Monday, March 30, 2009

More Sad News: The NYT's City Section May Be The Next One To Go, Sources Tell NYTPicker

Freelance writers for the NYT's City Section have told the NYTPicker the scary news they keep hearing from their editors -- that the longtime Sunday section for New York City readers may soon be the next casualty of the paper's ongoing budget cuts.

It's not official, of course. But apparently the small staff of editors who put together the section -- you know, the one steeped in nostalgia, weak reporting and an ongoing obsession with store closings -- have been repeating the rumors they're hearing of its imminent demise.

Catherine Mathis, the NYT's senior vice president for corporate communications, declined to confirm or deny the report when contacted by the NYTPicker yesterday afternoon. "Appreciate your asking," she added, mysteriously.

Sadly, the rumors make sense. In the context of the overall Sunday NYT product, it's the most expendable element. Under longtime City Section editor Connie Rosenblum, a once-vibrant competitor to New York Magazine has become home to dull, discursive essays on bygone New York days, alternating with poorly-reported journalism that often doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

A few examples, as reported in previous NYTPicker posts:

-- Am early, indulgent pain-of-recession chronicle in November that focused on 26-year-old Paige Ferrari, a laid-off Radar Magazine editor who sipped white wine in her Williamsburg apartment as she contemplated her first few days of unemployment.

-- A cover story last fall that chronicled the fight over the renovation of Washington Square Park over a year after the battle was over, and that interviewed former combatants who'd given up and left the neighborhood.

-- A recent cover profile of Hannah Upp -- the 23-year-old schoolteacher who went missing for three weeks last fall -- that unquestioningly bought into her suspicious, self-serving account of herself as a victim of "dissociative fugue," the same condition that afflicted Jason Bourne.

Other stories often tend to dwell on the sort of hyper-local news better covered by good neighborhood papers like The Villager -- which, as some may remember, the City Section (under Rosenblum) ackowledged taking stories from in years past, in a mini-scandal of sorts after the practice came to the attention of the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz.

We at the NYTPicker don't mean to seem gleeful at the possibility that the City Section might close. In fact, we're miserable about it. We'd rather see the NYT replace Rosenblum with a dynamic editor determined to revive the idea of publishing strong narrative journalism every week, which had been its unofficial mandate before Rosenblum arrived. The City Section has a long, storied place in NYC journalism, and its loss would mean a net loss in New York City coverage at a time when we need it more than ever.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sad News In Tomorrow's NYT: The Book Review Has Exactly One Page Of Advertising.

We haven't been counting regularly but we're pretty sure this is a new low: in a 24-page issue, tomorrow's NYT Book Review has one page of paid advertising.

And it's not even a premium-price full-page ad.

Hachette's Grand Central Publishing managed to pony up for two partial pages of advertising -- one ad opposite the Table of Contents (for NYT reporter Jennifer 8. Lee's "Fortune Cookie Chronicles") and another on the opposite page, for Susan Jane Gilman's "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven."

The other paid ad is for "The Dattoli Blue Ribbon Prostate Cancer Solution," available from Amazon. Don't snicker. It probably paid for Rich Cohen's clever review of "Good Book" by David Plotz on page 9.

Maybe the NYT is too proud to beg, but we're not. Is there seriously not enough money in the HarperCollins or Random House budgets to pay for a lousy half-page or two? Come on guys, this is getting ridiculous. The NYT Book Review does more to promote the book industry's cause than any single print publication in the world. It's payback time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nagourney and Baker Forget The News, Focus Their Obsession On Obama's Wacky Persona

Isn't the NYT supposed to do something to differentiate news from analysis? Ragged borders or something?

Anyone reading the paper's page-one piece on last night's Obama press conference -- a judgement-laden thumbsucker by political reporters Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney -- could be forgiven for thinking they were reading an Alessandra Stanley review, and not news coverage of the President's prime time comments.

The result: numerous specific statements by Obama were left unchecked or unchallenged, while the NYT focused instead -- as they seem to greatly enjoy doing -- on the emotional nuances of Obama's style and manner.

Hey guys, we've got an Internet full of bloggers and commentators who can pick apart the president's mood. How about the NYT reporters devote their well-compensated time to reporting on the substance of what Obama said?

For example: in response to a tough question from CNN's aggressive reporter Ed Henry -- wondering why Obama took so long to respond to the AIG bonuses, while New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo got out in front of the issue -- Obama testily and abruptly replied:

Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak.

Wouldn't it have been interesting and valuable to follow up on that quote with reporting or context? Maybe something that explained to the reader what could possibly have taken two days to learn? Or whether his comment was made as a criticism of media pressure, or Cuomo's actions? Instead, the NYT chose to stick with its favorite theme: Obama's personality.

Here's a sampler of the Obama personality interpretations that littered the piece. The tone began with the lede, which in the NYT's old days would have appeared atop a "news analysis" piece accompanying the news coverage:

For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.

Instead, in his second prime-time news conference from the White House, it was Barack Obama
the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, “as I said before” — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.

After a few paragraphs of straightforward assessment that felt shoehorned into the commentary, the NYT returned by the seventh paragraph to its ongoing Rorschach test of his behavior:

At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered. “I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,” he said, adding that executives needed to learn that “enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable.”

Even Obama's quote about the slowness to react to the bonuses -- which ended up as the NYT's quotation of the day -- was presented not as news, but as a reflection of his temperament.

The only time he seemed irritated came when he was asked why the attorney general of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed to have more success getting A.I.G. executives to return some bonuses than his own administration. Pressed on why he did not express outrage immediately upon learning of the bonuses, Mr. Obama said sharply, “Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

The obsession with Obama's personal style continued, to the near-total exclusion of the sort of reportage and fact-checking that the NYT once offered as a followup to a presidential news conference. The NYT skimmed the substance to focus on the ephemeral:

He showed his usual comfort with a wide array of subjects, even as he excluded the nation’s big newspapers from the questioning in favor of a more eclectic mix. He signaled that the new conservative government in Israel could make achieving a peace deal more difficult. He expressed patience about dealing with Iran. And he defended his proposal to increase the tax burden on the wealthy.

This was Mr. Obama as more enervating than energizing, a reminder of the way he could be in his early days as a presidential candidate, before he became defined by rapturous crowds.

“He doesn’t seem to emote any real urgency or anger,” said Matthew Dowd, a former Republican strategist who has often been complimentary of the new president. “So at times it comes across as a bit distant and intellectual," Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, said: “He said all the right things. But sometimes his confidence makes him seem flat.”

By the end, Baker and Nagourney lapsed completely into editorial commentary, using the press conference as a starting point for a full-bore assessment of the Obama presidency. Gone was any pretense of reporting on the specifics of the president's remarks. Gone also was any effort at dispassionate reporting:

Throughout his time in public life, Mr. Obama has confronted questions about whether he was too detached, too analytical, too intellectual. In the campaign, he was as likely to be compared to Adlai E. Stevenson as he was to John F. Kennedy. And if there is a pattern to Mr. Obama, it is to lumber through periods like this and then become intense and animated at the first sign of trouble.

Over the long term, Mr. Obama’s calm has served him well, in particular at the critical moment in the campaign when the economy began its steep slide. “That is one of the things people like about him,” Mr. Trippi said.

When the NYT's primary source in covering a presidential press conference is Joe Trippi -- a political animal who most recently worked on the John Edwards presidential campaign -- maybe it's time to rethink the approach.

Not everything is about spin, folks. Sometimes, the facts themselves warrant some in-depth attention.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Was He Kidding, Or Did David Brooks Actually Get Obama's Autograph?

Did David Brooks actually recently get Barack Obama's autograph on a government chart, or do we simply not get the columnist's ribald sense of humor?

After two NYT White House correspondents recently confessed in print their awe at the luxurious splendor of Air Force One, frankly, we don't know what to expect from NYT reporters and columnists anymore.

In Clark Hoyt's surprisingly hard-hitting column today attacking the NYT's excessive use of anonymous sources -- good one, Clark! -- the Public Editor noted that Brooks had recently kept the president's identity hidden in a March 2 column interviewing "four senior members of the administration." He then noted that Brooks's cover was "blown later." No details on how for print readers -- but web readers got a link.

If they followed it, they found themselves at "The Conversation," a regular web dialogue between columnists Brooks and Gail Collins. In their March 11 edition, Collins pressed Brooks for a confession that he had talked to Obama:

I was so impressed when you reported having been summoned to the White House by top members of the administration who wanted to convince you that they were moderates, too. More so, since I have it on good authority that one of those four unnamed Obamites was the man himself.

Cool to have the president ask you to come over for a long policy discussion. So very much cooler not to mention it. Fess up.

Brooks responded with a confession, and a reference to getting the President's autograph:

You ask if the Big Man himself was one of my four unnamed sources for my column last week. I actually wasn’t clear on the ground rules for some of those conversations, so I decided to play it safe. Let’s just say when I say I speak to senior administration officials, I take the meaning of the word “senior” very seriously, and I now have a very cool autographed copy of a chart showing non-defense discretionary spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. It’s signed, “To Comrade Brooks” and then there’s a name underneath.

Commenters on our recent post about White House reporter Helene Cooper's wide-eyed worship of Air Force One criticized the NYTPicker for being too hard on a charmingly human response to the President's plane. But we stand by our belief that NYT reporters (and columnists) ought to maintain, at least publicly, a dignified disdain for the trappings of power.

That would include getting the President's autograph, and bragging about it to your fellow columnists.

Yes, of course, normal human beings are entitled to be somewhat amazed at the perks of the presidency. The White House has to be a super-cool place to live, and who wouldn't want four years of high-speed motorcades taking you through red lights? Plus the current president is our nation's celebrity-in-chief, so any contact comes with the sort of charge you might expect from an encounter with, say, Britney or Brangelina.

But at the risk of seeming excessively purist or humorless, accepting Obama's autograph at an off-the-record encounter strikes us as kind of wrong. It was bad enough that Brooks let the president go off the record, but we'll leave that to Hoyt to sort out. The autograph issue may seem less egregious, but as symbolism it's hard to ignore. Can you imagine Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman bragging to readers about accepting an autograph from a sitting president? Of course you can't.

The autograph may be worth a lot to Brooks, but to us it diminishes his worth as a columnist capable of keeping his cool in the presence of, as he puts it, "The Big Man himself."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sam Sifton, NYT's Culture Editor, Describes His Staff As "Work Horses" and Show Ponies."

At an otherwise straightforward discussion of arts journalism on March 12 at Christie's, the NYT's culture editor Sam Sifton offered a disturbingly glib short-hand comparison of his staff to four-legged creatures under his firm control.

"We have reporters and we have critics," Sifton explained. "Think of them as work horses and show ponies. You can put reporters in saddle and get them to do everything. With the critics, you offer them sugar cubes and some ribbons."

The audience tittered, and moderator Sree Sreenivasan -- the affable new-media guru at the Columbia Journalism School -- took note of the gaffe.

"Do you have to go back to the office tomorrow?" Sreenivasan asked.

Sifton could not be deterred from his animal analogy. "They know it's true," he insisted.

It could not be learned what Robin Pogrebin's reaction was to the news that Manohla Dargis was receiving regular rations of sugar cubes, while she continued to subsist on Sifton's diet of water and hay.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Seventeen Years Ago, The NYT Discovered "The Arm Fetish" -- In The First Sunday Styles Section Ever.

For those who like to argue that the NYT's Styles section always arrives late to the trend -- such as yesterday's page-one piece on the fitness impact of Michelle Obama's muscled arms -- we offer this surprising little blast from the past.

Yes, it's true: the Styles section was once ahead of the curve. "The Arm Fetish," by Molly O'Neill, was the cover story of the NYT's very first Sunday Styles section ever, on May 3, 1992. O'Neill used Linda Hamilton's notably buff arms in "Terminator 2" as one of its main reference points.

At the time, Michelle Obama was 28.

NYT trivia buffs may recall the Sunday Styles section as the brainchild of Adam Moss, now the celebrated editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, who had been brought into the paper by then-executive editor Joseph Lelyveld to improve its lifestyle coverage. The section's first editor was Penelope Green, who's now a reporter for the NYT's Home section. The Moss-Green Styles section often gave over the entire front page to a single feature; it focused less on the pseudo-trend stories of its current incarnation, and more on well-written features that explored human interest and behavior.

This one earned itself the distinction of being promptly parodied by The Village Voice's Michael Musto, who switched the focus from the arm to the penis.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

NYT Design Director Tom Bodkin Doesn't Like This Whole "Internet" Thing Very Much.

It seems that NYT assistant managing editor Tom Bodkin, who's in charge of design at the newspaper, has a slight tendency to bore people -- especially when he's waxing nostalgically about the great old days before that infernal "Internet" came along and ruined everything for print.

At a session last Saturday on "Designing The Future of The New York Times" at the SXSW conference in Austin, Bodkin -- described by one person in attendance as "about 130 years old" -- devoted most of his talk to a remembrance of the days of heavy metal, when he wasn't dissing technological advancements in the newspaper industry.

A followup appearance by Khoi Vinh, design director of, wasn't much better, apparently, and eventually became so dull that people just left.

This report comes from an entertaining British website called "made by many" that offers caustic, witty commentary on all things digital by Tim Malbon, a British web designer who has worked on The Telegraph's website and blogs, among other ventures.

An excerpt:

The talk was astonishingly boring and backwards-looking, as web-hating Design Director Tom Bodkin droned on and on about a glorious past that quite frankly no-one was there to hear about, starting with his college days which were a very long time ago (Tom seemed about 130 years old). Tom, the clue here was in the title of your talk - the “future” of The New York Times.

A full 20 mins of the hour were dedicated to Tom’s slides from the heyday of hot metal. He managed to dis Razorfish in passing - the agency charged with channeling his ‘genius’ during the website’s redesign a couple of year’s back. He then set about ripping up the Web medium in general for a ‘lack of innovation’ before claiming the NYTimes website didn’t support serendipitous discovery as much as the paper product: a claim so ridiculous that I checked my ears to see if they were working properly. I say ridiculous for the simple reason that the online experience provides billions of hyperlinks that allow one to move from today’s top stories through extensive archives and related content on a fairly joyous journey of discovery in a way that the paper product simply does not.

In case you doubt the accuracy of Malbon's observations, you may want to note the 10 comments (so far) of other eyewitnesses who agree with his assessment, and note Bodkin's apparently well-known tendency to bore audiences with his backward-looking philosophy. ("I think [Bodkin] may be one of the few people I’ve seen/heard/communicated with who actually thinks that there needs to be more one-way communication on the Internet," one commenter observed.

Click here for details -- available only on the "Internet"!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Anybody Got A Question For "Talk To The Newsroom"? Anybody Besides Judith Feinleib, We Mean.

Yesterday's lead-off puffball question in Richard Berke's "Talk To The Newsroom" feature came from Judith Feinleib, of Belmont, Massachusetts.

Does that name ring a bell? It should. It was Feinleib's 30th published "Talk To The Newsroom" question!

Feinleib is rapidly becoming the Helen Thomas of the NYT web feature, except for one key difference: Thomas asks tough questions. But that wouldn't behoove the "Talk To The Newsroom" column, designed to give NYT reporters and editors the chance to make themselves look good in a tightly-controlled situation.

And we're not just saying this because they always ignore our questions. (Okay, that's part of it.)

Actually, so far this week, all three questions come from repeat guests: Devin Banerjee, the Stanford student who asked Bill Keller a question last month about how he spends his day, turned up for his third TTTN appearance yesterday, and Steve Fankuchen, of Oakland, California, asked his second TTTN question.

Shouldn't it really be someone else's turn at the microphone?

Here's Feinleib's latest suck-up salvo, an embarrassing wet kiss directed at the assistant managing editor:

This is your second time answering our questions; you were extremely generous with your time in 2006. Would you comment on what you got from the original experience, on whether and/or how this affected the way you approached your work during the ensuing three years and on what you expect from the experience this time around?

Here's the beginning of Berke's aw-shucks reply, presented as though we're supposed to believe the question was picked at random from a bowl:

What a perfect opening question for my week of blogging. (And who can resist a compliment?)

Feinleib's TTTN debut came on October 18, 2006, when she queried Craig R. Whitney, the NYT's standards editor, on reporters and their rights to speak freely about their political opinions. (By the way, back then, Feinleib was referring to herself ax "Judith Feinleib, Ph.D." She has since dropped her academic credentials.)

Often, Feinleib's questions simply ask NYT editors or reporters to explain their jobs, in a manner that sounds a bit like a third-grader quizzing a visiting firefighter. Here's her question for Khoi Vinh, the design director of, on April 21, 2008:

You have stated that you and your staff are involved with what you describe as the framework for To what extent do you and your staff interact with reporters and editors? How does that work? Assuming you do work with the reporters and editors, is that the same as what happens with the graphics team? In any case, how does your team work with the graphics team?

What? Huh? Oh, sorry -- we fell asleep.

It's not that Feinleib's questions aren't valid. Often, by posing basic queries about the editorial process, she gives the subject the chance to give some insight into how journalists work. But too often, you get the feeling that NYT personnel pick Feinleib's questions because of how easy they are to answer, avoiding possibly more challenging queries that get left out.

Consider this yawner Feinleib lobbed at Marc Frons, the chief technology officer of the NYT's digital operations, in late July:

Are reporters and editors becoming more comfortable with technology? How do you see the news producing staff (for want of a better term) interacting with the IT staff as time goes by? Will this become a seamless operation or will there always be some difference between the two worlds?

"How do you see..." or "How does that work?" constructions come up alot in Feinleib's questions.

Therein may lie Feinleib's secret. There appears to be nothing a NYT staffer likes more than a long-winded "How does that work" question, because it offers a wonderful opportunity for a self-serving and long-winded "Here's how it works" answer!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Has "The Ethicist" Lost His Moral Compass? Randy Cohen Wimps Out On Whistle-Blowing.

In tomorrow's issue of the NYT Magazine, Randy Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," advises a reader on a classic moral dilemma: should an employee blow the whistle on his boss's unethical behavior?

Surprisingly -- and disturbingly -- Cohen's answer is no.

Here's the scenario. A carpenter is working on an $8 million-plus home renovation. The painting subcontractor is a friend of his boss, and has botched his job: the paint won't stick. The boss won't tell the customer, and instead orders the crew to cover up his buddy's lousy work.

"Should I risk my job and inform the owner?" the correspondent asks. "Am I an accomplice to an unethical act or just an employee following instructions?"

Cohen's answer is as clear as it is unexpected: He instructs Name Withheld to keep his mouth shut.

"The threshhold for mandatory whistle-blowing in high," Cohen writes. "My guideline for duty-to-report questions is this: You must come forward when doing so will prevent serious imminent harm to a particular person. That is not the case here."

Cohen goes on to suggest that to come forward might be "desirable," but not necessary given the possibly dire consequences.

"The fate of whistle-blowers is seldom serene," Cohen notes, "and ethics does not compel you to sacrifice your job over this."

Cohen's right, of course: whistle-blowers (or "tattletales," as they're colloquially called) can face dire prospects if caught and punished by their employers. The courts and Congress have waffled on laws to protect whistle-blowers from persecution. It's a risky proposition, and not always advisable.

But is Cohen's job as "The Ethicist" to preach caution on matters of right and wrong? He's not a religious leader, but he's someone we look to for guidance and insight into the complex moral questions that crop up in daily life. Which may be a little scary when you consider that his previous full-time job, before becoming "The Ethicist," was writing jokes for David Letterman.

It seems to us that Cohen's caution sends a dangerous message to those who face similar issues to the one plaguing the morally confused carpenter. When facing a dilemma about the ethical behavior of our bosses, should we all be calculating the potential damage to our careers in deciding what to do? Or should we be more concerned with doing the right thing, no matter what the cost?

Cohen's right that there's no "serious imminent harm" created by a bad paint job -- this isn't the same as Karen Silkwood uncovering wrongdoing in the manufacture of plutonium pellets for fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. No one will die; no one will get sick; no one will probably even know.

But Cohen trips on his own logic by saying that only the guilty need to blow the whistle. "Declining to report other people's misdeeds is one thing; committing your own is another," he writes. "That's what you would be doing if you acted to disguise the bungled paint job."

Read the question, Randy: that's exactly what "Name Withheld" says he was being asked to do. "We employees were told to avoid making this mistake apparent," the carpenter writes. But Cohen glosses over this direct statement in advising the questioner to stay silent, and not go to the home's owner with the truth -- and protecting the wrongdoer in the process.

In the end, Cohen advises the carpenter to bypass the problem entirely, by changing jobs. "Perhaps the question is not should you risk your job but rather how quickly can you find a new one with a nonscoundrel boss," Cohen says.

Is that really a satisfying solution for the would-be whistle-blower -- to run away? The Ethicist's advice has left the carpenter with a knot in his stomach and the task of finding a new position in a ravaged economy. Thanks, Randy.

We're not ethicists, though some of us share Cohen's training as professional gag writers. Still, we do have a collective sense of outrage at injustice, whether it's on a grand scale or at a small workplace.

This case seems to us a simple matter. An $8 million home renovation must involve dozens of workers, all of whom must be aware of this ethical lapse by the "boss." Does the carpenter really risk his employment by going to the home's owner and telling him what happened? Isn't there a reasonable expectation that the owner will keep his name out of it, and fire the head contractor? Who knows -- maybe he'd even reward the carpenter for his honesty by giving him a promotion. It seems to us a reasonable risk, with the added benefit, for the carpenter, of behaving in a way that satisfies his desire to do the right thing.

It seems to us that Cohen ought be bending over backwards to advise his correspondents to do the right thing. It's easy to say that the risk factor isn't worth it on a job this small, but in a way that's a reflection of Cohen's snobbery. If the carpenter didn't care, why would he bother writing to The Ethicist for help? He clearly wanted Cohen to push him towards an act of moral behavior -- not to instruct him to avoid the issue by keeping quiet, or getting a new job.

The carpenter should do the right thing. Maybe he's risking his job, but maybe there's a greater reward, either financial or spiritual, in telling the truth. It's a reward that Cohen doesn't bother to calculate in advising the carpenter to play it safe.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More Coolness: Taylor Barstow's Kick-Ass "NYTExplorer" Puts Google Itself To Shame.

Hey, check this out. It's called NYTExplorer, it's on the web at, and it's totally off the hook.

Here's how it works. You type in anything and up comes every mention of it in the history of the NYT. Off to the side comes a long list of refinements that let you narrow your search. Then narrow it again. And again. It's the kind of killer app that would make Google even more indispensible, but hey, they didn't think of it. A curly-haired web dude named Taylor Barstow, who works at a place called Firelight Labs in Cambridge, set it up.

We heard about it this afternoon from Martin A. Nisenholtz, himself a super-smart corporate type who has had some compelling things to say all week (in the NYT's "Talk To The Times" feature) about the NYT's plans, and the future of journalism and the web.

Okay, that's it with all the positive stuff. But when you try it for yourself, you'll see why we just had to stop NYTPicking for a few, and fill you in.

Helene Cooper Forgets She's A Reporter, Tries To Call Her Sister From Air Force One.

What’s the point of being one of the White House reporters for the New York Times if you don’t get at least a little excited about your first trip on Air Force One?

That's the lede -- we swear -- of a first-person account by White House correspondent Helene Cooper of her experience interviewing President Obama last Friday on Air Force One.

Yes, Cooper has confessed that after years of coveting a flight on the President's plane, she had a wondrously wide-eyed afternoon wandering around Air Force One and admiring its amenities. Here's a sampler from her recollections in an article (available only online; tough luck, print addicts!) that demonstrates Cooper's painfully inappropriate levels of awe at the perks of power.

Cooper begins by complaining about the plane that carried her and Condoleezza Rice on foreign trips for the last few years, during her duty as diplomatic correspondent. On Rice's plane, Cooper said, the press "sat in the back and had a mix of economy and business seats, for which we drew straws. " Economy seats! Imagine the indignity.

Cooper couldn't wait for the supreme perk of her promotion to the White House beat:

I wanted the real thing. I wanted the double-decker plane. The one that has its own operating room for medical emergencies and special Air Force One tchotchkes. The one that carries the nuclear launch codes and various other highly classified paraphernalia. The one that didn’t have to stop to refuel every six hours.

Highly classified paraphernalia! Wowie zowie!

Cooper discovered she'd finally get her chance when told that Obama would give the NYT its first interview aboard Air Force One.

"I was thrilled that it would be on the plane," Cooper said. She and three other NYT reporters rode in the Presidential motorcade to the Columbus, Ohio airport to board the flight. "There it was, sitting on the tarmac in all of its enormous blue and white splendor," Cooper reported.

Next, Cooper's efforts to get herself a souvenir snapshot!

A flight attendant welcomed us on board and ushered us to our special cabin, outfitted with two big tables, each surrounded by four luxe leather chairs. One table was for us, labeled “NYT.” At the other table sat Zachary Space, the Ohio congressman. Within five minutes, I had dragooned Mr. Space to snap a photo of the four of us.

Emboldened, Cooper couldn't restrain herself: she was going to call her sister and tell her was she was!!!!

As we took off, the flight attendant motioned to the white telephone between one of my colleagues and me. “You can use the phone to make a call anywhere you want,” he said. I snatched up the phone, excitedly. “I’m going to call my sister from Air Force One!” I said.

I looked up into a solid wall of New York Times disapproval. All three of my colleagues were shaking their heads at me. “Don’t even think about it,” said one of them, Jeff Zeleny. Sighing, I put the phone back down.

Poor Helene! Jeff Zeleny is such big meanie party pooper. Well, at least he couldn't keep you from eating the out-of-this-world lunch, or checking out the super fantastic ladies' room:

Lunch was beer battered Cod fillets, baked to a crispy golden brown, and spicy chips with tartar sauce and slaw. And a to-die-for orange creamsicle cheesecake.

The bathroom is huge. There’s a cover that goes over the toilet that seemed to transform it into a long cot on one side of the wall. Seriously, a short person could actually lie down on the toilet cover.

Hey, Helene, that doesn't actually seem like such a swell idea.

Honestly, we don't quite get why you reporters lose your sense of balance and distance when given a seat on the presidential jet. We remember back in November, when your colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported that "it's cool to fly on Air Force One," and told us how she loves the presidential M&Ms.

Is it really appropriate for an NYT reporter to gush over a government plane, and to scam souvenir candy and make silly phone calls to family members, telling them where you are? Seems a little childish when you're there to interview the President of the United States about the momentous and painful issues facing this country.

Maybe Cooper should try to adopt a little of Barack Obama's famously cool personality, and lose her fascination with all things luxe and swank. She's got an important job to do, and we can't afford to have a White House reporter who forgets to ask tough, probing questions because she's too busy staring at the furniture.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

If Rachel Swarns's Michelle Obama Quotes Sound Familiar, That's Because The NYT Used Them Before.

Did some of Michelle Obama's quotes in this morning's Dining section story by Rachel L. Swarns sound familiar? That's because many of them already appeared in a February 23 NYT news story by Marian Burros.

Today's story, "Michelle Obama's Agenda Includes Healthful Eating," quotes the First Lady throughout, in ways that might suggest that she gave an interview to Swarns. But Swarns failed to make entirely clear that Mrs. Obama's quotes were from last month, and today's Dining Section acted as though the February 23 Burros story never existed.

Swarns failed to clarify the source of Mrs. Obama's quotes in ways that may have suggested to readers that she had interviewed her for the story. Intentionally or not, her story read as a fresh report on Mrs. Obama's support for the use of unprocessed, home-grown foods, which it wasn't.

Here's how Swarns packaged her first reference to Mrs. Obama's public appearance before reporters, including Burros, in the White House kitchen. Read it carefully:

A few days later, she invited television cameras into the White House kitchen and made a point of praising the chefs’ nutritious creations, including creamed spinach without the cream.

Mrs. Obama presented herself not as a celebrity who has appeared on the cover of Vogue — though, of course, she has appeared on the cover of Vogue — but as a down-to-earth mom who works hard to keep in shape and to please the palates of her two daughters, Sasha, 7, and Malia, 10, who sometimes wrinkle their noses at the greenery on their plates.

“It’s like: How do we keep the calories down but keep the flavors up?” said Mrs. Obama, who also praised a healthy broccoli soup prepared by White House chefs.

“That’s one of the things that we’re talking a lot about,” she said. “When you grow something yourself and it’s close and it’s local, oftentimes it tastes really good.

“And when you’re dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they’re fresh and local and delicious.”

It's unclear from the above passage that Mrs. Obama's comments came from the White House kitchen visit in February. The transition to what follows doesn't make clear that the next four paragraphs all refer to that event.

But we know it does -- at least those of us who remember Marian Burros's account of it in the NYT that appeared on February 23:

The first lady took the opportunity to put in a pitch for local and sustainable food and for healthy eating, a recurring theme of hers during the campaign and since she arrived in Washington.

When food is grown locally, she said, “oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you’re dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot.”

“If it tastes like a real carrot, and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy,” she continued. “So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious.”

Swarns went on to reference other statements from Mrs. Obama using the "she said" construct, implying to readers that these quotes were as fresh as the food now served in the White House.

Swarns, 3/11/09:

The secret to that creamless creamed spinach? Sautéed spinach, olive oil and shallots are whipped into a purée that is light and delicious, according to Cristeta Comerford, the White House executive chef.

Even so, Mrs. Obama conceded, the dish was not a hit with Sasha. No matter what you do, she said ruefully, “sometimes kids are like, ‘It’s green!’ ”

Burros, 2/23/09:

She marveled at the healthy salads and the broccoli cream soup that had no cream, but admitted that her daughter Sasha did not go for it: “To kids,” she said, “it’s green and it’s horrible.”

What makes Swarn's lack of attribution especially problematic is the fact that at some points in her piece, she makes specific reference to when Mrs. Obama's quotes come from other sources.

For example, at one point Swarns mentions an article in the November issue of Parents Magazine in which the Obamas discussed their disdain for processed foods. This is how Swarns handled a quote from that article:

“A couple of years ago — you’d never know it by looking at her now — Malia was getting a little chubby,” Mr. Obama told the magazine.

Given that attribution, the reader of today's piece could understandably -- and wrongly -- assume that unattributed quotes from Mrs. Obama came from an interview.

But in fact, yet more quotes and information came directly from the media event reported on in the Burros piece. Consider this:

Swarns, 3/11/09:

Mrs. Obama also enjoys waffles and grits for breakfast, though not every day. And she said that the White House chefs, who can make nutritious meals tasty, have other talents as well.

“They can also make a mean batch of French fries when you want it done,” she said.

Burros, 2/23/09:

Mrs. Obama praised the kitchen staff, emphasizing their creativity and flexibility. They can put out a “mean batch of French fries,” she said, as well as creamed spinach made without cream. And she said staff members took the suggestions that she, her mother and her social secretary, Desirée Rogers, offered after a tasting for the dinner and “made sense of all our kooky ideas.”

When asked by one of the students what her favorite dishes were, Mrs. Obama said she liked them all, singling out “some mean waffles and grits that have become a regular staple for some of us” but adding that she did not eat this every day.

Of course, it should be noted that all of the above statements from Mrs. Obama were from a public event that was transcribed and posted on the White House website. That means Swarns likely took the quotes from the transcript, and not from Burros's piece. And that's a completely legitimate source of information and quotes for any journalist.

But the problem here is not how Swarns found the quotes, but instead how she presented them to readers.

Given that Marian Burros (and plenty of other journalists) had already made liberal use of Mrs. Obama's comments about food at the time of her kitchen tour, it seems inappropriate of Swarns to take up so much room in her story today with the regurgitation of those comments -- and without noting, anywhere in her story, that Mrs. Obama did not give her an interview.

Instead, Swarns went ahead with a piece that said nothing new, except to underscore the message that Mrs. Obama had eloquently presented three weeks earlier. Mrs. Obama must have realized there was no real benefit to giving an interview to Swarns -- certainly not just to repeat what she'd already said.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tina Kelley, What Happened When You Called The Maplewood Fire Department? Tell Us, Please.

We're kind of obsessed with "The Local," NYT Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tina Kelley's new local news blog in Maplewood, N.J.

But you know, as much as we love a good caption contest and admire a fourth-grader's school art project as displayed in the "On The Fridge" segment, we're addicts who refresh the blog every few hours or so in search of real news, so we're still waiting for Kelley to keep her reportorial promise to us from yesterday morning.

Here's how her post, "Fire and Nice," from 8:16 a.m. yesterday, began:

Good morning!

Oh, right, this is a chatty small-town blog. Howdy, Tina! She goes on:

There was a two-alarm fire this morning on Ridgewood Road near Mountain Avenue, and Maplewood Online was up later than I was, posting about it, saying everyone seemed to be O.K. By 1:20 a.m. firefighters had made sure no one was in the house, according to the folks at Breaking News Network. Has anyone heard anything more in the meantime?

Apparently not. No comments in the last 24 hours! Dang. Anyway, that doesn't mean Tina Kelley plans to shirk her reportorial responsibilities.

I’ll be calling the fire department to see what may have started it, and in the process, I’ll be confirming reports on Maplewood Online and Maplewoodian that three firefighters and three police officers are being cut from Maplewood’s budget this year.

Now that's journalism! And don't you know it -- by 6:25 last night, Kelley had confirmed and posted the news that had been revealed on the Maplewoodian blog two days earlier, about those three cops and firemen getting cut from the budget. Which, it should be noted, was reporting the contents of a press release from the Mayor of Maplewood.

Isn't Tina Kelley getting her City Hall press releases yet? Come on, Tina, press releases are the backbone of local journalism! Time to get get cracking.

Plus there was no followup on that fire, despite Kelley's promise. What started it? We'll never know.

A close look at "The Local" reminds us of the small-town weekly newspapers we read as a kid: police blotters, reports on public meetings, stories about the budget. Yesterday Kelley even posted an essay on the comforts of hearing the local train whistle, a piece that could have been published oh, say, 80 years ago. There's nothing here to suggest the backing of the nation's newspaper of record, or the involvement of an ace local reporter.

It's boring. There, we said it.

And the really sad thing is that it's not even providing a unique service to the residents of Maplewood. In addition to the Maplewoodian, there's a website known as "MaplewoodPatch" that's offering essentially the same coverage of the community, and competing directly with The Local for attention and advertising.

An interesting Bloomberg story this morning makes clear that this competition may not really be leading anywhere, either. Right now, all these blogs are fighting over the advertising of a tiny sliver of retail business. Bloomberg reports that a local bookstore in Maplewood got a NYT reporter covering a recent reading and the offer of a chance to blog on the website.

A Maplewood pizza operater tells that he has now been interviewed by every blog in town.

"Isn't that great?"says Dan Richer, the owner of Arturo's.

No, not really. How soon before the NYT ad sales force returns to request advertising from the retailers the website covers? And how soon before the walls between journalism and advertising collapse completely, the way they so often do at the hyperlocal level?

If this idea is going to work -- and we're really not sure it should -- Tina Kelley is going to have to get up earlier in the morning than Joe Strupp and the Patch kids, and get some scoops on her website. She can't promise fire followups she can't deliver, and she shouldn't be wasting so much space on ephemera like kids' pictures and a contest that's a pale imitation of the one in The New Yorker.

If the NYT wants to make its mark in Maplewood, it should do so the way it has for over a century in the rest of the world -- through its unique brand of sharp reporting, original ideas and stylish writing. So far, there hasn't been much sign of those elements on "The Local."

But on the bright side, there's never been better odds of getting your 9-year-old kid's painting published in the NYT. That's progress, right?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Question For NYT's David Segal: What Exactly Does "Code Xanax" Mean?

We don't have anything against Xanax. We've been known to take one or two to sleep on an airplane, and keep a secret stash handy for those mornings when a Nick Kristof column really gets us down.

But we couldn't help but wonder what reporter David Segal meant by this reference to the miracle mood drug in his cover Sunday Business story on art dealer Larry Gagosian this morning:

[Gagosian] stood near the reception desk, beside several of the many gallerinas he employs, as a few hundred people milled around a collection of new photographs by Alec Soth and a cache of paintings by Andy Warhol that he bought last year, reportedly for $200 million. In an art market that has recently gone Code Xanax, neither he nor his gallery radiated any hints of distress — though hints of distress have never been the Gagosian style.

We've seen lots of euphemisms for the economic downturn in the NYT in recent months, but this one...well....hmmm, we just didn't get it. It sounded really clever and all, but when we started to pick the sentence apart, we got kinda confused. Is it the market that has gone Code Xanax, or Gagosian? He's the one that Segal thinks is relentlessly upbeat in the face of a tough climate for art. Doesn't that mean he's the medicated one?

Also, what exactly is a "gallerina"?

Gosh, we're lost, and it's only the second paragraph!

We never even bothered ourselves with figuring what Segal meant when he referred to "the vast Texas hold 'em game that is the art market."

Or what he meant when he described Gagosian's business as "the ultimate black-box operation, a never-ending and international swirl of cash and canvas."

We did, however, understand the part that explained how Gagosian "wouldn't return phone calls for this article."

Barack Obama's "Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions," NYT Edition.

Another interchange in the NYT's Friday interview with President Obama deserves note -- the one in which an unnamed NYT reporter asked him this reductive question:

"The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?" the NYT reporter asked.

To which Obama answered, "The answer would be no."

It's sad to see reporters for the NYT wasting valuable time with the President pursuing efforts to label his policies with an outmoded term like "socialist." The word came up during the campaign by conservatives looking to smear the Democrat with a linguistic weapon that has no real meaning in the current political context.

It's clear that Obama was annoyed by it, and rightly so.

Listening to the audio excerpts of the NYT interview -- which conveniently don't include the original "socialist" question, perhaps so we won't know which of the four NYT reporters present asked it -- we can then hear a male reporter asking a followup:

"Is there anything wrong with saying yes?" an unidentified NYT reporter asked.

Obama's testy reply: "Let’s just take a look at what we’ve done. "

The NYT's Jeff Zeleny kept pursuing the label question, though, even after Obama's detailed deconstruction of his spending policies:

Is there one word name for your philosophy? If you’re not a socialist, are you a liberal? Are you progressive? One word?

No, I’m not going to engage in that.

Shortly after he returned to the White House, Obama called the NYT to follow up.

“It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question,” Obama told NYT White House reporter Jeff Zeleny.

The NYT took the followup as an occasion to brag that the president called: on its Caucus blog yesterday afternoon at 5:41 p.m., the NYT posted news of the call under the headline, "Obama's Got Our Number."

Obama went on to implicate the policies of George W. Bush as part of what's now perceived by conservatives as a socialist spending approach, and his answer deftly took apart the theory.

But really, what did the NYT think it would accomplish by wasting valuable time pursuing questions about a political label? The country faces far more serious problems than the prospect that our president might fit the textbook definition of any given term -- socialist, liberal, or progressive.

Zeleny and his team should be ashamed of themselves for wasting so much time in a 35-minute interview with questions designed only to promote headlines, not news.

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

Saturday, March 7, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: Obama Tells NYT, "I Like The Feel Of A Newspaper."

With only 35 minutes at its disposal for an exclusive interview with President Obama on Friday, the NYT still managed to squeeze in a question for the commander-in-chief about itself.

With our country facing its worst economic crisis in 80 years, it seems as though there might have been a better use of a newspaper reporter's time than asking the President how he consumes the work of newspaper reporters, and whether he reads websites.

But nevertheless, the interchange is interesting and revelatory, and didn't make it into the interview account posted on the NYT's website this afternoon, only in the posted transcript. So for NYT junkies everywhere, we'll reprint the part of the interview (it took place on Air Force One on Friday) that includes the NYT's questions to Obama about his media consumption habits:

Q: Sir, we’re landing here, but what are you reading these days? What kind of newspapers do you read, do you read the clips, do you read actual papers, do you watch television?

A: Other than The New York Times?

Q: Other than The New York Times. Do you read Web sites? What Web sites do you look at?

A: I read most of the big national papers.

Q. Do you read them in clips or do you read them in the paper?

A. No, I read the paper. I like the feel of a newspaper. I read most of the weekly newsmagazines. I may not read them from cover to cover but I’ll thumb through them. You know, I spend most of my time these days reading a lot of briefings.

Q: And television? Do you watch? Web sites?

A: I don’t watch much television, I confess.

Q: And Web sites?

Q: No blogs?

A: I rarely read blogs.

Q: No reality shows with your girls?

A: No. They watch them, but I don’t join them. I watch basketball. That’s what I watch.

No blogs! Sorry, Bagger.

It's nice to know the President has come out in favor of print. It's not quite a promise of a newspaper bailout program, but it's good to know we're not the only ones who like the smell of newsprint in the morning.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Why Did NYT's "Talk To The Newsroom" Quickly Remove Dave Smith's "God" Reference This Afternoon?

Why did the NYT just take down the most recent question-and-answer from Week In Review deputy editor Dave Smith's "Talk To The Newsroom" feature?

Was it something he said?

During one of our periodic checks of the weekly web feature this afternoon, we read a posting in which a reader announced his great love of the NYT, and said he would happily pay to use the paper's online content -- and that he hoped the NYT would survive its current business problems.

"From your mouth to God's ear," was Smith's simple and heartfelt reply.

When we returned to the web feature a few minutes ago, we discovered an odd development; not only were there no new questions for Smith, but that last question-and-answer had been taken down.

What could be the reason for this? Did Smith's reference to God offend someone at the NYT? Did his seeming embrace of a reader's desire to pay for online content -- an ongoing topic of debate at the NYT's highest levels -- seem inappropriate? Did the questioner turn out to a representative of Howard Stern?

We've written to the "Talk To The Newsroom" feature ourselves, asking what happened. By the way, we should mention that we don't possess a photographic memory, so we don't recall the precise words of either the question, or Smith's response. But then again, we never expected the NYT to quietly remove the Q&A as though it never existed.

We'll let you know if we hear anything. As usual, don't hold your breath.

"We'll Consider Anything," NYT Publisher A.O. Sulzberger Jr. Tells CNBC. Sounds Like A Plan!

Early this morning, in a brief interview outside NYT headquarters on 8th Avenue, publisher A.O. Sulzberger Jr. was asked whether the paper would consider charging for its online content.

"We'll consider anything," a desperate-sounding Sulzberger told a CNBC reporter.

As for the current state of the economy, Sulzberger had this choice insight to offer: "I'm not that old, so yes this is the worst I've ever seen."

For the record, Sulzberger is 57 years old. Not that old, but not that young.

Corrections Of The Week: It's A Tie!

A NYT editorial writer learned a disturbing fact yesterday: it turns out they call it "illegal immigration" because it's against the law.

This little fact is going to be a serious crimp in the NYT's efforts to end prosecution of illegal immigrants.

In a February 22 editorial called "Enforcement Gone Bad," the NYT argued yet again that U.S. policies regarding the deportation of illegal immigrants need to be changed.

"The failures of the immigration system are many and severe, but the main problem is not that the country is catching too few undocumented immigrants," the NYT wrote. "It is catching too many."

But the editorial went on to justify its argument this way:

The numbers might suggest we are besieged by immigrant criminals. But of all the noncitizen Latinos sentenced last year, the vast majority — 81 percent — were convicted for unlawfully entering or remaining in the country, which is not a criminal offense.

Oh no you didn't!

As most law-abiding Americans know, things that are unlawful are also criminal. Which is why -- nearly two weeks later -- the NYT issued this correction yesterday:

An editorial on Feb. 22 stated incorrectly that unlawfully entering the country is not a criminal offense. It is a misdemeanor for a first-time offender.

A misdemeanor -- hey, isn't that kinda like a parking ticket? No biggie! The NYT editorial writer responsible for this particular screed was so certain of his position that he/she hadn't bothered to consider whether it might contradict the law. We may not be "beseiged" by immigrant criminals -- but until the laws get changed, the NYT might as well do the right thing, and support their enforcement.

That's what The Ethicist would tell them to do.


Then comes today's priceless fix of an "Arts, Briefly" item identifying the director of the Broadway adaptation of Nora Ephron's "Sleepless In Seattle" as Edward Zwick.

That set off a flurry of excitement yesterday, that the director of "Glory" and "Defiance" would turn the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic kerfuffle into a good-versus-evil morality tale set during World War II. Perhaps instead of agreeing to meet on top of the Empire State Building, the long-distance lovers could schedule their first date on the beaches of Normandy, or perhaps the Reich Chancellery, or even Hitler's private bunker! What a marvelous show-stopper that would be.

But alas, in today's corrections column comes news that Edward Zwick will not be the director after all. Instead, apparently, the director will be Joel "No Relation To Ed" Zwick -- a television comedy director of such classics as "Two And A Half Men" and "The Love Boat: The Next Wave."

Say it ain't so, Joel!. Here is the bad news in its entirety:

A report in the “Arts, Briefly” column on Wednesday about plans to make a musical based on the movie “Sleepless in Seattle” misidentified the director. He is Joel Zwick — not Edward Zwick, also a director. (They are not related.)

But are we sure this story is now correct? There's always the possibility that the director is, in fact, Charles Zwick, the director of the Office of Management And Budget in 1968.

Here's hoping, anyway.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

If Ben Brantley Compares Your Play To A Sitcom, Don't Feel Bad. You've Got Company.

Yet again today, in a habit he has honed since becoming the NYT's chief theater critic in 1996, Ben Brantley made still another dismissive reference to the television situation comedy in formulating his critique.

What exactly does Brantley have against sitcoms? Basically, he seems to believe they represent the lowest form of American culture, and references them whenever he wants to put down a playwright's comedic skills or intentions. He tosses the word around as though the entire form of television comedy has never once reached the lofty heights of theater -- a conclusion that would find its detractors among millions of Americans who prefer "30 Rock" to, say, "Zanadu."

In attacking "Distracted," Lisa Loomer's new play about Attention Deficit Disorder at the Roundabout, Brantley observes:

It’s just that “Distracted,” which opened Wednesday night at the Laura Pels Theater in an attractively acted production starring Cynthia Nixon, often feels like little more than a compilation of jokes and observations that have been made, ad nauseam, about this disorder during the last decade. Even if your mind operates like an over-revved automatic channel surfer, it is still bound to have registered — perhaps while hovering hummingbirdlike over a sitcom moment, a comic strip about a multitasking mom or a column in a parents’ magazine — much of what is said here.

For your reference, here's a collection of several Brantley sitcom put-downs, presented here without commercial interruption:

From his February 23, 2009 review of "The Winter's Tale," by William Shakespeare:

It’s impossible to think of these knee-slapping Bohemians being integrated into Leontes’s court, not because they’re socially inferior but because they’re so silly and superficial. Even Perdita and Florizel come across as the straight romantic relief in a sitcom. Not a fathom of the emotional depths sounded in the play’s first half is sounded here, and there has some to be point of connection.

From his November 18, 2008 review of "American Buffalo," by David Mamet:

The rhythms of this production are those of a sitcom, with lots of empty space between lines to let audiences fully register jokes and outlandish figures of speech.

From his May 9, 3008 review of "Rafta, Rafta..." by Ayub Khan-Din:

And the plot of “Rafta, Rafta ...,” adapted from “All in Good Time,” a Bill Naughton comedy from the 1960s, sounds like an extended blue joke, or the basis for a sniggery sitcom: Young man takes virginal bride home to live with the family, then finds himself unable to consummate the marriage because Mom, Dad and Little Brother keep interrupting and distracting him.

From his March 7, 2008 review of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams:

Mr. Esposito, Ms. Anderson and even on occasion Mr. Jones resort to broad exaggeration more appropriate to a sitcom.

From his December 8, 2006 review of "High Fidelity," book by David Lindsay-Abaire:

A figure who makes a hilarious cameo appearance in the book, the Most Pathetic Man in the World, is here fleshed out into a running sitcom character, and thus entirely loses his impact.

And we'll end this brief library of sitcom references with this classic Brantley putdown of sitcoms, a savage pan of Richard Greenberg's "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way" published on October 7, 2005:

Is it possible that the exhaustingly prolific Richard Greenberg has been even busier than anyone suspected? Current evidence suggests that Mr. Greenberg, who has new plays opening at Lincoln Center and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago this season, has been moonlighting as a gag writer for sitcoms. And that he has been hoarding all the one-liners deemed too academic or simply too tired for television and crammed them together into yet another new play.

In outline, "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, does sound alarmingly like a last-ditch pitch for a comedy series by a writer desperate to make back alimony payments. You want a situation? Well, listen to this: A middle-aged pair of married, free-thinking intellectuals find their liberalism sorely tested when their three adopted, grown-up kids come home to roost in the old empty nest. And get this: Each of the kids is from a different race!

No, I'm not done yet. For the roles of the husband and wife, picture Jill Clayburgh and Richard Thomas. That's right, Ms. "Unmarried Woman" and John Boy Walton themselves, except 30 years or so later. And along the way, there will be some flirting with taboos, like lesbianism. Oh, that's not taboo anymore? Well, how about incest, except a kind of incest that won't really offend a mainstream audience? And to keep things lively, we'll throw in a wacky, semi-senile and completely un-self-censoring old broad.

You think you've seen that one before, huh? It's true that "A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," directed by Doug Hughes and featuring Ms. Clayburgh (who deserves better) in her first appearance on Broadway in two decades, brings to mind a long, blurred roster of dysfunctional family comedies, from "Soap" to "Arrested Development."

We have no theories to explain this curious obsession, except that Brantley was probably prevented from watching television sitcoms as a child, and told to go to his room and listen to show tunes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Good News, Ninny Lovers: David Carr To Write About Himself In Third Person Year-Round.

The Bagger is back! Already.

Yes, for those of you who can't wait to get started with your Oscar predictions for next year (at the moment, Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man ranks as 2009's leading contender for Best Actor) here's some good news: the NYT has quietly disclosed that its Carpetbagger blog will now run year-round, and become an all-purpose dumping ground for the paper's Hollywood coverage.

There's no arguing that David Carr can write, and the NYT continues to be so starved for style that it now has to milk his talents in every conceivable venue. He already writes a weekly Monday media column for business, frequent Arts & Leisure profiles, and regular stories for the Arts section -- and now will maintain his Bagger persona throughout the year on the NYT's popular Oscar blog.

But does the world really need yet another Hollywood blog, or more of Carr's grating Bagger persona? There's already the superior Deadline Hollywood Daily by Nikki Finke, not to mention the trades, "The Wrap" (former NYT reporter Sharon Waxman's new blog) and New York Magazine's excellent "Vulture" blog.

In a period of dwindling resources and scarcity of talent, it seems a shame that the NYT wants to waste yet more of Carr's time on frivolous coverage of the entertainment industry. He's a thoughtful guy when it comes to media and business, but his column often seems tossed off in a spare moment or two.

The Carpetbagger blog made sense for a few Oscar-crazed months out of the year. As a daily blog, though, it seems too much about not enough.

But that's just the NYTPicker's opinion. The Bagger would no doubt disagree.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Local Has Arrived....And Like Most Locals It's Too Crowded, Too Slow and Too Late.

The NYT has launched its hyper-local blog called "The Local," and it's everything the name implies -- coverage of a neighborhood by non-journalist locals with the superivision of an NYT reporter. In this case, Andy Newman does a decent job narrating the enterprise in the pilot Fort Greene and Clinton Hill editions, but fails to give the neighborhood what it needs -- a sense of what its readers truly need to know.

Instead,in the cliched way way small-town community papers do, "The Local" focuses on the minutiae of daily life: the snow day, the sledding, the little guy fighting the big institutions. The notion behind the local -- and it's wrong -- is that New Yorkers want their neighborhood news delivered in a hyper-local package within the whole of an institution of the NYT. We would differ. The whole point of a paper like the NYT is to provide journalism -- created by real reporters -- that goes beyond the obvious and answers questions, and tells readers what it doesn't already know.

There may eventually be a place for this sort of thing, if Newman can get over himself and start reporting on openings, closings, crime and punishment in his neighborhoods. He needs to answer a reader who wants an explanation for that shooting sound she heard last night; he must know the reason the fish store closed and the Starbucks opened. It can't be speculative or impressionistic, it needs the same sort of journalistic imperative that drives the rest of the NYT. And judging from Day One of "The Local," it's a long way off.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hannah Upp Tells The NYT She Doesn't Remember A Thing. Reporters Forget To Check.

Okay, so we're not going to call Hannah Upp a liar for claiming she has a disease so rare that practically the only other known victim is the fictional spy hero Jason Bourne.

But we are going to accuse the two reporters who recounted her story in yesterday's City Section of not properly questioning her fantastical account of three weeks spent missing last summer -- and accuse the section of publishing a sub-standard piece of journalism, in a dubious effort to make headlines with a scoop.

In "A Life, Interrupted," freelance writers Rebecca Flint Marx and Vytenis Didziulis devoted most of a 3,071-word cover story to an exclusive first interview with Upp, a 23-year-old schoolteacher whose disappearance for three weeks beginning last August 28 captivated the city. She was found face down in the Hudson River on September 16, and -- until yesterday -- had made no public statement about what happened.

According to the NYT -- which attributes all of its information directly, and only, to Upp -- she was told by doctors at Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island that she suffered from "dissociative fugue," a rare form of amnesia that lasts for odd intervals of time and causes victims to suddenly forget who they are.

“It’s weird,” Ms. Upp told the NYT in her first interview. “How do you feel guilty for something you didn’t even know you did? It’s not your fault, but it’s still somehow you. So it’s definitely made me reconsider everything. Who was I before? Who was I then — is that part of me? Who am I now?”

All good questions. But don't look for the answers in the City Section story -- they're not there.

The NYT reports, correctly, that dissociative fugue is extremely rare -- "so uncommon that few psychiatrists ever see it," the reporters say. They interview two psychiatrists who have treated victims of the disorder, but report no attempt made to speak with Upp's own psychiatrist to confirm the diagnosis. Instead, they simply accept her version as the truth and report on the condition as though it were widely accepted as the cause of Upp's disappearance.

In fact, however, even what the psychiatrists tell the NYT runs counter to the facts of the Upp case. One says that significant travel -- "not only travel across cities or countries, but also across continents" -- is a common symptom. But Upp, according to the NYT, barely seems to have left the Upper West Side, where she lived. Nothing is said to reconcile that discrepancy; the NYT only reports that the police believe she spent most of her time on Riverside Drive.

It's also worth noting that when Upp first revealed her diagnosis on Facebook last October, the Daily News reported it and interviewed a Columbia University psychiatrist not quoted in the NYT, who didn't think Upp's behavior sounded consistent with that diagnosis:

In between, Upp was seen several times around the city and was spotted twice in four days checking her e-mail at an Apple store.

Dr. Arthur Saraija, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University, said that sort of behavior isn't typical of dissociative fugue.

Yet the reporters take Upp's account of her experiences at face value, even though there remain significant questions that call her version into doubt -- and allow her to attribute information to her doctors, even though they aren't even identified, let alone interviewed. The confusing fact that Upp logged onto her GMail account at the Apple store -- but didn't check any of her emails -- is explained by Upp this way:

“I was on a computer, but there’s no evidence in my Gmail account of any e-mails being sent or read,” Ms. Upp said. She did log in, something her doctors attributed to a muscle memory: How many times in our lives have we typed in our name and password without even thinking? “So their theory,” Ms. Upp said, “is that I thought, hey, this is a computer, this is what I do with a computer.” But once she opened her e-mail, she couldn’t figure out who Hannah was and why everyone was looking for her. “So I logged out and left.”

A convenient explanation, and possibly true -- but unsubstantiated and unchecked by the two NYT reporters.

Ultimately, the reporters fail to go very far beyond the published accounts of her sightings, and even then they tend to go with Upp's version over the reports of eyewitnesses. That seems an odd decision, given the diagnosis that she has forgotten everything that happened. It means that Upp offers nothing more than pure conjecture about her experiences. Given that she contradicts the facts as reported by others, the story doesn't reconcile anything.

Take, for example, reports that Upp had been seen repeatedly at various New York Sports Clubs, where she had a membership. The NYT takes Upp's contradiction of those accounts at face value:

News reports of her appearances at various New York Sports Club locations suggest that she was careful to keep moving, though Ms. Upp believes that the number of sightings was exaggerated. For one thing, she pointed out, she did not have her gym ID with her; for another, the gym knew she was missing and surely would have contacted the police had she appeared.

Of course, as long as Upp contends that her condition keeps her from recalling anything about her disappearance, it's impossible for anyone to contradict her because there's nothing to contradict. In fact, she's the one doing the contradicting; much of the NYT account reveals discrepancies between Upp's version and that of eyewitnesses, with no resolution of the holes in the narrative.

The reporters also don't bother to explain how Upp has resumed her normal life, and re-established who she is-- aside from saying, at one point: "Simple social routines like seeing friends and taking a dance class have helped her re-establish her personal identity." Even the NYT's panel of psychiatric experts aren't asked to weigh in on how victims figure out the mystery of their amnesia. (You'll recall that it took Jason Bourne three movies to figure out who he was, exactly.)

Upp's friends, who aren't medical professionals, think it will be easy for her to get back to normal. “If Hannah doesn’t want to let this incident eat away at the rest of her life," one friend tells the NYT, "then it won’t be an issue any more than the common cold is an issue to you or me." Really!

Who are these reporters, Rebecca Flint Marx and Vytenis Didziulis? They're not identified in the NYT. A Google search for Marx turns up bylines in magazines ranging from Salon to Time Out NY. Didziulis is currently a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It's not entirely their fault. The City section's longtime editor, Connie Rosenblum, owed them a more thorough edit; she should have raised more questions about Upp's interview, and pushed the reporters to get corroboration of Upp's version of events and her condition. Just because someone gives you an exclusive interview doesn't obligate you to believe everything they say.