Wednesday, December 29, 2010

NBC's Brian Williams Declares NYT's "Discovery" of Brooklyn As Media Story Of 2010. "It's Like Marrakesh," He Says.

NBC News anchorman Brian Williams has declared the NYT's "discovery of Brooklyn" as the media story of 2010.

"There are young men and women wearing ironic glass frames on the streets," Williams said incredulously last Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," remarking on some of the NYT's more notable Brooklyn finds. "They are making grilled cheese sandwiches in the streets."

Williams's brilliant comic tirade at the NYT's expense came in response to Joe Scarborough's statement that he believed the iPad to be the media sensation of the year.

We've transcribed Williams's reply, and the rest of his riff, but you're better off just watching the short YouTube video clip:

WILLIAMS: It’s pretty slick. I am rarely without mine. I, however, am going to go a bit differently. I thnk the media story of the year, in 2010, was the NYT’s discovery of Brooklyn. Once a day, there’s a story about all the riches offered in that borough. There are young men and women wearing ironic glass frames on the streets. There are open air markets, like trading posts in the early Chippewa tribe, where you can make beads at home and then trade them for someone to come over and start a small fire in your apartment that you share with nine others. Artisinal cheeses. For sale, on the streets of an entire American borough. It’s been fascinating to watch the paper venture over the bridge. Venture through the tunnel. Go out to the outer reaches. The outer boroughs of the city. All different sections of the paper.

SCARBOROUGH: I want to get this down for Harold Ford. We’re going to take the subway over there.

WILLIAMS: They are making grilled cheese sandwiches in the streets. There are roving wagons that will make you a – Brooklyn. Yes….it’s just a fantastic….it’s like Marrakesh over there.

SCARBOROUGH: Who is the Lewis & Clark of the New York Times to discover Brooklyn?

WILLIAMS: I’m too busy reading content to notice bylines. I’m leaving here to get to an artisanal market that just opened up today. It’s a flash artisanal market. The newest thing.

"Spider-Man" Director Julie Taymor Withdraws From NYT's Arts & Leisure Weekend. Is She Mad At NYT? We Would Be.

It turns out the NYT's Arts & Leisure Weekend's one sure-fire newsmaking event -- a January 8 conversation between "Spider-Man" director Julie Taymor and NYT theater reporter Patrick Healy -- has been quietly cancelled.

Without making any public announcement, the NYT sent a refund notice yesterday to ticket-holders already going to the session. But it's still listed on the front page of its online schedule -- it doesn't even rate a red "cancelled" banner over the listing -- and when you click to buy tickets, the site says only: "The chosen event is not available for sale at this time. Please choose a different event."

Translation: it ain't happening, folks. And we all know why. It has to do with the mess that is "Spider-Man," and maybe even the aggressive way the NYT has been covering the story.

From the beginning, Healy's coverage of the production has poked at its high cost, its shifting start dates, its lack of adequate investment, and its dangers.

Starting in October -- when an actor named Kevin Aubin was injured during a demonstration of the show's special effects -- Healy has kept up the heat on Taymor and "Spider-Man." The NYT's Dave Itzkoff broke the news of the December 20 accident that left actor Christopher Tierney in the hospital with multiple injuries.

In a daring stunt of its own, the next morning NYT posted on its website 8 seconds of terrifying amateur video of the accident -- likely to become a veritable Zapruder film in the annals of this troubled production.

That can't have made anyone happy.

The show's opening has been moved to Febuary 7. Meanwhile it has been jammed for previews, despite widespread criticism of Taymor -- who Broadway actor Adam Pascal said should be brought up on assault charges. NYT commenters have been nearly unanimous in their attacks on the show and its director.

We wrote to Healy twice about the cancelled event; still no reply.

We did reach Rick Miramontez, the publicity agent for "Spider-Man," who referred our questions to Taymor's own publicity agents.

We asked Miramontez via email if either Taymor or the producers of "Spider-Man" are satisfied with the NYT's coverage.

"Please ask us next week," Miramontez replied, cryptically.

Meanwhile, don't despair. Some $30 tickets are still available to see Gail Collins interview Katie Couric.

UPDATE: About three hours after we posted this story, NYT arts reporter Dave Itzkoff posted about Taymor's withdrawal from the event on the NYT's Arts Beat blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday NYT Book Reviewer Accidently Attributes P.J. O'Rourke Quote To...Frederich Nietzsche?!

It's an easy mistake. Mixing up 19th century German philosophers and late 20th Century satirists.

Dani Shapiro did it this morning in her Sunday NYT Book Review critique of Poser: My Life In Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. It's a memoir shaped around the author's favorite yoga positions. Here's the second paragraph of Shapiro's review:

This dark enchantment with the joys, rigors and travails of building a family life is at the center of this fine first memoir, and it’s heartening to see a serious female writer take such a risky step into territory where writers of literary ambition fear to tread, lest they be dismissed as trivial. Bills, laundry, cooking, breast-feeding, baby sitters, holidays, aging parents — my favorite curmudgeon, Nietzsche, put it this way: “Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper.”

It's that last line that caught a NYTPicker reader off guard. Our emailer didn't recall Nietzsche making many, you know, home decorating references in his essays. (Although in fact the controversial philosopher did publish a book called The Gay Science.) So we all looked it up and discovered some misinformation on the web. Apparently a lot of quote books wrongly give the nod to Nietzsche on this one.

Our reader found the actual words in a 1994 book by P.J. O'Rourke called Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book For Rude People. On page 19, O'Rourke wrote:

To be a mannerly and courteous person you want only a few things from your real family: dignity, breeding, and piles of money. That's all anyone has ever wanted from a family. But all anyone gets from most families is love. And family love has nothing to do with "true love." Family love is messy, clinging, and of annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper.

We've emailed O'Rourke and Shapiro for comment. Nietzsche is dead.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The First Annual NYTPicker Christmas Poem. (With Apologies To Roger Angell.)

Fair readers, hi! It’s almost Christmas morn
And for those not browsing media porn
We thought we’d bring you holiday rhymes
That sync up to the New York Times!

For starters, let’s properly celebrate
With the sterling Nate Silver, and his blog Five-Three-Eight;
He’s new, he’s smart, and well, kinda hunky
As opposed to, say, Detroit’s Nick Bunkley.

To the newsroom! There’s still time for one very last tango;
A three-way with Brian Stelter and (of course) Tim Arango.
And who’s that reading out-of-town clips?
Oh wait, we know – that’s where Dan Barry sits!

Next, quickly, a pit stop in the comfy confines
Of Verlyn Klinkenborg and Francis X. Clines.
Then we’ll deck Trish Hall with boughs of holly!
Maybe she’ll recommend us to replace Tom Jolly.

It’s the end of the year, so let’s stick a fork in
The bloviation of Andrew Ross Sorkin
Instead, let's make some more room on the show
For the numbers machine that is Charles M. Blow.

To Tim O’Brien, we say a hearty hasta la vista!
(Don’t tell him, but we prefer Judy Battista.)
We’ll miss David Shipley, the lord of op-ed;
Can’t we get rid of Paul Krugman instead?

And now, all, a round of he’s-a-jolly-good-fella
To the haircut in chief, the comely Bill Keller
You too, Jill! Come now, wipe off that pout
Bill let you blog about your little dog Scout.

Lest you think this poem is getting too petty
Here’s a tip of our hat to the great Mark Mazzetti!
Between Bruni and Sifton, it’s Frank by a nose
But we’re kind of in awe of Sam’s purply prose.

For tugging at heartstrings, there’s the dynamic duo
Of Susan Dominus and the great Michael Luo
But if it’s humor you hanker for, we have to admit
That nothing beats Maureen Dowd in a snit.

Other kudos include a tip of our sombrero
To Marc Lacey and, of course, Senor Simon Romero.
And here’s a statement that requires no correction;
Alessandra Stanley, you’re TV’s greatest confection!

As long as it’s writers whose gifts we’re exhorting
Here’s to Sam Dolnick for his metro reporting!
And if any athlete, anywhere, is doing bad shit
You can safely be certain it’s known to Mike Schmidt.

To all New York Times reporters posted near war,
We say thank you and godspeed, and nothing at all more.
To Hugo Lindgren, we wish good luck with his rag
You know, the still-curious NYT Mag.

The log’s in the fire, the paper’s ready to burn;
We’re caught up with Nocera and the fair Morgenstern.
We’ve remembered the neediest, and helped out a few
And so now, we say Merry Christmas to you!

Love, The NYTPicker

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bogus! On Page One, NYT Pulitzer Prize Winner Matt Richtel Delivers Phony Email-In-Decline Trend Story.

Does winning a Pulitzer Prize exempt you from properly doing your job at the NYT?

That appears to be the case with Matt Richtel's bogus page-one "trend" story this morning that declares email in "decline" -- a bastion for the "old fogey" who hasn't discovered the joys of text. He emphatically states -- with no reporting to support it -- that online chats and text messaging are "threatening to eclipse email, much as they have already superseded phone calls."

Richtel "proves" his point with the following evidence:

-- Interviews with two young women -- a 17-year-old named Lena Jenny, and a 26-year-old named Katie Bird Hunter -- who say they prefer the speed and convenience of texting.

This is only the most obvious, not the most damning example of Richtel's laziness. But it's clearly not thorough or representative reporting to quote two people as proof of a trend -- especially since neither example suggests that they have given up email in favor of other means to communicate.

But since Richtel's thesis focuses largely on, as he puts it, the "Lenas of the world" -- without making it at all clear what makes Lena a trend --the lack of additional Lenas is a bit disturbing. In the story, Lena calls email "so lame" but doesn't deny using it. And Richtel ends his story on a 23-year-old who complains about the poor grammar in text messages, and continues to use email.

So where's the trend? Where's the reporting? As George Carlin would say: nowhere, mon frere.

-- A reference to a comScore study showing that unique visitors to "major email sites like Yahoo and Hotmail are in steady decline."

Steady decline? Richtel himself notes that visits "peaked" in 2009 and "have since slid." A one-year decline cannot by any stretch of the journalistic imagination be called "steady."

In any case, Richtel also points out that Gmail use is up. So what are the overall statistics that might prove -- or disprove -- his thesis? He doesn't disclose them. A search of the comScore website, with an extensive digest of press releases, didn't reveal the source of Richtel's information, and the hyperlink in the story takes the reader only to the NYT's index of comScore-related stories.

-- An interview with a professor of communications at Rutgers, James E. Katz, who has been a NYT go-to academic for quotes about technology shifts in recent years.

It turns out Katz has been quoted 70 different times by a multitude of NYT reporters in the last decade -- including in 16 different stories by Richtel since 2004. Like the famed Syracuse University quotemeister Robert Thompson, Katz helpfully delivers pithy quotes to bogus trendspotters like Richtel, on deadline.

In their first conversation in August of 2004, Katz offered Richtel the requisite expert quote he needed for a story about the possible listing of cell-phone numbers.

''People would love to be able to contact each other,'' Katz told Richtel. ''But they are very reluctant to be reached.'' Huh?

In today's story, Katz said that email is "painful" for young people. "It doesn't suit their social intensity," he says. Painful? Seriously?

Aside from the story's multiple reportorial weaknesses, Richtel's writing also suffers from laziness unbecoming of the NYT's front page. Consider this embarrassing lede:

Signs you’re an old fogey: You still watch movies on a VCR, listen to vinyl records and shoot photos on film.

And you enjoy using e-mail.

It's usually a bad sign for a trend story when the reporter can't dredge up a worthy anecdote for the lede, and instead is forced to fall back on this sort of hackneyed prose to make a point.

Richtel has worked at the NYT since 2000, and won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting this year for the 2009 series "Driven To Distraction," about the dangers of texting while driving. He has also written a mystery novel, and until recently published a regular daily cartoon strip.

We've contacted Richtel to get his comment on today's story. Based on his apparent poor effort, we wonder if maybe Richtel's a little distracted, too.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Daddy Dearest: NYT's Deborah Solomon Reveals Odd Obsession With Fathers As Role Models, And Mothers As Nags.

In tomorrow's "Questions For" interview in the NYT Magazine, Deborah Solomon tosses Columbia physicist Brian Greene this seeming softball: "What did your dad do for a living?"

A reasonable question, perhaps -- until you remember that this is 2010, and that working mothers have been a prominent presence in American society for longer than the 53-year-old Solomon has been alive.

But over the course of Solomon's decade-long role as the NYT's official weekly interlocutor, she has never -- not once -- asked a subject a direct question about a mother's choice of career.

By contrast, Solomon has on numerous occasions asked people about their fathers' professions, with the unspoken presumption that the mother's occupation is somehow irrelevant to the topic. Beyond that, Solomon's father-oriented questions reveal an almost-obsessive fascination with the role of fathers and fatherhood -- with her questions about mothers often implying a peripheral, nagging role in child development.

For example, in tomorrow's Greene interview, Solomon follows up her straightforward question about his father's career with a flip refererence to mothers' outsize expectations for their children's success:

"And what about your mom? Does she expect you to win a Nobel Prize soon?"

To Greene's credit, he ignores Solomon's snide question, and quickly notes that his mother is "something of a real estate mogul." (He does obediently buy into Solomon's sardonic view of mothers, by noting that his mom wishes he'd become a doctor.)

Typically, Solomon acts as though her interview subjects' mothers don't work, and only function as nagging annoyances. She underscores her obsession with a consistent curiosity about how men see ther own roles as fathers, or what impact fathers' jobs had on the careers of the celebrated people she interviews.

Solomon's questions about mothers tend to go in an edgier direction, sometimes implying that moms didn't know best. Consider this one-two punch from her May 2010 interview with Martha Stewart: "Where does your ambition come from? Did you have a critical mom?"

Ditto this dismissive query from her May 2009 interview with Senator Arlen Specter:

"This article is scheduled to appear on Mother's Day," Solomon noted to the Pennsylvania Republican. "Is there anything to be said about your mother?"

Solomon seems to see mothers as bothers and scolds, rather than role models. Check out this pointed jab from Solomon's September 2010 session with rocker Phil Collins:

"The cover of your new album is a photograph of you as a teenage drummer," Solomon observed, then inquired: "Did your mother tell you when you played the drums that you were giving her a headache?

Or the time she noted to rocker Eminem that "even your mother sued you for defamation." Or when she asked blogger Mickey Kaus during his his recent campaign for the Senate, "Does your mom approve of your Senate bid?"

Meanwhile, dads continue their noble role in their children's lives -- often presented by Solomon as simple statements of fact. "Your Greek immigrant dad ran an all-night diner in Kearney, Neb.," she reminded financier Peter Peterson. "We should mention that your dad is R. Crumb, a reclusive and revered figure who was a founder of the underground-comics movement in San Francisco in the ’60s," she genuflected at artist Sophie Crumb.

Sometimes, Solomon's fascination with dads sometimes comes off as nothing short of rude. "Where is your dad these days?" she asked basketball star Shaquille O'Neal this past August. No mention of the mom who raised O'Neal, even though she's alive and well, and writing her memoirs.

We've emailed Solomon for comment. But we know, on the face of it, that in a society where women -- like Solomon -- have long held jobs as distinguished and important as men, her failure to ask her subjects about their mothers' careers and influence is narrow-minded and bizarre.

UPDATE: In what turns out to be an bizarre coincidence -- or no coincidence at all -- Solomon herself wrote an essay called "Daddy Dearest" in The New Criterion in 1988, which revealed quite a bit about her own father issues.

"Fathers never know how they'll be remembered by their scribbling children," Solomon wrote at the outset of the piece, ostensibly a review of two memoirs by women artists about their fathers. Solomon wrote in great detail about the effect of their fathers' accomplishments and expectations, and how they played out in their daughters' lives.

In the end, Solomon appears to be troubled by the attacks perpetrated by the two authors -- Musa Mayer and Eleanor Munro -- on their dads. She refers to Mayer's memoir as a "serpent's tooth of a book" devoted to her relationship with her father, the painter Philip Guston.

"[A]ll this becomes mere backdrop to the baroque spectacle of Mayer’s struggle for her father’s approval and affection," Solomon writes. "The point of Night Studio is not to illumine the artist’s achievements but to catalogue the sufferings of Guston fille." Solomon acknowledges that Guston was, as his daughter notes, preoccupied with his work, but then notes, "what artist isn't?"

The Eleanor Munro memoir came in for similar attack by Solomon, who saw it as another example of a daughter unfairly resenting the effect of her father's success on her own creativity. Solomon bristles at the suggestion that Munro's father did anything wrong:

“Our father’s work and taste set us apart,” [Munro] smugly notes, speaking for herself and her siblings. Eleven pages later, she visits the home of a high-school classmate in Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb. The fathers there, com pared to her own, “did not come down hard on ideas they disagreed with, having none of their own.” This is an offensive statement, and it reminded me of something Delmore Schwartz once said: there’s nothing so great about ideas; taxi drivers have them, too.

We're still sorting through our sense of the meaning in all this. It's clear that Solomon has an unusually exalted view of fathers and their importance -- to the point where mothers barely merit a mention. It's also clear that Solomon sees successful fathers as unfairly blamed for their children's problems.

Our problem with all of this isn't, as one commenter suggests, that we want to enforce some politically correct approach to questions in Solomon's column. It's that we believe that mothers -- whatever they do to occupy their time -- merit a mention in her efforts to understand the people she interviews.

Whether it's changing diapers or the world, mothers seem worthier of Solomon's attention than she seems willing to offer -- which is almost no attention at all.

Seriously? NYT's Knicks Reporter Slams Spike Lee's Courtside Fashions, Declaring: "Jerseys Aren't A Good Look."

Criticizing Spike Lee for wearing a basketball jersey at a Knicks games strikes us as sort of like attacking Anna Wintour for turning up in an Armani suit at Fashion Week.

And yet NYT Knicks beat reporter Jonathan Abrams took to Twitter late last night -- after the Knicks got blown out at the Garden by the Miami Heat -- to admonish the Knicks' number-one fan for wearing a traditional blue-and-orange Knicks number-six jersey to the game.

"Nothing against Spike," Abrams tweeted, "but jerseys aren't a good look for a grown man unless you're playing in your own."

Hmmm. Has Abrams not noticed that thousands of grown men show up at Madison Square Garden in jerseys every home game? Or, for that matter, everywhere basketball is played? Does he not realize that men don't wear jerseys to impress the ladies with their sartorial taste?

And does he not realize that to Knicks fans, the director of "Do The Right Thing" is a legendary, larger than life hero? Dude, you don't diss Spike Lee.

Lee goes to nearly every home Knicks game and sits (it's more of a crouch, really) in his customary courtside seat opposite the Knicks bench, wildly cheering on team members in his unofficial capacity as Knicks cheerleader and mascot. Knicks fans love Lee's crazed devotion to the team, who before this season had been on a decade-long slide into the NBA basement.

In return, Lee can wear jerseys to a Knicks game anytime he wants, and he will look awesome in it. End of story.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Slobber Alert: NYT's Steve Lohr Puckers Up For Jeffrey Immelt GE Wet Kiss In Sunday Business.

Last Sunday, the NYT Sunday Business section published a Pulitzer-worthy classic on its cover -- David Segal's epic, brilliant journey into the madness and manipulations of Vitaly Borker and his DecorMyEyes website scam.

But this week -- to borrow the language of the virtual GE press release it published as a cover story today -- it's "back to basics" for a NYT section more notable for its flackery than its scoops. Too often, its columns promote products, its interviews push personalities, and its cover stories depend more on exclusive access than investigative muscle.

That's the story behind this week's wet kiss. In 3,690 words, longtime NYT business reporter Steve Lohr manages to reward one of America's most battered corporations, GE, with the chance to resurrect itself -- simply, it seems, as payback for the chance to interview Jeffrey Immelt, its struggling CEO.

As anyone who follows the business world knows, GE took a major beating in the 2008 economic meltdown, having pinned its future on its GE Capital financial services unit. That resource fell apart in 2008, as the credit crisis left GE reeling.

Suddenly, a company that once seemed a bedrock of American capitalism and success appeared to be on the ropes -- so much so that the NYT's own best business columnist, Joe Nocera, had to take to print to assure readers last year that GE would survive.

After laying out its litany of huge missteps, Nocera declared in a March 2009 column: "Can you see now why investors no longer feel they can trust General Electric?" Nocera insisted that the company needed to "open the kimono and disclose its assets and how it values them."

But now, 18 months later, Lohr has fallen prey to that classic corporate gambit -- access to the CEO for an "exclusive" interview, and a guided tour of exactly what the company wants the public to see, and nothing else.

Beyond that, Lohr excluded from his epic piece the most recent -- and damaging -- public-relations blow to the company's reputation: Thursday's revelation that GE borrowed $16 billion from the Federal Reserve in the fall of 2008, well before anyone realized the depth of troubles with the company's credit.

And as if to underscore Lohr's omission, today's "Fair Game" column by NYT Pulitzer Prize winner Gretchen Morgenson, "So That's Where The Money Went" -- on the same Sunday Business front page -- purports to look at the recipients of the Fed's loans, yet also leaves GE off the list of lucky borrowers. Instead, she puts her spotlight on the usual suspects like Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch.

There has been no mention of GE's access to billions in bailout funds anywhere else in the NYT this week, for that matter. A Thursday page-one story by Sewell Chan and Jo Craven McGinty didn't disclose the GE billions, either.

It was reported, instead, by former NYT investigative reporter Jeff Gerth on the ProPublica website -- Gerth noting that GE took the bailout billions "even as the blue-ribbon company enjoyed the highest credit rating available at the time."

Why no update of Lohr's story to include this relevant information? The answer is simple: it would have gone against his thesis, which, to paraphrase George Santayana, is that those who forget the past are...better off.

Instead, Lohr engages in some of the most egregious examples of corporate flackery to have turned up in the NYT's pages in a long time.

Here are just a few examples of language Lohr uses to cast GE and its CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, in a positive light, presumably part of the transaction for managed access that accounts for the interview, Lohr's visit to a GE factory, and five giant photos portraying Immelt and his workers as hopeful, endearing folk emerging from a financial mess not of their making.

The story quotes Immelt at epic length, frequently without qualification or question, and often permitting him to lapse into coporate doublespeak with references to things like "aspirational" goals. When Immelt acknowledges the company's colossal errors under his leadership, Lohr says he does so "candidly." All but three people quoted in the story are friends, present or former employees of GE -- including factory workers who offered their we-love-GE soundbites with all the candor of a worker being watched by the PR machine that arranged the interviews.

A sampler, beginning with Lohr's saccharine summary of Immelt's broad strategy to return GE to dominance:

Having skirted disaster, G.E. is recovering gradually these days. Its finance unit is on the mend, with the size of its debts and troubled loans trending downward. Mind you, middling recoveries are a relative matter at G.E. After all, the company remains a colossus on track to deliver profits of more than $10 billion on sales of about $150 billion this year. But investors are used to getting more from G.E., which earned $22 billion on revenue of $173 billion in 2007. So G.E. has revamped its strategy in the wake of the financial crisis. Its heritage of industrial innovation reaches back to Thomas Edison and the incandescent light bulb, and with that legacy in mind, G.E. is going back to basics.

Then a few words of sympathy for the beleaguered CEO:

Mr. Immelt and his advisers had plenty of company in missing the gathering storm...

Mr. Immelt is backing his words with actions...

On to Immelt's strategy, and how well it's already working:

About 1,000 miles from corporate headquarters, inside a gleaming new plant that is the result of a $100 million, three-year investment, G.E.’s back-to-basics strategy is on display....It is an industrial symphony of materials science, high-tech machinery and hand craftsmanship.

Next, a few positive quotes from people whose paychecks Immelt signs:

Audra Harris, 36, left a job as a machine operator at a commercial roofing manufacturer to come to the G.E. plant. In her first months, Ms. Harris says she initially found the team approach “very challenging,” but adapted quickly. "Here you get to make a lot of decisions," she says....

Steve Lentz, 55, who had worked in a printing factory and a bottling factory before joining G.E, says the large investment in a high-tech facility proved that the company had a long-term commitment. "I figured I could wrap up my career here,” he says. “At other places, you don’t know when the shoe will drop."....

Back to Immelt, who thinks GE's doing a pretty good job, if he says so himself:

Being nuanced in foreign markets, [Immelt] says, is a skill that "I think we’re pretty good at."....

“It’s about using the scale of G.E., the majesty of the company, to drive growth and change,” [Immelt] says...

More GE employees weigh in with praise for the boss:

Mr. Immelt, according to Beth Comstock, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at G.E., is constantly scouting for opportunity. “He says, ‘Hey, I think there’s something here,’ ” Ms. Comstock says. “Let’s see what we can do.” When he gets excited, teams are dispatched to assess markets, products and research and technology trends, typically in a few weeks or less...

But wait! Apparently, sometimes Immelt has to make a tough decision or two:

Occasionally, Mr. Immelt just issues an order. After a trip to Brazil in January, he became convinced that the country was rapidly advancing in technology and that G.E. should place a research lab there. When he returned to the United States, he told Mr. Little, as Mr. Immelt recalls, “Hey dude, you’re going to put a global research center in Brazil. Pick a good place.” Last month, G.E. announced it would build a research center in Rio de Janeiro....

Leadership by fiat when done in moderation, Mr. Immelt says, can drive change and set a course. “I think that if you run a big company, you’ve got to four or five times a year, just say, ‘Hey team, look, here’s where we’re going,’ ” he says. “If you do it 10 times, nobody wants to work for you. If you do it zero times, you have anarchy....

Things are going to turn out pretty well for GE. Maybe. Assuming this happens and that happens and something else happens, that is:

The near-term prospects for G.E.’s stock seem to depend, if not on financial engineering, then at least on financial moves that might lift the dividend back toward its pre-crisis levels. The sale to Comcast could bring $8 billion in cash. And negotiating with Mr. Buffett to buy back his $3 billion in preferred stock, which pays a 10 percent dividend, could free up $300 million in yearly fees. Those steps could clear the way to raising the dividend and making the stock fetching again for investors...

In the end, Immelt thinks it's all going work out just fine for GE:

For his part, Mr. Immelt is an optimist. “We’re going to be one of the companies that comes out of the crisis stronger than we went in,” he says. “I think that is something that is ultimately going to be good for employees and investors.”

Fortunately for Immelt, Steve Lohr seems to think so, too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

NYT Vs. NYU! Pulitzer-Winning Reporter Declares War On Journalism Prof Over Lack of Cinammon At Starbucks.

It seemed innocuous enough to us -- or to anyone who has searched for cinnamon to top off an overpriced latte at America's most annoying foamagerie.

Except maybe to NYT Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Don Van Natta Jr.

At around 10:00 pm last night, Adam Penenberg, an NYU journalism professor, turned to Twitter to file a 140-character complaint against everybody's favorite retail punching bag, Starbucks.

"Dear @Starbucks," Penenberg wrote. "At $4+ a grande cappuccino, you should never run out of cinnamon or cocoa powder, yet many of your NY locations do. #cmon."

Just moments later, Van Natta -- who follows Penenberg on Twitter -- fired off this reply:

If you whine here about nonsense-- like no cinnamon at @Starbucks -- you get unfollowed. Adios, @Penenberg.

At which point, apparently, Van Natta deleted Penenberg from his Twitter "follow" list.

Ouch! Seems like an outsize response to a fairly standard Twitter feed, especially given the fact that Penenberg is also a respected investigative journalist -- famous, in fact, for having exposed the fabrications of Stephen Glass at The New Republic while a reporter for Forbes. Penenberg has written books on social media and business, and and has taught at NYU journalism school for several years.

Van Natta's excision of Penenberg from his Twitter feed seems especially odd, considering his own constant use of Twitter -- he posts several times a day -- to file his own offhand comments.

Here's a recent Van Natta sampler:

My World Cup predictions: Spain/Portugal 2018, Australia 2022.

Why does @KingJames still call himself "King of Akron?" Is there a South Beach club named Akron?

This #Knicks team is almost as cool as Clyde Frazier.

Barring last min glitch Gruden is happening. Yeah!!!!!!!

Those examples were provided by Penenberg, who told The NYTPicker he was baffled a bit by Van Natta's quick, harsh response.

"It's all so silly and I don't know what set him off," Penenberg wrote us in reply to our questions. "If you check out my tweetstream you'll note that I don't usually blather on about the lack of cinnamon at Starbucks. Then again, it's Twitter, not Charlie Rose."

After citing the examples of Van Natta's own oddball tweets, Penenberg added: "Nothing wrong with that, of course. Although by the standard Van Natta set for me, I'd recommend he immediately stop following himself, just to be consistent."

Penenberg noted on Twitter -- shortly after the Van Natta pronouncement -- that he sees the NYT as being unduly sensitive to outside criticism. He elaborated on that point to The NYTPicker.

"When I said it's typical of the Times I was recalling the way the Times sometimes responds to critical coverage--like stories by Michael Hirshhorn in the Atlantic, Mark [Bowden] in Vanity Fair, and others."

Penenberg then provided a link to what he described as NYT executive editor Bill Keller's "acidic comments" re Bowden's profile of Arthur Sulzberger.

"Some in Times management also don't take kindly to having the paper's online business strategies questioned," Penenberg went on. "As both a fan and critic, I'd like to see the Times act with greater class. Times' management should be able to handle criticism better, not act so thin-skinned. Van Natta's off-his-meds behavior reminded me of that."

Van Natta hasn't yet responded to a request for comment from The NYTPicker.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

NYT's 2010 Holiday Gift Guide Recommends The Ugliest Thing Ever Made, For Only $985.

At least this year's NYT Holiday Gift Guide doesn't offer a segregated shopping section for people of color, like last year.

But in its "Home and Decorating Gifts for $250 and over" section, it does recommend this truly hideous zebra teapot, for $985, which may be even worse:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Attention, Pulitzer Prize Jury: Come On, Already. This Is Frank Rich's Year.

In 1987, Frank Rich was a well-deserved finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

But unaccountably, for the last 23 years since then, Rich has not once been in final contention for journalism's top prize.

This ridiculous, inexpicable omission has come despite thirteen years as the NYT's lead drama critic -- where he was, without debate, the best of his generation -- and another sixteen years on the NYT's op-ed page. Meanwhile, Rich's columnist colleagues (Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, and Tom Friedman) have collected a passel of nominations and wins among them.

This is Rich's year. Don't agree? Take a look at today's op-ed page. If you don't shudder with fear at Rich's message, then you simply can't be moved by the power of potent, well-arranged words.

While Dowd tut-tuts comically at the latest failings of her fallen hero, Barack Obama, Rich eloquently warns against the persistent, pernicious threat of Republican firebrand Sarah Palin. Under the perfect title -- "Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha" -- Rich does his passionate best to rile us with the fear that she may make it to White House.

Instead of simply whining about Palin's faux populism, or making fun of her appearance or malaprops -- that's Dowd's default position -- Rich prescribes a solution to her opponents, if they'll only listen:

Revealingly, Sarah Palin’s potential rivals for the 2012 nomination have not joined the party establishment in publicly criticizing her. They are afraid of crossing Palin and the 80 percent of the party that admires her. So how do they stop her? Not by feeding their contempt in blind quotes to the press — as a Romney aide did by telling Time’s Mark Halperin she isn’t “a serious human being.” Not by hoping against hope that Murdoch might turn off the media oxygen that feeds both Palin’s viability and News Corporation’s bottom line. Sooner or later Palin’s opponents will instead have to man up — as Palin might say — and actually summon the courage to take her on mano-a-maverick in broad daylight.

That's classic Rich -- offering his audience not just a vituperative complaint or attack, but also a reasoned recipe for change. He reports his columns by voraciously consuming the culture, and embracing the web: each week the online version of his column links to dozens of articles, commentaries and reports that illuminate his point of view.

Rich has been a powerful force in American journalism for most of his career -- not just as a writer, but also as an informal adviser to NYT editors on matters of hiring and content. He also wrote a moving memoir in 2000, "Ghost Light," that could have justified a Pulitzer on its own. (His other books include a collection of his NYT theater reviews, "Hot Seat," and a 2006 attack on the Bush adminstration called "The Greatest Story Ever Sold."

Yes, Rich preaches to the choir: his mostly-liberal NYT audience probably rejoices each week in how much it agrees with him. But that undersells his gifts at argument and persuasion. Often, Rich's columns -- at 1500 words, longer than any of his colleagues -- go deeper into explanation and example. His raw intelligence and deft touch combine to make him the most powerful liberal voice of our time.

Obviously, there's more to life than a prize, and Rich doesn't need the reward of a Pulitzer jury to measure his worth. But in an industry that still bows down before the almighty prefix -- "Pulitzer prize-winning journalist" -- it seems only fair that Frank Rich at last get his.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

NYT Freelancer Sarah Maslin Nir Debuts On Front Page With Phony Trend Story About School Photo Retouching.

It was made to order for a Saturday NYT front page.

Sarah Maslin Nir, the highly visible NYT freelancer who has recently been covering education for the Metro section, delivered a delicious trend story this morning on how kids now get their school photos retouched to remove unsightly scars and imperfections.

Only one problem: it's not a trend at all.

As any photographer -- or former high school student -- can tell you, school photographers have been retouching photos for decades to remove blemishes, scars and other elements that might mar a permanent portrait. It has been standard practice since at least the 1950s, a fact conveniently missing from Nir's story.

Instead, Nir presents this as a new phenomenon, using the standard buzzwords of trend reporting:

The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait. Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one.

School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology that made fixing the haircut a 5-year-old gave herself, or popping a tooth into a jack-o’-lantern smile, easy and inexpensive. And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.

But if you need any proof that this phenomenon has been around a while, just take a look at the 179 comments on the piece on the NYT website -- 32 of which specifically recall their own photos being retouched as long ago as the 1950s, and remark that the story reports nothing new at all.

Here's a typical comment, from Norman Baxley of Urbana, Illinois:

It was common practice in early portrait photography to retouch negatives, particularly 4X5" and larger. It was done by applying graphite directly to the surface of the negative. Since dark bags under the eyes and zits are clear on the negative, filling in these areas with graphite caused them to print lighter....Go back and look at high school yearbooks from the mid sixties and earlier and you won't find many zits in the black and white photos!

Or this, from Barbara Leary of Amesbury, Massachusetts:

I am a high school newspaper and yearbook advisor. In a portrait type photo we would almost always remove temporary deformities such as a scratch, pimple, or stray hair as a matter of course....The person who said photos were retouched 40 years ago is correct. Look at a yearbook from 1950 or 60 and you won't see kids with zits all over their portraits....This is NOT another case of our society becoming more fake. It has always been done.

And there are 30 more, making the same point -- that the notion that this is a new practice is false.

By the way, this isn't even the first time this phony trend has been reported recently -- it had been done in Feburary of 2008 in Newsweek. So even if editors bought Nir's faulty thesis, why did they put it on page one?

It may have something to do with Nir, a rising freelance star at the NYT who began contributing to the paper in 2008. Earlier this year Nir was named "The Nocturnalist," a weekly column for the City Room blog that reports on New York nightlife. More recently, Nir has been writing high-profile education stories for the paper.

Today's feature marked Nir's solo page one NYT debut. Unfortunately for her, it's not going to be so easy to airbrush out this story's flaws.

UPDATE: Late this evening, Nir briefly posted two Twitter comments (at her Twitter feed, @NYTNocturnalist) in response to our post, but then took them down. Fortunately we were able to get a screen grab before they disappeared:

Friday, November 19, 2010

NYT's Michael Barbaro Tells The NYTPicker: Hey, You're Not Posting Enough Items Attacking My Employer!

We've just received the following email from the NYT's Michael Barbaro, who covers New York city and state politics. He seems to think we're not devoting enough time to investigating his employer's wrongdoings.

In an email to The NYTPicker at 7:27 pm this evening, under the heading "Six days without a post," Barbaro wrote:

I really do think that the biggest scandal of your blog is that you somehow find fault with a deeply reported paper that comes out every day -- and online, every hour -- while you post items once every, well, never.

Barbaro's right. We're ashamed of ourselves. We promise that our 1,150-person paid editorial staff will get right back to work on some new posts, as soon as Carlos Slim's check clears.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Maureen Dowd, Move Over: Funniest Column In NYT Is Mary H.K. Choi's Weekly "Townies" Essay On The Opinionator Blog.

After only two weeks on the job, a young Korean woman named Mary H.K. Choi has emerged as the NYT's funniest new writer in ages.

Is it too early for editors to consider moving her brilliant and insightful "Townies" column from the Opinionator blog to the Op-Ed page, and kick Tom Friedman to the curb?

Choi's first effort comically chronicled her multiple moves around New York -- a new apartment for every miserable breakup in her young life, and a long partnership with a moving man who carried her stuff nine times as she criss-crossed the city in search of a permanent place.

This week, Choi's second column confessed the misery a young Korean woman faces getting a pedicure from a middle-aged Korean woman whose grey roots remind her of her mother. It's more than that, really, but we can't do justice to it with a summary.

In October, the Opinionator blog launched a new "Townies" column for fresh young voices. Its first contributor was Sloane Crosley, the popular essayist with two best-selling collections under her belt. Crosley delivered her predictably droll commentaries on predictable topics like cats and New Year's Eve. No surprises.

But the arrival of the considerably less well-known Choi has delivered a dose of comic adrenalin to the Townies column. Her bio identifies her as a writer for The Awl and senior editor for Complex Magazine. Before that she edited something called "Missbehave" and wrote a comic called "Lady Deadpool."

We can easily envision Choi alongside the comedy stylings of Ross Douthat, the hilarious Bob Herbert, and the rest of the op-ed gang. The NYTPicker proudly declares itself pro-Choi.

Whoops! Turns Out Twin In Cute Page-One Story About Tree Sleeping Got Busted On Felony Drug Charges Last Year.

Once again, a NYT reporter has forgotten to Google.

You know Dana and Cory Foht, those cute 25-year-old Florida twins on the front page of today's NYT? The ones who've been sleeping in the trees in Central Park?

Well, that's Cory Foht on the left. It's his mugshot, courtesy of Florida's Collier Country Police Department from July 30, 2009. That's the day he got arrested on four felony counts, including drug posession and resisting arrest.

The charges have since been dropped, and The NYTPicker is currently exploring what may have been the circumstances behind that.

But one thing is clear: NYT reporter Colin Moynihan forgot to Google these Foht fellows before putting them in a story that landed them on the front page of the paper. Yet again, a NYT reporter has forgotten that classic journalism adage: if your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Cory Foht was arrested on four felony counts: possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana; possession and use of narcotic paraphernalia; destroying, fabricating or tampering with evidence, and resisting arrest without violence.

Translation: stoned, long-haired Florida dude allegedly tries to flush his stash and pipe down the toilet while cops pound on the bathroom door.

Cory's arrest was reported on the Naples News website. Want to see it? Just type the words Cory Foht into Google. It's the first link.

Now, Cory wasn't convicted of anything. That means he's innocent until proven guilty. Court records reveal that the charges were dropped earlier this year, so he's off the hook.

And the worst crime his twin brother Dana ever apparently committed was appearing in this 2005 music video, hitting on a voluptuous girl on a Florida beach and getting royally dissed.

Still -- when you're writing a page-one story about some Florida kids sleeping in Central Park trees, shouldn't you at least look up the guys you're writing about?

Seems to us a previous arrest record might be relevant here, especially since Moynihan's story addresses the fact that technically, it's a crime to sleep in Central Park.

We liked the story, by the way. We think the Fohts are probably great guys and we totally believe them about the YouTube video they're gonna edit together and make and stuff. Like, any day now. Meanwhile, don't bogart that joint.

UPDATE: A number of readers have objected to this item as being excessively nit-picky, basically because Cory Foht wasn't convicted of anything. Why, readers wondered, were we criticizing the NYT for failing to report something irrelevant to the story at hand?

We considered that point carefully before publishing the item. In the end, we decided that because Moynihan's story appeared on the front page -- and because it focused heavily on the criminal aspect of the Fohts' actions -- a previous felony arrest seemed worth knowing about. Employers typically require a job applicant to disclose an arrest record, with or without a conviction; why shouldn't reporters and newspapers care about them?

The inclusion of the arrest history wouldn't have detracted a bit from Moynihan's otherwise entertaining story, or from the Foht twins' reputations as cool tree-dwelling dudes. And it would have sent readers a signal that the NYT checks out the people it puts on page one, especially when they're unknowns. We find it odd that so many commenters are quick to defend the reader's right not to know.

Friday, November 12, 2010

NYT Correction Of The Day: SF Giants First Baseman Aubrey Huff Does Not Wear Women's Undergarments.

From today's NYT corrections column:

An article on Nov. 4 about the San Francisco Giants’ victory parade referred incorrectly to the type of underwear shown to the crowd by first baseman Aubrey Huff. His “rally thong,” which he said he wore for luck during the Giants’ run to the World Series title, was designed for men, not for women.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

BLOGOUT! All 58 NYT Blogs Go Dark; For Last 12 Hours, Readers Stumbling In Darkness Looking For Krugman, Pogue, Motherlode.

Where were you when the blogs went out?

For the last 12 hours at least, the NYT's entire blog system has gone suddenly, quietly dark -- giving the paper's millions of online users no access to any of its 58 blogs' postings or archives.

Amazingly, not a single one of those readers has twittered the news, and the Great Blogout of 2010 has also escaped the notice of a vigilant army of media websites. Does this mean no one actually reads the NYT blogs?

Approximately 12 hours ago, the NYT twitter feed sent out this message to its 2.7 million followers:

We're working hard to get our blogs back up and running. Stay tuned.

It wasn't clear from that tweet when the blogout happened, although The NYTPicker recalls getting an error message on a blog as early as yesterday afternoon. That message can now now seen by anyone clicking on any blog.

Then, approximately 20 minutes ago, the twitter feed sent out a new message to its millions:

To our followers: We are still wrestling with the technology that powers NYT blogs. Sorry for the hassle, but we're working on it.

At this moment, no reader has any access to any NYT blogs or their archives.

There's now an Editor's Note on the NYT website that declares:

The blogs on have been experiencing technical difficulties. DealBook posts can be found at

Hurry up, NYT! We can't live without "Motherlode" much longer!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cheesy Journalism: NYT Prints Page-One Warning Of Cheese Dangers, While Regularly Pushing Cheese In Food Coverage.

Today's page-one lead story by investigative reporter Michael Moss brilliantly deconstructs the hypocrisy of a government that fights obesity with one hand while promoting cheese products with the other.

But it doesn't mention the NYT's own hypocrisy. While probing government programs that push high-fat cheese products with one hand, it promotes cheese products with the other -- with regular recipes, reporting and recommendations that treat cheese, particularly when delivered on a pizza, as a healthy food choice.

A look at the last several years of cheese references in the NYT -- helpfully gathered in a Times Topics section, "Cheese," introduced with a lengthy Florence Fabricant essay that makes no mention of its saturated-fat content -- finds almost no stories that reference the dairy product's potential health hazards.

In fact, in recent years, NYT reporters and critics have mostly written about cheese as though it were a leafy vegetable.

In September, restaurant critic Sam Sifton heaped praise on fat-filled pizzas that sound like a suicide mission for a heart patient.

Reviewing Fornino in Park Slope, Sifton criticized a "plain margherita pie" that "sits flat and crackly on its plate, devoid of yeasty flavor; it felt in the mouth a little like a pizza made with saltines."

"More successful are the versions in which a fair amount of stuff is piled on top of the pie, and the cheese and fat perhaps protect some part of the dough," Sifton went on, with emphasis added by us. " The pizza Mr. Ayoub has dedicated to the memory of Mr. Scotto — piled high with Bel Paese, pecorino, fior di latte and ricotta, as well as slices of fiery salami and dabs of roast-pepper aioli — has proved itself to be a marvel of structural integrity, with great texture beneath the creaminess. It is the best on the menu."

It's good to see Sifton's concern for "structural integrity" in a pizza "piled high" with cheese, but it might also be nice to see some semblance of concern for our arteries.

Other Sifton reviews have extolled the virtues of cheese cupcakes, cauliflower and goat-cheese gratin, a goat cheese creme brulee (okay, that does sound good), and, at Prime Meats in Brooklyn, "a nice selection of Northeastern cow, sheep and goat cheeses worth lingering over" before you "walk out into the soft Brooklyn night."

Sifton's predecessor, Frank Bruni, also lavished heart-damaging praise on the cheesy pizza principle.

"As for toppings, they should add a whisper of sweetness or murmur of heat to the milky, tangy, wonderful white noise of cheese," Bruni wrote in a 2009 Critic's Notebook, "The Crust Is A Canvas For Pizza's New Wave." "All of the pizza places in my list of new-generation favorites understand this. And almost all of my favorite pies exemplify it."

Just yesterday, an essay by Lesley Alderman in the business section -- objecting to the proliferation of fats and sugar in school lunch diets -- referenced pizza as a healthy lunch option for kids, assuming it's made "on the premises with fresh ingredients."

After citing milk as a healthy beverage choice -- even though its high fat content comes under scrutiny in Moss's story -- it recommends packing cheese and tomato sandwiches for lunch, instead of schools' fast-food fare. Sounds like saturated fat to us, though that aspect of the Alderman-approved diet isn't mentioned.

Similarly -- and regularly -- NYT reporters and critics refer to cheese as a preferred ingredient of recipes and meals, even healthy ones. We looked through five years of NYT references to cheese, and found no mentions whatsoever of the saturated fat content that is the focus of Moss's investigation.

This hypocrisy extends to the NYT's coverage of Domino's Pizza itself -- which, before today, didn't address the health issues associated with the product.

An October 10, 2004 article by Brendan I. Koerner covered the debut of a new Domino's pizza, "The Doublemelt," which closely resembles the "Wisconsin" pizza that's the focus of Moss's investigation. Koerner describes the Doublemelt as "two thin crusts glued together with a potent cheese-and-herb sauce, then slathered with a six-cheese blend."

The Doublemelt had 16 grams of fat per slice of a 12-inch pizza. That's four grams more than the pizza slice that's the focus of Moss's article.

To be fair, Koerner's 2004 article did acknowledge some problems being created for American consumers by the introduction of such an excessively cheesy pizza.

"Dark days may be ahead," Koerner conceded, "for tomato sauce fans."

The NYTPicker Turns Two Today!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Don't Quote Me! House Aide Speculates In NYT, Then Seeks Anonymity "Because He Did Not Want To Speculate."

We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

-- NYT Confidential News Sources Policy

Today we launch a new NYTPicker feature, "Don't Quote Me!" -- a highlight of the latest, most egregious excuses for anonymity from the pages of the NYT.

You see them every morning, unnamed sources spilling their guts -- usually claiming anonymity because they were "not authorized" to speak to reporters.

Hey, we understand. On deadline, it's often very difficult to get those Official Newspaper Source Authorization Forms properly filled out.

But often -- pressed to develop some original explanation for a source's reluctance to see his or her name in the paper, per NYT policy -- NYT reporters twist themselves into pretzels with their excuses for failure to force a source onto the record.

In "For Obama, Foreign Policy May Offer Avenues for Success," by Helene Cooper, comes this articulation of a source's anonymity today. In this instance, the source says he doesn't want to engage in "speculation." A noble goal, considering it's useless, and against the NYT's anonymous source rules.

But Cooper goes ahead and quotes him speculating, anyway:

The expected ascension of Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee, could signal trouble for Mr. Obama’s efforts to expand Americans’ opportunities to travel to Cuba, the next step aimed at encouraging contact between people in both countries.

“The likelihood of things moving on that in the next Congress are greatly diminished,” said a Republican aide in the House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to speculate on legislation before the new committee assignments were set.

We'll be back soon, with another edition of "Don't Quote Me!"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Huh? Arthur Brisbane, NYT's Public Editor, Uses Anonymous Source To Attack NYT's Use Of Secret Documents.

Since the position was created in 2002, all three previous NYT Public Editors -- Daniel Okrent, Byron Calame and Clark Hoyt -- used their columns to regularly rail against the overuse of anonymous sources in NYT news reporting.

But the NYT's newest Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, may have a harder time taking the high road on this issue -- having allowed an anonymous source to attack the NYT in today's column.

Addressing the controversy created by the NYT's publication of Wikileaks-obtained Iraq War documents last week, Brisbane today used the anonymous source to question the NYT's publication of reports that could aid enemy military strategy. He wrote:

To address the risk to troops and informants, The Times took pains to remove names and other information from the documents it published. Nevertheless, a retired Army general, who asked for anonymity to avoid bringing controversy to the civilian organization he now serves, said the field reports enable Al Qaeda and the Taliban to learn much about the operational practices and mind-set of the coalition’s fighting forces.

“Analysis is not nearly as damaging as reports,” he said, drawing a distinction between the Pentagon Papers and the WikiLeaks material. Field reports like these make it possible “to get into the mind of the enemy. Anytime you do that you gain a tremendous advantage.”

In 2005, NYT executive editor Bill Keller attacked this sort of flimsy use and identification of anonymous sources directly when he declared:

...when anonymity is unavoidable editors must press for adequate disclosure — how the sources know what they know, what motivated them to share the information, and why they are entitled to anonymity. (Note: Not why they ASK for anonymity, but why we feel they are entitled to it.)

Brisbane's lazy use of an anonymous source represented just one weakness in a column riddled with them -- a wimpy, scattershot analysis of a serious controversy that produced widespread and serious attacks on the NYT.

We emailed Okrent, who as the NYT's first Public Editor was a vehement critic of the paper's use of anonymous sources -- "There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source," he once wrote -- to see what he thought of today's use of an anonymous source by Brisbane.

"I appreciate the importance of what you're doing," Okrent replied to The NYTPicker via email, "but I've also sworn never to second-guess any of my successors, at least not publicly. I hope you'll understand."

Today's column marked the latest misfire for Brisbane, who has -- in his brief tenure -- already allowed his Public Editor columns to be largely dominated by the NYT's defense and explanation of its decisions, rather than his detailed questioning of them. While his job is to be the "reader's representative," his columns often concern themselves largely with the NYT's side of the story.

Sometimes, as he did today, Brisbane ends his columns with a tidy and unexplained defense of his employer, as though his job were merely to perform as a judge issuing a ruling:

"The Times faced some very tough decisions in this situation and took some risks," Brisbane pronounced at the end of today's column. "I think it did what it had to do."

Why? When? How? Brisbane doesn't bother to say.

Astonishingly, Brisbane virtually ignored what many feel was the most pressing problem in the NYT's handling of the Wikileaks disclosures: last Sunday's page-one takedown of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya. Frequent NYT critic Glenn Greenwald of Salon labelled that story a Nixonian "smear job" -- one that he said echoed the way the Nixon administration orchestrated attacks on Daniel Ellsberg at the time of the Pentagon Papers.

Brisbane alludes to the Burns-Somaiya story in his lede -- addressing the "stark duality" of reporting on documents dumped by an "increasingly sketchy" source -- but then doesn't return to it until the very end of his column. He then obliquely states:

The Times, in my opinion, did take a reputational risk in doing business with WikiLeaks, though it has inoculated itself somewhat by reporting independently on the organization.

How did the NYT inoculate itself? Greenwald and others have charged that the NYT, in fact, hypocritically undercut itself by presenting the Wikileaks-proferred documents in detail while at the same time attacking their source. It might have been valuable for Brisbane to address those arguments directly, rather than by casually defending the NYT with no backup for his beliefs.

As an aside: we liked the Burns-Somaiya piece. It struck us as a legitimate and insightful inquiry into Assange's methods and behavior. But we don't think the NYT intended to "inoculate" itself with the story; it makes no sense that such a story could have done anything to protect the NYT, had its stories resulted in government action against the paper.

Brisbane also betrayed some lack of awareness of NYT history in his reporting. He wrongly identified A.M. Rosenthal as the NYT's "executive editor" during the Pentagon Papers crisis; Rosenthal was managing editor at the time. The executive editor position wasn't created for another several years.

Brisbane also failed to mention that Bill Kovach, who he quoted questioning the Wikileaks disclosures, was a NYT reporter and editor for 18 years who played a direct role in the NYT's publication of the Pentagon Papers. As Boston bureau chief at the time, Kovach reportedly got the first phone call from reporter Neil Sheehan about the historic papers in Daniel Ellsberg's possession.