Tuesday, August 25, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Today In NYT Laziness, Ethicist Randy Cohen Interviews His Ex-Wife As "Expert" For Column -- Without Identifying Her.

In a "Moral of the Story" posted late last night about anonymous blogging, The Ethicist -- a.k.a. Randy Cohen -- had this to say about the ethics of transparency:

To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode.... “Says who?” is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter.

But just two sentences later, Cohen put aside transparency concerns in quoting "the writer Katha Pollitt" -- camouflaging the fact that Pollitt happens to be Cohen's ex-wife. Without disclosing their history, Cohen proceeded to devote an entire paragraph to Pollitt's musings on the topic of anonymous commenters, and generously tossed in a hyperlink to her blog:

As the writer Katha Pollitt puts it: “I get a ton of hostile, misogynous, idiotic comments from anonymous trolls when I blog at The Nation. Sometimes I feel like I am dancing on the table for an audience of drunks. Not only is it dispiriting — and let’s not forget that women writers on the Internet receive vastly more hateful comments than male writers — it has nothing to do with the brisk and vigorous exchange of ideas often said to be the reason for anonymity. Because there are no ideas and no exchange.”

Ironic, isn't it? One paragraph after insisting that it "deepers a reader's understanding to know who is speaking," Cohen keeps that very understanding about Pollitt to himself -- as though to call her "the writer" is an adequate credential to be promoted as an expert by Cohen in the NYT.

Pollitt and Cohen were married in 1987. Now divorced, they have a daughter together and apparently remain friendly. (We found a web posting in which Pollitt encouraged her friends to attend a performance of a recently-produced Randy Cohen play.)

There's no rule we can find against a NYT reporter or contributor quoting a spouse, former spouse, or personal friend. But maybe there should be. It reflects laziness and a disdain for real reporting, which should involve more effort than pushing the speed dial on a reporter's cell phone.

Just as reporter Brad Stone got into trouble recently for failing to seek interview subjects outside his comfort zone for a page-one story, it seems to us esecially lazy for Cohen to quote his ex-wife as one of only two interviews included in his post. It also seems wrong for him not to disclose the relationship to readers.

It also strikes us as a bit disingenuous, in an Ethics essay that calls for transparency on the part of anonymous bloggers, for the Ethicist to fail such an obvious test of transparency himself.

We've emailed Cohen and NYT spokeswoman Catherine Mathis for comment.

UPDATE: NYT's Ethicist, Randy Cohen, Tells NYTPicker: "On Second Thought I Should Have Identified" Ex-Wife In NYT Column.


Roberto said...

Wait for Bill Keller to admit this “would make a fine exhibit for someone making the case that The Times has an arrogant streak.”

Unknown said...

I wonder if the public editor would defend this? He seems to have been on the NYT's side during the Fat Fight.

Unknown said...

Except that Katha Pollitt isn't just a writer; she's a brilliant columnist and feminist. She's a fabulous person to quote & should be quoted more often. This isn't kowtowing for favors; it's quoting someone highly relevant. I don't see, here, how the marriage would matter.

KGC said...

The reason why the blogosphere took off in the first place was because NYT journalists were not fact checking and many of us were frustrated to the point where writing directly to the New York Times about it just wasn't enough.

Yes! The sloppy journalism of the New York Times birthed a business model that has come back to bite them in the arse. Times Fact checking aside, this clubby atmosphere is really troublesome -- it smacks of elitism.

That said, the times is our paper of record and most of the reporting is excellent. I just would like it to be better, that's all.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the wonderful irony. I was very tempted to utter that libelous label "skank" with respect to experts quoted in the Cohen story, but we all know that search warrants would be issued.

The Bear said...

Where do you think all politician and media retards get all of their ideology?

They sit around in darkened rooms (mostly bars, professors offices, newsrooms or in the Capital building) talking to each other about crap that makes anyone who has actually had to live in the real world roll their eyes and leave the room.

As they only have themselves to talk to they always build themselves up to all this elitist nonsense in the echo chamber of their group-think and because they don't ever get reality checks by real people (who always get the Sarah Palin treatment for daring to speak in the presence of genius and superior DNA) they think their views represent the real world.

When they decide on a way to inflict it on us the whole world gets messed up the way it is right now.

Unknown said...

The Bear:

You insult most drinkers when you suggest liberal dweebs like Cohen and his ex spend time in bars.

Serious drinkers would not tolerate their arrogance and uniform worldview.

Anonymous said...

The left has long substituted cynicism for intellect. Keller, et. al. (and ux.) can dismiss any idea that comes from a conservative author. See? that was easy. They don't even have to exercise a brain cell.

Ideas are good or bad regardless of the source. Testimony, on the other hand, is very source dependent. To be fair, my fellow right wing nut jobs are often guilty of the same cynicism.

Anonymous said...

The wife said, "Not only is it dispiriting — and let’s not forget that women writers on the Internet receive vastly more hateful comments than male writer".

I guess she knows how Sarah Palin feels then, huh?

Anonymous said...

Word. I don't get why Katha and Sarah can't just get along - they're both ladies! Am I right?

Irwin Chusid said...

I too was struck by this comment:

As the writer Katha Pollitt puts it: “let’s not forget that women writers on the Internet receive vastly more hateful comments than male writers."

I'd like to see the empirical data.