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.

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