Friday, September 11, 2009

Was The NYTPicker Unfair To Dan Barry On His Column About The Homeless Man Who Turned Out To Be A Child Rapist?

An anonymous reader offered an eloquent comment this morning on our post yesterday about Peter Applebome, defending columnist Dan Barry and charging that we'd been unfair to him in our July 31 post.

In that post we reported what Barry had not, that the leader of the homeless community he'd written about that day was a twice-convicted child rapist. We also noted that days before Barry's column appeared, the homeless group had already moved away from the spot he'd written about -- and that the entire story had already been widely covered in the local press.

Today's commenter told us something we didn't know: Barry had posted a defense of his decision to omit the background of the homeless leader, John Freitas, as a comment on the NYT's website. Frankly, it never occurred to us that Barry would respond in that forum -- it's extremely rare for a NYT reporter to use the comments section to address questions from readers.

Okay, we admit it. We never even looked.

In that comment, Barry told readers he knew about Freitas's child rape conviction. But after mulling the issue and discussing it with his editor, Barry said he decided that "the nature of his criminal past wasn't relevant to the matter at hand."

"I felt that if Mr. Freitas were a Boy Scout leader or someone seeking public office, then perhaps his past would be relevant," Barry told readers. "But he was a homeless man living under an abandoned bridge in Providence, with this disturbing crime 25 years behind him."

Barry noted Freitas's arguments against including the details, which were that it would change the focus of the story, and that there were no children allowed in the homeless camp.

Barry also said Freitas told him that because the crime had happened so long ago, he was no longer required to register as a sex offender. But according to an article in the Attleboro, Ma. Sun-Chronicle from March 21, 2008, Freitas had turned himself in to authorities after failure to register -- itself a felony crime -- had landed him on that state's list of Ten Most Wanted Sex Offenders.

It should also be noted that according to the Sun-Chronicle account, Freitas was convicted of child rape on two different occasions -- once in the late 1970s, and again in 1985.

But never mind that, or the question of whether Barry's reporting was stale, or whether his references to a singing tea kettle and the blowing March winds were silly and overwrought.

The points raised by our anonymous reader today are more interesting. The commenter calls our criticisms of Barry "gratuitous" and then concludes:

Either this "team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity" neglected to do its own research and was unaware of Barry's explanation or they discount his words as those of a self-serving liar and take it as a given that the reader would agree. For my own part, I find it hard to believe that Pulitzers and Polk awards flow to sloppy and incompetent journalists and I bear in mind that Barry's reputation for integrity is so highly regarded that he was asked lend it to the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal when it had none of its own.

Well, we've reconsidered Barry's original article, his reasons for not including the reference to Freitas's criminal background, and the points raised by our thought-provoking commenter today. And for what it's worth, here's where we stand.

For one thing, we never called Barry's integrity into question. "Integrity" means adherence to a moral or ethical code, and we never said or implied that Barry had violated the ethics of his profession, or done anything immoral.

At the same time, we don't consider awards -- even the Pulitzer -- as a permanent badge of immunity from criticism or investigation. Many readers may remember the scandal involving Janet Cooke, whose Pulitzer Prize led to revelations that she had fabricated much of the story that won her the award. We're obviously not comparing Barry to Cooke, but we believe no reporter has the right to rest on their laurels, or use them as an excuse for sloppy journalism.

Among other things, our post criticized what we believed was his failure to thoroughly report his story. We stand by that criticism. It's a fact that his column was old news by the time it appeared, and that local news outlets in Providence had reported that the group had moved -- changing the whole point of his piece. We also believe that Barry made a mistake by accepting Freitas's own version of his story, with regard to his need to register as a sex offender.

As a side note -- we stand firmly by our position that too often, Barry repurposes already-reported local news, like this story, for a national audience, instead of finding fresh topics to explore. We're also not big fans of his purple prose, but that's a matter of personal taste.

As for the broader question of whether Barry made the right decision, well, that's a judgment call. We agree with Barry in theory that people ought to have a right to rebuild their lives after serving a prison sentence. But at the same time that doesn't entitle them to have their record wiped clean by the NYT.

Maybe other readers will disagree. But to us, child rapists don't inspire the same spirit of forgiveness we feel for young people who rob banks and convenience stores, and who serve their time. Maybe it's okay to forgive, but it's a hard crime to forget.


-QT said...

Look, as an ambiguously unidentified framework from which to box-in this collaborative fanfare ye gott goin on, eh, don't expect reader here to believe no'n you bang out, OK?

Ain't like yer blog some shifty elite understudy corp new media hi res preserved archive (right on) so they be damned or no'ne, u no what i mean? LOL!!!

I donno what fringe credentials yous got to git such info as that which you like totally picks@&whatnot, but heck, you write like history is ridden with lore or somp'n, like as if, there was, an aboriginal code of conduct that bestowed sterility unto errant man, imparts immortality to a putative few, and raises standards so may mortals live well.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly done, but you must see that you've buried the lede.

"Okay, we admit it. We never even looked."

This barely touched upon revelation indicts you for the very same allegation for which you condemn Applebome and Barry-that of failure to properly research your piece in the age of googling. In Barry's case, at least, the charge has proved demonstrably false, but one would need to search thoroughly through this piece for a grudging admission of it.

The only hook that you had to devote a column to enthusiastically bash Barry was his failure to properly research his column. A simple phone call or email to the easily accessible Barry at the outset would have informed you that he was, indeed aware of his subject's past and would have removed your hook. This would have reduced your argument to a mere quibble pitting your sense of what is proper against Barry's judgment concerning the scope of his own story.

Barry's judgment has served him quite well in his thirty-odd year journalism career as has his prose, which you continue to mock as "purple". Style, as you point out, may be a matter of taste, but your anonymity leaves us without a metric with which to assign value to your own worth as arbiter. We do know, however, that the Dean of Students at Columbia J-School thinks enough of Barry's work that "City Lights" heads the list of suggested anthology reading for aspiring journalists.

Your closing paragraph is simply a ridiculous bit of work, unworthy of even the amateur hack.

"Maybe other readers will disagree. But to us, child rapists don't inspire the same spirit of forgiveness we feel for young people who rob banks and convenience stores, and who serve their time. Maybe it's okay to forgive, but it's a hard crime to forget."

It casts Barry as one who has shielded a monster from the righteous anger of a wronged society and yourselves as the light of justice revealing the infidel in Barry's shadow.

The simple truth is that Barry's story was not about child molesters-it concerns people living under a bridge and it is not within Barry's power to forgive a man his actions nor is it his responsibility to highlight those actions when it is not germane to the story.



There's a difference. Barry's comment isn't searchable through Google, Nexis or even the NYT's internal search engine.

As most readers know, the NYT comments section isn't a place where reporters often post their responses to reader complaints.

We read the print edition and the NYT's blogs closely every day, and check the website constantly for new material. If NYTPicker readers think we've failed to do our job properly because we didn't pore through the comments on Barry's story looking for a comment from him, so be it.

We're grateful that you brought the comment to our attention, admitted we missed it, and devoted an entire post to it. Not much more we can do.

Anonymous said...

If you say that there is a difference, it implies that there are two separate things to compare.

If that difference, in your mind is Barry's failure to research, then you are still clinging to a false assertion.

The point is that Barry DID the research and given the seriousness of your charge, you had a responsibility to contact Barry for comment before you gleefully rushed in with an attack on his competence as a journalist, getting it wrong in the process.

Any cub reporter knows this and if you wish to continue to act as a critic of those who violate the rules of journalism standards by your lights, you MUST abide by them yourselves or be viewed as just another purveyor of snark in a niche market.

As to what you can do further, I didn't expect you to prostrate yourselves at the crossroads, however, as a retraction it was hardly comprehensive or even gracious. Your piece had a wheedling, defensive tone that danced around the issue and, were I your editor, I would have called for a re-write with a more direct approach, acknowledging your error and offering a mea culpa.