Sunday, January 18, 2009

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

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