journalists with impunity. Kennedy insists she withdrew for "personal" reasons. Paterson's people pin it on nanny and tax issues. We need more information, and more disclosure about the Paterson sources and their motives.

What are the "nanny" issues being raised? We need information and facts, not vague phrases and assertions. If, as the NYT reported this morning, that the Paterson camp reached out to the media yesterday "to disparage [Kennedy's] qualifications," specifically alleging tax issues and a nanny problem, should that person be allowed to hide behind the cloak of anonymity? That seems unfair to Kennedy. She's being forced to deny, on the record, anonymous assertions against her.

We need detailed answers and full source disclosure, and as soon as possible. The Times needs to stop printing the anonymous assertions of politicians pushing their own ends, and start addressing the multiple questions still unanswered about the Kennedy candidacy and the Paterson handling of these events. The time for speculation is over.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, New York Times, January 7, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Most Convoluted Paragraph Of The Day...

From Alan Feuer's City Room "New York Daybook" column, Metro section:

Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. The problem with politicians is, they never seem to sound enough like poets, whose language is, by nature, richly imprecise. While the leaden political discourse has its uses — no one wants obscurity when it comes to nuclear launch codes — an occasional ambiguity might be nice. The inaugural address, for instance, to be broadcast at the Schomberg Center in Harlem, is the perfect opportunity for complex phrasing in the service of a broader national cause. Wouldn’t it be great to be ennobled, even surprised, by a president’s public words? Do not misunderestimate the power of such a thing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

NYT's Styles Editor Trip Gabriel Tells Nytpicker: "Don't Be So Literal."

NYT's Styles editor Trip Gabriel has responded to the Nytpicker's questions about the "Modern Love" disclaimer published today. As a bonus, he threw in his reaction to the more recent post about the lead photo in his section today. We didn't even ask.

Here's the full text of Gabriel's email:

Dear Nytpicker,

The disclaimer isn't new. We've run variations of it every two or three months for about a year. Even though most readers surely understand that personal essay writers don't record the real-time spoken words of people in their lives (usually), we thought it would be useful to spell this out, given that Times readers do expect that in news stories quotations are verbatim.

Most of the dialogue in "Modern Love'' is paraphrased, not quoted. But even if it's between quotation marks and recalled from memory, the editors make clear to contributors that events must be real. For example, we don't allow pseudonyms or composite characters.

Every editor of personal memoirs has become all too aware in recent years of the capacity for fraud. We have a rigorous editing process designed to prevent this.

By the way, I disagree with you that the lead photo with Alex Williams's story today misled readers. Obviously it was taken in the middle of the night when Times Square had cleared out -- or been cleared out -- as any New Yorker would know. Sometimes photos are suggestive, as this one was. Don't be so literal.

Trip Gabriel

Why Does Times Square Look So Empty In Styles Section Cover Photo? Because It Was Taken At 3:30 a.m. On New Year's Day.

The Styles section cover photo that goes with Alex Williams's story this morning on New York's decline is perfect in its depiction of urban desolation -- but perfectly false when it comes to being an accurate illustration of the story.

It shows a deserted Times Square, with only a few pedestrians and no cars in the typically mobbed midtown neighborhood. What better symbol could there be of William's thesis, that New York has lost its excitement and swagger, than a lights-are-on-but-the-house-is-empty image of midtown Manhattan?

Trouble is, the photo was taken at 3:30 on the morning on January 1, 2009, right after the police had finished clearing out the last of the city's New Year's Eve revelers. The streets were still blocked off to traffic by police barricades.

The photo had already been published by the Times once before, in a January 1 slide show called "Cleaning Up After The Party."

The Robert Stolarik picture ran that morning with this explanatory caption: "At 3:30 a.m., all was still: most of the grips and the revelers were gone, and the cleanup crew was on break."

Running the picture with Williams's story misrepresents the photo and its content. It doesn't prove anything in the story's thesis -- as any visit to Times Square at that time of night would show. New York may well be in decline; but sadly, as we all know, the nightmarish mob scene in Times Square continues day and night.

The Styles section owed its readers a photo that legitimately illustrated the story's point, not one cribbed from an old photo shoot, with its context left undisclosed to readers in the paper this morning.

New "Modern Love" Policy: It's Okay With Us If You Make It Up.

At the bottom of this morning's "Modern Love" column, the NYT's Sunday Styles section has slipped in a modest but sweeping new disclaimer:

All dialogue in Modern Love is based on memory.

What does that mean, exactly? How does the NYT define "memory" -- does this mean writers can reconstruct decades-old conversations in perfect quotes, and with impugnity?

Has the NYT just enabled a new group of memoirists with faulty memories to present their stories -- without any quibbling allowed from misquoted participants in their lives who remember things differently?

Is the new disclaimer in response to specific questions raised by recent "Modern Love" quotations that may have been contradicted by others? After all, the "Modern Love" column has been a weekly fixture in the Styles section since its debut on October 31, 2004.

We've emailed our questions to Trip Gabriel, the NYT's Styles editor. Can't wait to get to the bottom of this! Meanwhile, we're relieved to no longer wonder whether, as quoted in Katherine Ruppe's "Modern Love" column this morning, her geeky boyfriend ever actually began a sentence with the words, "Circumstances aside..."

That's just how she remembers it.

Clark Hoyt Says It Turns Out David Halbfinger Had An "Out-Of-Mind Experience." No Big Deal.

Yet again this morning, Clark Hoyt uses his Public Editor column to let the NYT and its reporters off the hook.

In today's op-ed column, Hoyt finally addresses the odd discrepancy first noted by the Nytpicker on December 10 -- the morning an Editor's Note revealed that a David M. Halbfinger story had reported a phone conversation between Sen. Edward Kennedy and Gov. David Paterson that never happened.

In that editor's note, the NYT acknowledged the fact that the previous morning's Halbfinger "scoop" was false. But the Editor's Note failed to explain how that story could include the statement that a Kennedy spokesman had "declined to comment" on the original Halbfinger report.

If the Kennedy-Paterson phone call hadn't happened, shouldn't the spokesman have flat denied it, instead of just declining to comment? It never made sense.

Turns out Hoyt was curious, too. But in typical fashion for the man whose job is to forgive his employer its myriad mistakes, Hoyt has managed to make the situation murkier than ever.

But despite Hoyt's whitewash this morning, the facts now make clear that Halbfinger (and his confederate, Nicholas Confessore) both put stories into print that December day with clearly false reporting, and an apparent reckless disregard for the truth.

Here's Hoyt's version of how it went down.

On December 8, anonymous sources (referred to as "Democratic aides" told Halbfinger that Kennedy had called Paterson to lobby for Caroline Kennedy's candidacy for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

Halbfinger sent word to Washington correspondent Carl Hulse that he needed a comment from Kennedy about the prospect of a Caroline Kennedy candidacy. Halbfinger didn't say anything to Hulse about Kennedy's supposed phone call to Paterson. Hulse asked the press secretary for an interview with Kennedy about the Caroline Kennedy candidacy, and got turned down.

Halbfinger then sent his own email to the Kennedy flack, Anthony Coley, asking him to comment on "the Caroline thing." Again, no mention made of the phone call scoop that Halbfinger was planning as his lede. The flack declined to comment, saying that he would have "nothing for you on that story."

At this point in Hoyt's narrative of events in this morning's column, the Public Editor makes his own crucial mistake.

"Halbfinger said he mistook the answer as a no-comment on the phone call," Hoyt wrote.

What is Hoyt talking about? He has just made it clear that Halbfinger didn't ask the spokesman about the phone call. How could he use a word like "mistook" to describe a deliberate misrepresentation? Halbfinger knew what he'd asked and what he hadn't asked.

Two other deliberate acts compounded Halbfinger's sleazy handling of the flack's no-comment.

The first was, of course, Halbfinger's conscious decision not to call Paterson's office for comment on the call, before going into print with his scoop.

But Hoyt doesn't hold Halbfinger accountable for that failure except to say that "he couldn't explain why he didn't call Paterson."

The second was his decision to depend on some false reporting by Confessore -- a mistake that made its way onto the Times website, and remains there uncorrected as of this morning.

Apparently, on the morning of December 8, the Albany correspondent thought he'd heard Kerry Kennedy, a cousin, confirm the Kennedy-Paterson phone call. Confessore immediately posted this news on the NYT's City Room blog.

"Kerry Kennedy also confirmed reports that her uncle, Edward M. Kennedy, had lobbied Mr. Paterson on Caroline Kennedy’s behalf," Confessore posted at 3:18 p.m. on December 8.

"That turned out to be wrong," Hoyt writes this morning -- the first and only acknowledgement of this mistake by the Times.

Halbfinger told Hoyt "he thought he had some corroboration" from the Confessore report.

So what's Hoyt's conclusion? The Public Editor allows Halbfinger to describe himself as "chagrined" and suggest that there was "no rational explanation" for his handling of the story.

"Halbfinger said he couldn't explain why he didn't call Paterson," Hoyt writes.

Hoyt doesn't bother to sort through the holes in Halbfinger's story. Instead, he mutters that despite editors, policies and procedures in place to keep its content accurate, "bad things still happen."

But to anyone who has reported for a living, it's clear what likely happened.

Halbfinger got a story he thought was a scoop. He was afraid that if one of the principals in the story heard it and denied it, he'd lose his scoop. So he avoided asking either party about his story, and instead went into print without checking his facts with anyone.

His explanation: "I had an out-of-mind experience for two hours."

Are we supposed to think that Times editors accepted that "explanation" as an excuse for flagrantly violating the basic tenets of journalism?

They must have. Halbfinger continued to cover the Kennedy story for weeks afterwards, as though nothing happened to cast doubt on his reportorial skills. His byline still appears in the Times.

So does Confessore -- the reporter who couldn't even properly report on the contents of a television interview, and also reported a statement in the NYT that was never made.

It seems hard to believe that Halbfinger and Confessore represent the top talent the Times can come up with to cover the biggest political story in New York right now -- two reporters who don't bother to let facts and reporting get in the way of their hunger for scoops.

And as for Hoyt, it would be nice to see him use his access to the Times to do what a Public Editor is supposed to do -- hold the institution accountable for its mistakes.

Nowhere in Hoyt's column today does he even ask Times editors about their reaction to the phony scoops by Halbfinger and Confessore. He gets one quote from standards editor Craig Whitney describing Halbfinger's sourcing descriptions as "inadequate."

That's not enough accountability for an institution that calls itself the newspaper of record.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, The New York Times, January 7, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sorry, Alex Williams -- The Onion Had The "Swaggering Decline" Story Back In October.

Yet again, the NYT has tried to represent a Styles section story as a scoop, when in fact the news had already been broken by the crack reporting team at its crosstown rival, The Onion. This time it's the section's lead piece tomorrow about New York City's loss of swagger in the wake of the economic downturn.

From the NYT's Styles section lead story, "When The Action Moves On," by Alex Williams:

The sudden downturn has affected the very industries that give New York its identity — finance, media, advertising, real estate, even tourism — with extreme prejudice.

The result is that some New Yorkers feel that the city is losing, along with many jobs, its swagger and its sense of pre-eminence, which is no small matter in a town where many feel like it takes an outsize swagger to survive.

From The Onion's page-one story, "Swaggering Down 87%," October 24, 2008:

According to an alarming new study published Monday in The Journal Of Applied Behavioral Science, the time-honored American activity of swaggering, an extremely arrogant manner of walking, has dropped by nearly 90 percent since 2007.

The severe economic turmoil of recent weeks and the United States' diminished credibility and moral standing on the world stage are just two of the major factors named in the study as contributing to the precipitous decline in self-important locomotion.

"Our research indicates that American swaggering has dropped to levels drastically lower even than those reached during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s," said Dr. Lionel Macleod, a New York University behavioral psychology professor and lead author of the report. "Sadly, a brash, wide-legged gait accompanied by an overconfident smile and one jauntily raised eyebrow may soon be a thing of the past."

Sorry, Alex. The Onion got there first.

REWARD! Nytpicker Offers $500 For Return Of Missing Thesis In Today's Kennedy Story. No Questions Asked.

Attention, Nytpicker readers:

The so-called "nut graf," or thesis statement, in Nicholas Confessore's metro-section story this morning about Caroline Kennedy's success in book publishing has gone missing.

Due to this mysterious absence, Confessore's story, "In Book World, Caroline Kennedy Is A Powerhouse," currently has no meaning whatsover.

As a result, the Nytpicker is offering a $500 reward for the missing paragraph or paragraphs. No questions will be asked. Thank you in advance for your assistance in this urgent matter. You may email the missing thesis to us at

It's Déjà Vu All Over Again. And Again. And Again. And Again.

"In the immortal words of Yogi Berra," Joe Nocera wrote this morning as the lede to his front-page column on bank rescues, "it's déjà vu all over again."

Let's see, why are those words immortal? One theory might be that the NYT uses them so often. It has been only four months since Nocera himself inserted the famous phrase into the paper. "It could be déjà vu all over again," Nocera wrote about the Google-Yahoo deal, on September 13, 2008.

Of course, overuse of the brilliant Berra line is nothing new. As of this morning, the phrase yields 514,000 Google hits. It's the title of a John Fogerty album. And desperate newspapers have clung to the cliche for decades, especially when describing financial calamities that tend to repeat themselves.

But the Times has been repeating itself a lot lately.

The phrase first popped up in a Times editorial on a French political scandal in September, 1985. (For the record, the editorial also included the phrase, "What did President Mitterand know, and when did he know it?")

There have been 263 other uses of the line in the last 23 years, or a rate of approximately 11 repeats a year -- that's roughly once a month. Impressive, Yogi!

It most recently surfaced only a week ago, as a headline in the sports section, above a piece about Jason Giambi's move to Oakland.

But obviously the phrase comes in handiest for commentators trying to suggest that we're experiencing a repeat performance of some past transgression.

Consider Maureen Dowd's use of it in a November 15, 2008 column: "There are Obama aides and supporters who are upset that The One who won on change has ushered in déjà vu all over again," she wrote.

Or, for that matter, Dowd's inclusion of the phrase in a column that mentioned George Bush's Iraq policy in the context of his father's" "Sounds like Oedipal déjà vu all over again," she concluded. The phrase often finds itself at the beginning or the end of columns, because of its...well, maybe just because it sounds so good.

But give Dowd credit. Before June she hadn't dropped the phrase into a column since 1998.

Some writers attribute the phrase to Berra. Others don't. Harvey Araton, the sports columnist, used it last year and introduced it by saying, "To quote an esteemed neighbor of mine in Montclair, N.J...."

Does attributing it to Berra make it okay? Sorta, we suppose. But maybe it's time to retire the line and find a new way to reference the idea of historical repetition.

Will it happen? Don't know. It's tough making predictions, especially about the future.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why Won't Joe Nocera Tell The Truth About Steve Jobs? Maybe Because He's A Hypocrite.

On his ""Executive Suite" blog this morning, Times business columnist Joe Nocera strongly suggests that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is lying about his health.

What's the basis for Nocera's claim? It's an off-the-record conversation with Jobs from last summer that Nocera still refuses to discuss, except that he can't seem to stop mentioning it every chance he gets.

"I said at the time that I knew I was being spun by Mr. Jobs," Nocera writes. "But I didn’t think I was being lied to. Now, I’m not sure what to think."

But of course he does, if he told us the truth last summer. Supposedly, after getting the reporter to agree to go off-the-record, Jobs came clean and confessed the precise nature of his illness.

But now that Jobs has removed himself from the Apple leadership with new disclosures about his health, Nocera has jumped on the opportunity to label Jobs a liar.

"It is possible...that [Jobs] and Apple are telling the truth," Nocera writes in today's blog post. "Possible — but unlikely."

Why is Nocera still holding back what he knows about Job's health? Maybe he's calculating that if continues to keep Jobs's confidence, the CEO will reward him with another off-the-record phone call. Whatever the reason, it's hypocrisy.

It all began last July, when Jobs called Nocera to deny that he'd had a recurrence of his pancreatic cancer. That call followed several conversations between Nocera and Apple public relations officials, who kept telling the Times that Jobs's health was a "private matter." Nocera and Times reporter John Markoff had been following up on rumors that Jobs's weight loss was the result of a cancer recurrence.

The now-famous conversation with Jobs began with the Apple CEO calling Nocera a "slime bucket" for getting his facts wrong. He then got Nocera to agree to an off-the-record conversation, in which he told the reporter the true nature of his illness.

In the blistering column that followed a few days later, Nocera accused Apple of operating in a culture of shadowy behavior. "Apple simply can’t be trusted to tell truth about its chief executive," Nocera wrote, referencing the company's addiction to secrecy in product development.

But then -- as now -- it was Nocera who was operating in a deceptive manner, by agreeing to talk with Jobs off the record and keeping that information secret despite his own insistence that the public has a right to know.

"Off the record" is a term to describe a process by which journalists gather information without attribution to a named source. It isn't meant to give reporters a special privilege to gather private information not passed on to readers.

In other words: when Joe Nocera got on the phone with Steve Jobs last summer, he did so as a representative of the New York Times, not as a private citizen. He had a responsibility to his readers, and to his employer, not to accept information he wasn't allowed to repeat, or at least attempt to confirm with other sources.

If, in fact, the conversation was truly off the record, what Nocera should have done was to not blare the fact of it to millions -- without revealing the substance of it -- but instead to take the information and see if he could confirm it elsewhere. By any journalistic standard, that would have been a legitimate use of the information; after all, Jobs knew he was talking to a reporter.

But instead -- for reasons that suggest Nocera's egotism in wanting to show the world that Steve Jobs had called him -- he reported everything about the call except the words themselves. It's doubtful that's what Jobs had in mind.

Anyway, Nocera managed to maneuver around the confidentiality pledge in his own slimy way:

Because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me. Suffice it to say that I didn’t hear anything that contradicted the reporting that John Markoff and I did this week. While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than “a common bug,” they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer.

After that, Nocera acknowledged a twinger of regret that he'd agreed to terms that went against his own standards of disclosure:

After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.

You would think he’d want them to know before me. But apparently not.

Now Nocera wants to have it both ways. He takes pleasure in ripping Jobs apart for his failure to disclose crucial information to shareholders, while insisting it's his own responsibility to maintain his off-the-record pledge.

At what point does the public's right to know outweigh a private principle, or even a journalistic one? Here's Nocera's take on why Jobs owes us the truth:

There are certain people who simply don’t have the same privacy rights as others, whether they like it or not. Presidents. Celebrities. Sports figures. And, at least in terms of his health, Steve Jobs. His health has become a material fact for Apple shareholders. His vagueness about his health, his dissembling, his constantly changing story line — it is simply not an appropriate way to act when you are the most important person at one of the most high-profile companies in America. On the contrary: it is infuriating.

What's truly infuriating is how Nocera sees himself in a special category of Times reporter -- one who is entitled to have off-the-record conversations with prominent Americans and then keep their secrets.

It's as though Nocera somehow thinks Jobs shared his secret with him because of who he is, and not because of the newspaper he represents. Of course he's wrong.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maureen Dowd Used To Question Off-The-Record Presidential Breakfasts. (But That Was Before Today's Breakfast.)

On April 2, 1989 -- about two decades before Maureen Dowd's off-the-record breakfast this morning with Barack Obama -- the then-White House reporter wrote a critical look at the practice of such sessions for Washington insiders.

Under the headline, "Journalists Debate the Risks As President Woos the Press," Dowd assessed President George H. W. Bush's habit of hosting off-the-record sessions for reporters. In the early days of that Bush administration, the president often invited journalists to background dinners at the White House, hoping to curry favor with a largely liberal press.

Dowd didn't appear to like the practice much back then, and devoted 1,540 words to a dissection of the issues it raised:

Some reporters say such private contacts give them additional insights. But many other journalists and media critics are skeptical, remembering the Camelot days when John F. Kennedy's courtship of reporters seemed to turn many of them into cheerleaders, and the tense days when Lyndon B. Johnson tried to build support for the Vietnam war with intense, personal persuasion of the press corps.

In both cases, many journalists worried afterwards that they may have crossed the line from journalism to advocacy.

Dowd revealed that Bush had summoned three top reporters to the White House for lunch -- Thomas L. Friedman, then diplomatic correspondent for The Times; Gerald Seib, then a White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Timothy J. McNulty, then the White House reporter for The Chicago Tribune -- in advance of meetings with Israeli and Egyptian leaders.

Dowd quoted her then-boss, Washington bureau chief Howell Raines, attacking the idea.

"We have serious misgivings about this approach," Raines told Dowd. "We've told our reporters not to give advice, to avoid expressing opinions that would cast doubt on their objectivity and to withdraw if they feel they are being co-opted or compromised."

This morning, Dowd was one of several journalists who went to breakfast with Obama at his transition headquarters. All those invited were liberal columnists; their conservative counterparts had dinner with Obama last night at George Will's home.

But four of them -- Dowd, Frank Rich, Bill Kristol and David Brooks -- represent the Times, and all of them incorporate reporting into their commentary. (Paul Krugman reportedly declined an invitation to attend.)

Was it appropriate for Dowd, as a trained reporter, to agree to an off-the-record encounter with the President-elect? Will she adhere to the ground rules, or report on the session in her next column?

It's interesting, in anticipation of the Obama administration, to reflect on Dowd's legitimate concerns in 1989 with the problems created by a president who prefers to talk to the media with their notebooks closed.

Natasha Singer Finds Exactly One Person Who Likes Allergan's New Eyelash Drops. (She's In The Press Release.)

Today's NYT page-one advertisement comes packaged as a news story by Natasha Singer, about those wacky, expensive eyedrops that might make your eyelashes grow longer.

Despite its front page placement, Singer's story quotes only one user of the drug -- Cindy Ross of Wethersfield, Connecticut -- to confirm the company's claims that it's effective in extending eyelash length. “People would say to me ‘Are you wearing false eyelashes?’ — even my own mother asked,” Ross told Singer.

Singer dug up Ross the way most lazy reporters do: from a December 26 news release from Allergan, the makers of Botox and a frequent NYT advertiser. The release included a video interview with Ross offered to television stations around the country.

And if you think Ross rates as an objective commentator on a new prescription to improve personal appearance, consider where she works: as a sales vp for Young Pharmaceuticals, itself a cosmetic drug manufacturer.

Read the rest of the story carefully and you'll see that many doctors and analysts doubt whether the expensive new drug really works, or whether it's worth the possible side effects -- which include itching and a possible permanent darkening of the irises and eyelids.

Beyond that, the high cost of the drug -- it's priced at $4 a dose -- renders it out of reach for all but the wealthiest, most self-indulgent Americans desperate for yet another cosmetic fix.

But that didn't stop the Times from offering valuable page-one real estate today to the drug's launch later this month, even though it had been reported elsewhere (including the Wall Street Journal) back when the FDA approved it in December.

The story also presented a jarring juxtaposition to the terrific Dexter Filkins story from Afghanistan, just inches away, above the fold -- about terrorist attacks on young Afghan girls being sprayed in the face with acid, and scarred for life.

Kinda makes the whole idea of women extending their eyelashes seem pretty lame. On a front page with only six stories, it seems as though someone might have noticed and bumped the Allergan story inside, where it belonged.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Henry Blodget: "Radical Cost Cuts" The Only Answer To NYT's Cash Crisis. We Agree.

Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, The Atlantic's Michael Hirschorn, and the Times's David Carr (reporter) and Catherine Mathis (chief flack) have all drawn swords over Hirschorn's assertion that the paper could fold in May if money isn't raised to help erase its mammoth debt.

Who's right?

Well, they're all correct about the unlikely prospect that the Times will fold in the near future. Even Hirschorn's own piece makes clear that his doomsday scenario isn't very likely.

But they're all off the mark -- or at least wildly unrealistic -- when it comes to calculating what's needed to save the Times from a short-term financial disaster.

Nolan has pitched an implausible plan to convert the Times to a nonprofit. Hirschorn unhelpfully suggested that the Times become a souped-up website. Carr wants a Steve Jobs type to create an "iTunes" for news. We like that idea the best, but who's got the money or ingenuity to pull it off anytime soon?

As for Mathis: the Times's chief spokesperson wasted valuable time by writing an impassioned letter to the Atlantic yesterday, disseminated through the Romenesko media website, that took Hirschorn's piece to task for shoddy reporting. Mathis repeated the company's usual (and embarrassingly weak) defense for the Times's current business plan.

Mathis corrects Hirschorn's mistaken reference to the sale-leaseback plan for the Times HQ as "borrowing money against the building's value," and contradicts Hirschorn's dire assessment of the Times's debt:

While credit markets remain tight, we have been talking with lenders and, based on our conversations with them, we expect to get the financing to meet our obligations when they come due. And please remember, we continue to generate good cash flow from our operations.

Mathis then falls back on the Times's favorite counter-argument -- that everyone's favorite punching bag, the paper's print edition, remains profitable:

We have 830,000 loyal readers who have subscribed to The New York Times for more than two years, a number that has increased by about a third over the past decade. They like reading the print edition and pay a substantial amount of money to do so.

So what? If a profitable print edition is all it takes to stay in business, then no one would be speculating on the Times's dire future. Jill Abramson also offered that useless defense to "Talk To The Newsroom" questioners last week who wondered whether the Times would survive. Get over it!

So who's got the Times's future figured out?

We think it's Henry Blodget, the former Wall Street securities analyst and editor in chief of Silicon Alley Insider. He has consistently followed the Times's balance sheet with wisdom and foresight, so we figured we'd ask him to to read Mathis's letter and weigh in on whether she's right to refute Hirschorn's dire predictions.

Here's Blodget's email to the Nytpicker from last night. As usual, he's demanding that the Times consider sell assets and substantially cut its business budget to preserve its core news operation:

Catherine is right about the sale-leaseback: It aims to raise $225 million the company wants to use to pay down long-term debt (but could use for other purposes). The $400 million revolving credit line due in May, meanwhile, can be covered with the $400 million line due in 2011, which takes some of the immediate cash pressure off.

That said, NYTCo's business itself will likely start burning cash this quarter, and it will therefore become yet another drain on the company's resources. NYTCo still needs to find a way to meet obligations of $200 million of cash this year and at least $500 million in each of the next two years, for a total of more than $1 billion (details here). The sale of the Red Sox stake, if successful, will only cover a fraction of this.

NYTCo could likely raise cash through an equity or debt offering, but this would be extremely expensive with the company in this condition. The only way to return the business to sustainable profitability, meanwhile, is to make radical cost cuts. And even that will likely only buy time.

In a way, Blodget's views represent a doomsday scenario far darker than anything Hirschorn imagined. The kinds of cuts that may soon be necessary at the Times could carve a hole in the news operation that leaves the paper bloody and weakened. But the Times can't keep flashing its dwindling wad of cash around town, like a Vegas gambler, as a way of convincing itself it will survive the worst economic downturn of our lifetime.

It's time for the Times to stop arguing with outsiders like Hirschorn, and figure out its own plan for the future. The more Mathis defends the status quo, the more she shows how far NYTCo. remains from a permanent solution to its severe economic woes.

Bono Op-Ed Column Inspires NYT To Publish More "Sinatra"-Style Headlines.

"[Sinatra's] ode to defiance is four decades old this year and everyone sings along for a lifetime of reasons....Fabulous, not fabulist. Honesty to hang your hat on."
--Bono, op-ed page, 1/11/2009

"Mistakes, I've Made A Few, Bush Tells Reporters"
--page A1, Tuesday, 1/13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

NYU Prof Accuses NYT Of Repeating Itself With Steven Pinker's Genome Article. He's Wrong.

NYU visiting journalism professor Dean Olsher has accused the New York Times of committing a "blunder" by printing Steven Pinker's cover story this past Sunday on personal genetics testing, 14 months after Times reporter Amy Harmon wrote "essentially the same piece" on the topic.

Olsher's wrong. The headlines may be the same, but otherwise there's almost no resemblance between the two.

It's odd to see Olsher taking a public stand on this issue without disclosing that he's worked with Pinker in the recent past. Less than two years ago, Olsher -- a radio journalist who has worked for NPR -- narrated the 2007 Penguin audio book for Pinker's bestseller, "The Stuff Of Thought." We're not sure what that connection means exactly, but we do know you won't find it mentioned on his website. You'd think an NYU journalism professor would understand the value of full disclosure.

As for the articles: Pulitzer winner Harmon wrote a newsy, 1,644-word first-person account of getting her DNA analyzed for possible future disease. Pinker's 8,010-word article filled a much larger canvas; he wrote eloquently and at length about the likelihood that such testing could accurately tell us anything about personality, or our true nature -- a topic left unaddressed by Harmon's engagingly personal but largely superficial piece. Other than their mutual interest in genetics testing, the two stories follow completely different approaches, and come to vastly different conclusions.

In fact, the Times Magazine -- usually packed to overflowing with earnest, dutiful journalism no one reads -- deserves credit this time for giving Pinker room to ruminate on a complex and fascinating topic too often written about only in medical terms. He's a celebrated thinker and academic who, from his perch as a psychology professor at Harvard, has become famous for his breezy prose style as well as his provocative ideas. In 2004, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The fact that the headlines were the same was an unfortunate accident that shouldn't take away from the articles' essential distinctions, and unique attributes.

So why was Dean Olsher so incensed? And why didn't he bother to read both articles before publicly, and falsely, labelling them the same?

Clark Hoyt Forgets To Mention That NYT Ran Faked Iranian Missiles Photo, Too.

One more thing about yesterday's Public Editor column:

In it, Clark Hoyt credited a Times photo editor, Patrick Witty,with having exposed as fake a photograph of Iranian missiles that duped other newspapers.

But Hoyt's column conveniently forgets to mention that the photo initially duped the Times, too.

"Last summer, Witty unmasked as a fake a photo of an Iranian missile test that ran on many other front pages," Hoyt wrote. A reader is likely to infer that the Times never printed the photo.

But had Hoyt really not read the Times's web posting about the photo on July 10, 2008? There the paper openly disclosed that the faked photograph appeared not only on the print front pages of several major newspapers, but also on the front page of the Times's own website, and thus seen by hundreds of thousands of Times readers.

The Times was honest enough to acknowledge this fact back in July. Why didn't Hoyt feel it necessary to admit, six months later, that the Times had been duped along with everyone else?

Kudos to Witty for catching it before it landed in the newspaper, but the omission by Hoyt demonstrates his ongoing desire to cast his employer in the most positive light possible -- regardless of the facts.

To Readers Searching BabsonLacrosse and Tina Fey, We're Probably Not What You're Looking For.

But thanks anyway to the thousands of Americans who visited The Nytpicker during last night's Golden Globe Awards. In November, this website used the words Babson, lacrosse and Tina Fey on a single web page; last night at the Globes, Fey made a reference to Internet commenter "BabsonLacrosse," causing curious web users to launch searches for the name.

You came here. It's cool. We appreciate it. Stick around for our famous Clyde Haberman impression.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Clark Hoyt Counts War Photos On His Fingers, Concludes NYT Is Being Fair To Israel And Hamas.

This morning, Public Editor Clark Hoyt delivers another of his patented poorly-reported looks at Times coverage, and concludes yet again that his employer has done a perfectly good job.

What a great gig! Frankly we're a little jealous that Hoyt gets an office, an assistant, a swanky title and some sweet real estate on the Sunday op-ed page to critique the Times, and he doesn't even have to do serious reporting, or find anything much wrong with its content.

This time Hoyt takes on the paper's coverage of the war in Gaza, a topic that has enraged readers on both sides who see the Times as hopelessly biased. Earlier this week, managing editor Jill Abramson declared that these conflicting opinions represented a "backwards vote of confidence" in the paper. Hoyt calls that claim "risky," but then proceeds to tacitly endorse Abramson's bone-headed boosterism.

First, though, Hoyt gathers a couple of meaningless quotes from other press critics and supposed experts to fill space and make it look like he's earning his paycheck.

David K. Shipler, a former Times reporter, tells Hoyt that both sides see themselves as a victim, and declares: "Any fair-minded coverage has to shatter that paradigm." Well? How does the Times measure up? Shipler doesn't say.

Next, Nicholas Lemann -- dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism -- weighs in with this non-committal quote: "It isn't just a war," Lemann says. "It's a media war." Thanks for clarifying, Nick!

Hoyt then barely scratches the surface of complaints. He notes a mistake made by Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner in confusing a "peace treaty" with a "ceasefire" and addresses, briefly, errors made in reporting casualty figures -- errors that have already been corrected in the paper.

Most of his column covers criticism that photos reflect a bias towards Palestinian casualties. But again, Hoyt sides with the Times; he interviews Patrick Witty, a Times photo editor, and lets the Times employee defend himself in detail.

To readers' charges of imbalance in photography -- borne out in a count by Hoyt's assistant -- Hoyt allows Witty the last word. "There's nothing fair in war photography," he says. "It's tragic."

Hoyt describes Times Gaza stringer Taghreed El-Khodary's courageous efforts to count victims with care, but doesn't appear to have interviewed her. He doesn't quote Bronner directly. A third Times correspondent in Israel -- Isabel Kershner, whose husband, Hirsh Goodman, served as an Israeli paratrooper in the Six-Day War -- doesn't even get mentioned.

Wouldn't it have better served Hoyt's purposes -- and readers -- for him to have addressed the perception that the reporters themselves come to the story with biases? That has been the objection leveled by many, and left unaddressed by the Public Editor.

Nor does Hoyt do any textual analysis of Times articles over the last 16 days of war, He fails to find evidence of bias because he doesn't appear to have looked. Instead, he depends almost solely on reader complaints, failing to step back from the crossfire and figure out, objectively, whether the Times has injected bias into its coverage.

Instead, Hoyt quotes a Times foreign editor defending the paper by saying, "Like all human things, we are not perfect." If that become sufficient defense by the Times against all accusations of mistakes and bias, then why bother having a Public Editor?

Hoyt then concludes: "Though the most vociferous supporters of Israel and the Palestinians do not agree, I think The Times, largely barred from the battlefield and reporting amid the chaos of war, has tried its best to do a fair, balanced and complete job — and has largely succeeded."

We don't doubt that's what Hoyt thinks. But we doubt he did an adequate job of sorting through the Times's coverage in Gaza to buttress his view with facts and examples. It takes more than a couple of interviews and a casual collection of quotes to measure bias in coverage.

Let's hope someone better than Hoyt comes along one day to do the dirty work necessary to police the newspaper he correctly describes as having "international reach and influence." Readers deserve the same level of reporting and analysis from its Public Editor that they expect from the Times itself.

Maureen Dowd "Pays Homage" To Woody Allen With Clever "Buick" Reference.

"The senators seemed thrilled, especially Joe Biden, who was getting sworn in for just two weeks and was excitedly showing off a family Bible the size of a Buick."
--Maureen Dowd, 1/11/2009

"Honey, there's a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick."
Alvy Singer, "Annie Hall," 1977

Friday, January 9, 2009

NYT Quietly Launches New "API" That Shows You How Congress Votes. It Looks Pretty Cool.

Yesterday, The Times launched its third, "Congress API" for developers, which lets you track the way congressional representatives vote, and offers substantial information about the way government works.

We're not developers so we can't log in, but it looks very cool -- and it's clearly another clue into the ways the Times hopes to serve its audience in the future, with ways to access significant amounts of information about the world without ever leaving the Times website.

Last year, the Times launched a similar "API" (that's an application performing programming interface, stupid Nytpicker!) for people gathering information on political campaign contributions, and another for movie reviews. These applications allow users to find, sort and read through vast amounts of data and information with speed and ease.

This latest venture, revealed yesterday on the Times's "Open" blog, offers a comprehensive way to watch the votes of a particular member of Congress, or a specific piece of legislation:

The initial release exposes four types of data: a list of members for a given Congress and chamber, details of a specific roll-call vote, biographical and role information about a specific member of Congress, and a member’s most recent positions on roll-call votes.

The four work together, so you can start by retrieving a list of members, find the one(s) you’re interested in and then fetch additional details through other calls. We built this service to work with other publicly available data sources, so you can identify members of Congress with a seven-character code from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. For individual member responses, we included the numeric ID assigned by GovTrack, a free and open-source service that monitors legislative activity.

If you didn't quite follow that -- it's okay, we had to read it three times -- basically the deal is that you type in a number for your representative, and up pops about as much information about their voting record as you could gather in a week at the public library.

Why is the Times squirreling away these rad applications, and launching silly opinion blogs on the front page of its website? These APIs deserve their day in the sun, and not just for developers who gain permission to enter. We're ready for the future, and we like what you're doing. Bring it on.

NYT Starts Its New Opinion Blog. Never Mind That It's Boring -- Just Comment, Please.

A half-hour ago, the Times launched "Room for Debate," its promised new blog for outside experts to discuss the pressing issues of the day, and for readers to debate them in the comments section.

Today's topic is "Fear Factor In The Workplace," a nod to the old reality show where people ate cockroaches on TV. Right now, we kind of miss that show.

Not that we have anything against expert opinions; like the rest of the world, we already spend way too much time reading Internet blogs, op-ed columns and movie reviews in search of people to argue with in our heads.

But do we really need the Times to gather yet more of them up for us, and then beg for comments? By encouraging readers to do nothing but comment on its blogs all day, the Times is ironically facilitating the very joblessness its new blog purports to address.

Okay, it's only been a half-hour. We'll wait and see. Plus we really love Ed Park, the author of the novel "Personal Days," who's one of the inaugural six panelists, even though he offers up only a stale lay-off anecdote about a former Village Voice pal, and some well-written generalities. (The rest include two professors, a lawyers, a psychologist and a consultant, none of which have much to say beyond the obvious, so far.)

The Times introduced it on its home page this morning with a splash of red and this brief summary:

A new commentary blog convenes outside experts to discuss news and issues, starting with a forum on unemployment and workplace anxiety.

Yeah, sounds scintillating. As soon as we're done working our way through the latest drunk confessionals on the "Pour" blog, we'll get right to this.

Hey Obama, Forget The Stimulus Package, And Give Ken Prewitt That Census Job Already!

Where was the Times editorial today on the Obama stimulus package? Still in the planning stages? Maybe the gang is just overworked from finally pulling together a half-baked opinion on the Gaza War.

Still, you might have expected the paper to weigh in on the matter, given its monumental importance to our nation's future -- not to mention the fact that it's the first issue to divide Democrats since the Obama coronation in November.

The Washington Post managed to address it with an editorial this morning that raised real doubts about Obama's plan. "[Obama] alluded to 'tough choices' but proposed none," the Post editorial charged. Harsh words came from several other newspapers around the country with far fewer editorial writers than the Times keeps employed.

The Times's front page story -- "Senate Allies Fault Obama On Stimulus" -- took on the debate yesterday with gusto, treating Obama's plan with skepticism based on objections raised by leading Democrats.

"Senate Democrats complained that major components of his plan were not bold enough," wrote reporters Peter Baker and David M. Herszenhorn, "and urged more focus on creating jobs and rebuilding the nation’s energy infrastructure rather than cutting taxes."

Paul Krugman also managed to move quickly, pulling together a passionate column on today's op-ed page, "The Obama Gap," that excoriated the President-elect for his failure to put forward an adequate plan:

But Mr. Obama’s prescription doesn’t live up to his diagnosis. The economic plan he’s offering isn’t as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact, it falls well short of what’s needed.

In classic Krugman fashion, the Nobel laureate explained the "gap" created between Obama's stimulus package and what's needed to increase spending. He questioned the ultimate benefit of tax cuts, and wondered whether Obama might be putting political expedience ahead of the country's needs.

That's the kind of quick, daring commentary that the Times editorial board ought to be able to come up with on deadline. These aren't times for slow deliberation. Obama wants to have a plan in place by Inauguration Day; the Times needs to stay on top of his proposals, and use its authority to guide the public debate.

The editorial page shows no such caution when it comes to the 2010 Census, one of its favorite topics; today's editorial, "Census Crunch Time," marks its seventh editorial on the Census in less than two years. (see The Nytpicker, "Today's Editorial About The 2010 Census Is The Sixth One In Two Years. We Counted," December 4, 2008.)

Today's editorial counsels President-elect Obama to move quickly to name a new director for the Census Bureau or face the prospect of an undercount that could hurt the Democrats.

For the second time in two months, the Times is pushing for Obama to name Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director, back to his old job. This time around, the paper doesn't even bother stating Prewitt's credentials; it just defies Obama to come up with someone better:

If the Obama team has a better candidate, it's past time to put his or her name forward.

It's also past time for the Times to get its act together, and produce more timely editorials on the grave matters facing this country and the world.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Live-Blogging Jill Abramson: "You Would Have Preferred To Read A Partisan Hatchet Job. You Won't Find Those In The Times."

Continuing to cut a swath of self-satisfied superiority through her questioners, managing editor Jill Abramson has taken apart a reader who found a Rush Limbaugh profile in the Times Magazine "too kind."

The reader, Corinne Robinson of Minneapolis, wondered why the Times doesn't do more aggressive reporting on the conservative television commentators who use the cable channels to raise suspicions about their enemies, without any reporting to back up their accusations. "Rush is left off the hook because he is 'an entertainer,'" Robinson wrote. "Since when don't entertainers have the tell the truth?"

The piece in question, by Zev Chafets, was a terrific piece of magazine journalism -- a classic example of the benefits of access in providing insight. Limbaugh let Chafets observe him at work, and Chafets allowed Limbaugh the freedom to speak. The result was, as Abramson correctly describes it, a "rich, nuanced portrait."

But Abramson is clearly getting a bit testy on her fourth day of answering complaints. What else can explain her harsh, insulting answer to Robinson's reasonable, polite question?

There seems a suggestion behind your question that the job of The Times is to target for attack certain figures because of their ideology and prominence. The role of a great news organization isn't to make itself a combatant in the ongoing political food fights that unfold each night on cable and elsewhere. Our Rush Limbaugh magazine cover story was a rich, nuanced portrait of someone whose show has made him a large force over time at the intersection of news, politics, business and entertainment. You may have found it too kind because you would have preferred to read a partisan hatchet job. You won't find those in The New York Times.

And by the way, Jill -- when you calm down a little, I suggest you read Pat Jordan's November 30 profile of Mickey Rourke in the Times Magazine. It's a hatchet job in the Times -- yes, a few have slipped in when you weren't looking -- and of a subject far less worthy of one than a right-wing radio commentator on Fox.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, The New York Times, January 7, 2009

Not To Be Outdone By David Carr, Andrew Revkin Offers Blog Readers A Video Of His Dog's Poop.

Posted this morning on Andrew C. Revkin's "Dot Earth" blog this morning, a minute-long "Walk In The (Icy) Woods" video by Revkin, accompanied by his dogs Sara and Oscar. Enjoy the langourous close-up of his dogs' excrement as it rests on an icy snowbed, accompanied by Revkin's own, dreamy banjo strummings:

A Walk In The (Icy) Woods.

"Our journalism has never been more glorious."
--Jill Abramson, managing editor, The New York Times, January 7, 2009

"The Reckoning," The Times Investigative Series, Part 20 -- Or Maybe Not.

For confused readers and Pulitzer Prize judges:

No, the story entitled "THE RECKONING" (emblazoned in 800-point type across the front page of today's sports section) does not appear to explain how the Florida-Oklahoma B.C.S. championship football game tonight represents one of the root causes of our current economic downturn.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Click Here To See David Carr's Masked Impression Of Heath Ledger In "The Dark Knight." (Yes, We're Serious.)

Usually, we find David Carr's whole Bagger I'm-talking-about-myself-in-the-third-person thing kind of annoying -- as opposed to, say, the diverting use of "we" by the Nytpicker -- but we actually really enjoyed this:

Why So Serious, Oscar?

Live-Blogging Jill Abramson: "The Times Is Nicely Profitable. And Our Journalism Has Never Been More Glorious."

The question was, "How profitable is the New York Times, and how glorious is its journalism?"

Ethan Bronner Attacks Israel, Says Country Should Be "Ashamed" For Media Blackout.

Did Ethan Bronner go too far in publicly attacking Israel, the country he covers for the Times?

Before writing a news story for today's Times about Israel's media restrictions during the Gaza war, Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner offered this no-holds-barred opinion on the matter to the Jerusalem Post, in a story published on Monday:

"Israel has never restricted media access like this before, and it should be ashamed," said Ethan Bronner, the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. "It's betraying the principles by which it claims to live."

Harsh words for a reporter whose job is to objectively cover Israel's government and its policies. It betrays the principles by which reporters are supposed to work -- especially given the fact that today's story, "Israel Keeping Reporters From Close Look At War," is presented as a news account, not as editorial commentary.

There's no question that the circumstances Bronner describes are brutal for a working journalist. Eleven days into the war, Israel has done everything it can to control and manipulate the journalists assigned to cover it. Bronner reports that reporters are kept away from the actual fighting, and instead only given access to sites where Hamas rockets have ravaged civilians in southern Israel.

Bronner's thesis:

Like all wars, this one is partly about public relations. But unlike any war in Israel’s history, in this one the government is seeking to entirely control the message and narrative for reasons both of politics and military strategy.

Today's Times story reflects a balanced, if implicitly frustrated view of the media restrictions, and demonstrates Bronner's pedigree as a former Middle East correspondent for the Boston Globe, and years spent as an editor on the Times's foreign desk.

But by speaking out in the Jerusalem Post, Bronner risks inflaming an increasingly vocal pro-Israel faction in the United States that contends the Times is biased toward Hamas.

"Why Does The New York Times Love Hamas?" screamed a Daily Beast headline yesterday afternoon, over a Steve Emerson essay that declared:

In the past week, the Fourth Estate’s Hamas cheerleaders have stripped away any pretense of being honest or neutral, with the New York Times continuing to take the side of the terrorist group in one of the most shameful journalistic episodes I have ever seen.

Emmerson cited as one example Bronner's recent statement to Times Public Editor Clark Hoy regarding the use of the word "terrorist" in the Times: “Our general view is that the word terrorist is politically loaded and overused,” Bronner told Hoyt.

Bronner's public broadside against Israel will likely only incite more attack on the Times's coverage of the Gaza war. Next time Bronner is feeling angry at Israel, maybe he should try kicking his dog.

Nicholas Confessore's Anonymous Sources Actually Say Things Like "Wink-Wink, Nudge-Nudge."

So let's see if we have this straight. We're pretty sure we don't.

"Several people with direct knowledge of the conversations" have told Nicholas Confessore that an aide to Mario Cuomo, the state Attorney General, called a few people in December and asked them not to endorse Caroline Kennedy for the Hillary Clinton Senate seat.

Those sources have placed the story, "Cuomo Aide Is Said To Try To Slow Kennedy Bid," on page one of this morning's Times.

What are the political agendas of these sources? What does the phrase "direct knowledge" mean? Who were they talking to? What are the implications of the disclosure? Where is the smoking gun in any of the reporting, that supports the thesis? Why is this story on page one? These are just a few of the many questions raised -- but not addressed -- in reading Confessore's confusing (that's a polite word) piece.

All right, here's what we really think: Confessore's suspect journalism here barely meets the bar for publication, let alone a showcase spot on the front page.

This is Journalism 101, Nick -- not letting your sources hide behind vague descriptions that mean nothing. We see what you're doing, and we don't like it.

Right from the first paragraph, Confessore lays out a messy proposition: that "people with direct knowledge of the conversations" have provided him with his information. What does that phrase mean? Had he spoken to people who'd actually had one of these alleged conversation, wouldn't he have been obliged to say so? His inelegant phrasing seems designed to make us think that his sources weren't actual participants.

Here's how Confessore begins the story, with emphasis added to show the vagaries of his attributions, and the consciously confusing construction:

Even as Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo insisted he was staying out of the competition for New York’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat, a top Cuomo aide urged labor leaders and upstate officials to refrain from embracing Caroline Kennedy for the job, according to several people with direct knowledge of the conversations.

Two of the people, including a prominent upstate Democratic operative, said the Cuomo aide, Joseph Percoco, had suggested the upstate officials give Ms. Kennedy a cold reception and had questioned her credentials.

“He said, ‘Don’t you think it should be someone who understands upstate? Don’t you think it should be someone with experience? Shouldn’t it be somebody who knows New York better?’ ” said the operative, who spoke anonymously out of fear of antagonizing the attorney general. “They’ve been trying to feed people.”

The second-paragraph reference seems designed to make clear that Confessore's sources aren't direct participants in the conversations, but rather, people who have been told about them -- making them what would be considered "secondary" sources, and thus less reliable.

If Confessore's sources were, in fact, the people on the phone with Percoco, he should have said so in more precise language. But maybe that was the whole point: perhaps he was using vague language to deliberately confuse the reader and thus protect the sources, so that Percoco wouldn't be able to identify them. It wouldn't be the first time a reporter did such a thing, though the Times has rules against misleading readers with source attributions.

Confessore plays even more fast and loose with his sourcing distinctions in the story's fourth paragraph, where he describes a conversation with "a top union official," and then quotes "the official." He's making it clear that this interview, unlike the others, was with a direct participant in a conversation with the Cuomo aide. Which undercuts the value of the reporting we just read.

And as for his original sourcing -- what exactly is a "prominent upstate Democratic operative," anyway? Sounds like someone with built-in biases we should hear about, such as an allegiance to one of the many Democrats circling the soon-to-be vacant Senate seat. But of course Confessore isn't going to tell us more; remember, his sources are anonymous "out of fear of antagonizing the attorney general." (Cuomo's famous temper even gets referred to later in the piece.)

As for the meat of the story -- there isn't any.

The quote from the "operative" does reveal some minor-league effort at manipulation, by raising weaknesses of Kennedy such as experience and knowledge of upstate. But a phone call qustioning Kennedy's credentials -- even from a top Cuomo aide -- hardly seems worthy of front-page treatment.

The second quote Confessore offers to back up his thesis offers even less substantial support: “It wasn’t a specific Caroline Kennedy conversation,” the official said. “It was, ‘I can’t say he wants you to tell people he wants it, but you should, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, know that he kind of wants it,’” the official told Confessore.

Wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- what is this, a Three Stooges sketch? It sure isn't evidence of wrongdoing by anyone. This second conversation only has to do with the possibility that Cuomo actually wants the job, which isn't even the point of the piece.

And that's it: four paragraphs of documentation for a front-page story, the rest of which quotes denials from all concerned -- "This is simply untrue," said a Cuomo spokesman, specifically disputing that Percoco called anyone about the Senate seat -- and rehashes the campaign to date.

Once again, Confessore's reporting on the competition to fill the Senate seat has proven second-rate. The agenda may be different this time, but Confessore's allegiance to his network of anonymous, manipulative sources remains the same.