Monday, May 31, 2010

Sad Milestone: For The First Time In Memory, NYT Sports Section Skips The Indy 500, Prints Wire Story.

In 1911, the NYT had a reporter present at the first Indy 500, who gave the turn-by-turn on Roy Harroun's win despite a fiery accident.

Yesterday, for the first time anyone can remember, the NYT had no reporter present at the Indy 500 -- in which Dario Franchitti won the race, despite a fiery accident. It ran a wire story from the Associated Press.

Now known as the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing," the Indy 500 attracts crowds of more than 400,000 to Indianapolis every Memorial weekend, and is considered one of the sport's three biggest events.

We know, we know -- sports coverage has fallen on hard times, too. The NYT has cut back on its coverage of events, in favor of broader stories that play to the paper's national audience. It's the right approach. We still like the NYT's sports section. We miss Harvey Araton's column, but we get it.

Still, it seems an odd decision for the NYT to keep its reporters home this year, from an event it had covered in person for decades.

For one thing, it sent an downbeat message to the nation's many auto racing fans -- millions of Americans who spend billions of dollars on licensed products, many of whom flock to Indianapolis each year in annual pilgrimage to worship their sport.

Paul Newman even made a movie about the Indy 500, called "Winning." Come on, guys -- Paul Newman!

In recent years, Dave Caldwell (last seen reporting on the hockey playoffs in Philadelphia on May 19) covered the event. Bill Pennington, Lynn Zinser and Liz Robbins have been known to turn up in the press box. Ira Berkow, the NYT's former columnist, stopped by in 2003.

We've emailed Tom Jolly, the sports editor, for comment. We'll update when we hear from him. We're curious to know how the NYT picked this one to skip.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Invasion Of Privacy: NYT's Corey Kilgannon Visits Dead Man's Apartment, Takes Pix And Writes It Up For City Room Blog.

Last Sunday, the legendary jazz pianist Hank Jones died peacefully at the age of 91, at a Bronx hospice.

By the next day, NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon had talked his way into Jones's room in an Upper West Side apartment. On Tuesday, Kilgannon (sharing a byline with City Room editor Andy Newman) posted a piece on the City Room blog that portrayed Jones as a lonely old man in a messy studio -- setting off a firestorm of complaints from Jones's family and friends that he'd invaded Jones's privacy, and besmirched his legacy.

We'd say the complainers are right on both counts. Intentionally or not, the City Room post reads like an attempt to make Jones's life look lonely and sad, made even worse by the reporter's brazen disregard for Jones's privacy by snapping -- and publishing -- a photo from inside his room.

Kilgannon has always been one of our favorite NYT reporters. He writes eloquently about New Yorkers on the fringe of society, and provides a needed balance to a newspaper that actually thinks we want to know how rich people spend their Sundays. He joined the reporting staff in 2000, after graduating with an English degree from Columbia and working his way up from copy boy. Recently he wrote a memorable profile of Frank Serpico, the former cop now living upstate.

But Kilgannon's post on the jazz icon lacked his usual perfect pitch. He portrayed Jones as living in "near isolation in a 12-by-12-foot room at 108th Street and Broadway, ordering in three meals a day from the diner downstairs and practicing incessantly on an electric keyboard plugged into headphones." He described "suitcases, sheet music and jazz awards cluttered around an unmade bed." He mentioned CDs "scattered about" and referenced an unopened bottle of champagne.

Not getting the picture? Kilgannon provided one with the post -- a photograph of Jones's roommate and landlord, Manny Ramirez, in the apartment.

It doesn't look that messy to us!

Right after the story and photo got posted, commenters weighed in with their objections. The complainers included family members, friends, and business associates.

What next?" asked Miles Morimoto, who took of a portrait of Jones that appeared in the NPR website in 2007. "Will the Times go into Lena Horne’s closet and tell us how neat or messy she was?"

Jazz bassist Charlie Haden and his wife, Ruth Cameron, wrote a lengthier attack on the article, speculating (as others did) on the legality of breaking into Jones's apartment without family permission, and removing its contents.

"Taking photos less than 24 hours after Hank died," the couple wrote. "That is just as outrageous and seems opportunistic and exploitive at best." Comments followed from Jones's manager and some family members, all making clear that Kilgannon's story misrepresented the pianist's existence in his final weeks.

Several commenters noted that Jones wasn't frugal when he traveled -- often staying in first-class hotels -- but that he chose to live within limited means in New York City, to be near his friends, even though he owned a farm upstate.

By the next afternoon, Kilgannon felt it necessary to respond to the complaints. In a blog comment, he explained that he lived across the street from Jones and had called Ramirez after the obituary appeared. Ramirez told Kilgannon that he'd gotten permission from Jones's family and lawyer to break into the apartment with a sledgehammer and pack up his belongings.

Kilgannon defended his portrayal of Jones, saying that he wanted to "augment" the obituary, and arguing that he didn't intend to show him as destitute.

"I found it touching that Mr. Jones chose such an isolated life, towards the end," Kilgannon wrote, "and I probably could have been better at describing that it seemed by-choice, out of passion for his art, not out of depression or some sense of shame."

He went on: "This was not intended to define Mr. Jones and his legacy by the condition of his room, but rather to attempt to glimpse him as a human, to add to the official and public image we already have of him. If he lived in a mansion, I would have been just as eager to visit and write about that."

We don't doubt Kilgannon's motives; he's a sensitive guy. But we don't think much of NYT reporters looking over and photographing the private belongings of dead people in the first hours after their death -- in a mansion or a hovel -- without direct permission from a family member or lawyer. It just doesn't feel right to us.

By the way, if you've never heard Hank Jones play the piano, listen to this.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

CBS Was NYT's First Page-One Advertiser In January 2009. Today, NYT Returns The Favor With Page-One Story On "Good Wife" Casting.

Ignore The Rumblings. He Lied About Serving In Vietnam. The Blumenthal Scoop Stands. The NYT Got This One Right.

We got several emails throughout the day and night yesterday from readers who wanted us to weigh in on the latest developments with the NYT's blockbuster scoop on Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal.

You remember the juicy story that landed on the NYT website on Monday night. It reported exclusively that now-Senate candidate Blumenthal looked into a camera and said the words "I served in Vietnam," when it turned out he'd been in the Marine reserves. We watched the 58-second video of Blumenthal lying into a camera, on the NYT website. A grand-slam scoop, and props to Raymond Hernandez for nailing it down.

Now it turns out that the NYT didn't release the whole videotape -- just a damning excerpt. Elsewhere in his March 2008 remarks, he made a different sort of vague reference to his military service. The Associated Press posted the original, and quoted the new passage as evidence of a NYT omission. All of a sudden, stories questioned whether the NYT had deliberately cut out a relevant part of the tape -- and whether the story fairly represented Blumenthal's behavior.

Next, ABC News reported that one named source in Hernandez's piece now claimed she was misquoted. Later a Hartford Courant blog gathered several local journalists to say they never heard Blumenthal lie about his record. Several recalled him specifically mentioning his Marine reserve status. Pulling together the mounting media questions, a Courant political blogger called the NYT story "overreaching."

NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty blasted back late yesterday afternoon with a strongly-worded reaction, one that perfectly distills the NYT's defensive nature under the leadership of executive editor Bill Keller:

The New York Times in its reporting uncovered Mr. Blumenthal’s long and well established pattern of misleading his constituents about his Vietnam War service, which he acknowledged in an interview with The Times. Mr. Blumenthal needs to be candid with his constituents about whether he went to Vietnam or not, since his official military records clearly indicate he did not. The longer version of the video doesn't change the story. Saying that he served "during Vietnam" does not contradict or override his later, more specific, statement that he served in Vietnam.

McNulty's statement went too far, and not far enough. We don't need the NYT to lecture us on Blumenthal's responsibility to voters. And we could have used an explanation of the reason the paper didn't run the full version of the speech.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Did Republican Provide NYT With Tape, Evidence Of Blumenthal's Service-Record Lies? NYT Doesn't Name Source.

Today's NYT blockbuster story from Raymond Hernandez reports that Richard Blumenthal -- Connecticut's Attorney General and likely Deomocratic nominee for Senate -- lied about serving in Vietnam, and has the video tape to prove it.

No mention is made in Hernandez's story of the original source for this information. And this morning, a Connecticut lawyer who writes regularly on politics for the Hartford Courant has stated flatly that the research team for Linda McMahon, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Senate, provided the tapes and other supporting material to the NYT.

The McMahon campaign has posted the piece by Kevin Rennie on the front page of its campaign website this morning.

Rennie writes this morning on his "Daily Ructions" blog:

The piece, fed to the paper by the Linda McMahon Seante campaign, is accompanied by a chilling 2008 video of Blumenthal blithely making the false claim....

The Blumenthal Bombshell comes at the end of more than 2 months of deep, persistent research by Republican Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign. It gave the explosive Norwalk video recording to The Times. This is what comes of $16 million, a crack opposition research operation and an opponent who, in the words of the president Blumenthal worked for on a draft deferment, who gave them the sword.

The NYT story gives no indication in its 2,100 front-page story where it obtained the tape or original information about Blumenthal's military-experience claims. The story is likely to have significant repercussions in Connecticut politics, where until now Blumenthal was seen as the front-runner to replace Christopher Dodd and keep the seat Democratic.

McMahon, a former World Wrestling Federation promoter with her husband, Vince, is running as a Republican.

Of course, there's a long history of reporters gathering dirt on candidates through interviews with their opponents. If McMahon found the McMahon tape and handed it over to the NYT, it wouldn't have been the first time -- and it doesn't alter the fact that Blumenthal apparently lied about his military service. But in an era of transparency, a story this partisan might have acknowledged the source of the tip.

In response to the posting on the McMahon website, a NYT spokeswoman told Politico: "[A]nyone reading it can tell that it was the product of extensive independent reporting — including our FOIA of his military records."

Does the original source of the information matter? Should the NYT have told readers where it first heard about the tape, given that it might have been from an interested party? Or was it irrelevant to the detailed and comprehensive story the NYT finally published?

Monday, May 17, 2010

It's True, Seth Schiesel Has Never Before Called A Video Game A "Tour De Force." He Prefers "Wondrous." Or Maybe "Spectacular."

At the end of Seth Schiesel's over-the-top rave this morning for "Red Dawn Dead Redemption," the NYT's video game critic offers this declaration of his rapture:

"In more than 1,100 articles I have written for this paper since 1996," he concludes, "I have never before called anything a tour de force. Yet there is no more succinct or appropriate way to describe Red Dead Redemption."

And he's right! Okay, it's hard to imagine how he might have squeezed "tour de force" into his November 4, 1996 news story on fiber optic cable demand, but whatever.

It does seem that Schiesel is prone to a bit of hyperbole when it comes to video games he likes. Here's a few examples from the last couple of years:

Warhammer is the best new massively multiplayer game since World of Warcraft, which was released in 2004. Warhammer provides a more engaging and diverse experience than either Lord of the Rings Online (unless you’re a serious Tolkien fan) or Age of Conan (unless you really need topless barbarians in your life), the other major online fantasy releases in recent years....For a lot of online gamers, Warhammer is providing the most significant competition for their leisure hours in many years. It’s about time.

--Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning," reviewed on October 11, 2008

Only one year later came this:

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, developed by Naughty Dog and published recently by Sony for its PlayStation 3 console, is a major step forward for gaming. Uncharted 2 is perhaps the best-looking game on any system, and no game yet has provided a more genuinely cinematic entertainment experience.....The designers at Naughty Dog have absorbed the vernacular of film and then built upon it productively, not slavishly, to create something wondrous. I only wonder when I will next see an action-adventure movie as compelling as Uncharted 2. It may be a long time.

--"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," reviewed on November 7, 2009

Usually, Schiesel just sticks with mixed bag of superlatives to make his point.

Whatever the Italian tourism board is paying Ubisoft for making the spectacular new game Assassin’s Creed II, it isn't enough. O.K., that’s a joke. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that any secret payments are flowing from Rome to Ubisoft’s headquarters in a Paris suburb. But perhaps there should be. That’s because Assassin’s Creed II may interest more young men around the world in visiting Italy than any advertising campaign or entertainment sensation since Sophia Loren.

--"Assassin's Creed II," reviewed on December 8, 2009

Tiger Woods Online is a fabulous game. Millions and millions of hours of work will be lost forever because of it, which is the highest praise a game of this sort can earn.

--"Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online," reviewed on April 6, 2010

We usually like the way Schiesel writes. He's funny and he's a great, classic nerd. But what's up with all the superlatives? That's incredibly dangerous, wildly compelling, and like nothing we've ever seen before.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Today In NYT Laziness: For Most-Emailed Story On Cell Phones, Jenna Wortham Led With Example Of Cell-Phone Industry Publicist.

Jenna Wortham reported yesterday morning on the fact that more people are using their cell phones for data transmission than for conversation -- and led with the example of 40-year-old Liza Colburn, a "marketing consultant" in Canton, Massachusetts.

The story, "Cellphones Now Used More for Data Than for Calls," was widely tweeted, and today remains on the list of the NYT's most-emailed stories for the second day in a row.

But no mention is made of this seemingly relevant credential: Colburn is, in fact, a public-relations executive who works for the cell phone industry -- and specifically, has recently represented a company that makes cell-phone software for data transmission.

In Wortham's story, Colburn is portrayed as a typical American mom who uses her iPhone "constantly" for data transmission. She even rates a photograph, showing her lounging on the family couch with her cell phone, and her 12-year-old daughter nearby.

But she's not that typical, given her close ties to the wireless industry. And the vague title that Wortham gives her -- "marketing consultant" -- isn't even accurate.

Until recently, Colburn worked at a firm called EmergePR, and now has her own public relations firm, called LCPR, short for Liza Colburn Public Relations. She can call herself whatever she wants, but that makes her a publicist.

At Emerge, where she worked until earlier this year, Colburn handled media relations for a company called Red Bend Software, which manages data applications on cell phones -- which is precisely the focus of Wortham's story yesterday.

In fact, here's a link to a recent press release from Colburn, reporting that Red Bend's reach now extended to 680 million mobile devices. The release coincided with this year's CTIA wireless convention. What's CTIA? It's the wireless industry trade association that Wortham cites as the primary source for her story's thesis!

We've observed multitudes of these corner-cutting "anecdotes" in the NYT, and sometimes we don't even bother to report them. But this one struck us as a flagrant example of the laziness that seems to befall some NYT reporters when it comes to covering trends -- and significant because of the impact of the story.

Wortham ought to have reached out for a lead anecdote beyond the world of industry publicists, whose interests are directly served by her story. In this case, a publicist for a company that makes wireless software has a direct interest in a NYT article that reports on increased use of cell phones for data transmission.

Public-relations professionals are a necessary part of journalism, but they don't belong as anecdotal ledes for stories that promote their businesses.

Beyond that, reporters shouldn't camouflage the biases of their sources by calling them things like "marketing consultant," which may be technically accurate, but coyly distracts from the truth.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Black Reporter Accuses Maureen Dowd Of "Racial Profiling" In Setting Up Blind Date With Reggie Love, Black Obama Aide.

In the spring of 2008, NYT columnist Maureen Dowd fixed up Helena Andrews, a black former NYT assistant, on a blind date with Obama aide Reggie Love.

Two years later, the woman is now accusing Dowd of "racial profiling" in arranging the unsuccessful date -- to which Love showed up an hour late and in his gym clothes.

By the time of the fix-up, Andrews -- who had met Dowd one day when assigned to help the columnist with her computer -- had gone on to become a reporter for Politico. The two women were covering an Obama campaign event in Philadelphia when Dowd had the idea to fix the two up.

"I've got a guy for you," Dowd told Andrews. "He's so hot, it's perfect." A few days later, Dowd's assistant called to confirm the connection.

Now, in a brief recollection published in the latest issue of Marie Claire, Andrews has placed the event in the context of "racial profiling" by white people like Dowd, who assumed she wanted to date only black men. She even notes that her own mother tried to fix her up with a black man she met at Ikea. The nerve of her!

"Suddenly everyone seemed determined to cast me as Michelle redux," Andrews recalled of that period during the campaign, when race was frequently discussed, "and all that was missing was my very own Barack."

In the essay, Andrews cites statistics showing that college-educated black women outnumber black men with a degree in big cities -- "leaving a very limited dating pool for anyone looking for a black boyfriend," she writes.

And so, when Dowd followed up with Love's number, Andrews recalled that it struck her as "statistically ill-advised" to pass up the chance.

But that hasn't stopped Andrews from now seeing Dowd's act of friendship through a prism of race, and as her sole concrete example of what she observes as an unfortunate trend.

"My matchmakers used simple math: Black professional + black professional = Huxtables," Andrews writes. "I'm not saying that my colleagues and neighbors should have set me up with white friends, necessarily. I was just disappointed that, despite all my more awesome qualities, the main thing they all saw was my skin."

Andrews has since joined the staff of AOL's Politics Daily website, and has a book coming out now from HarperCollins called "Bitch is the New Black." She also writes a culture column for Slate's "The Root."

Responding to our email, Dowd declined to comment on the story.

Frankly, we don't see what Dowd did to warrant this public suggestion, however benign, of racial profiling. Reggie Love was, by all accounts, a catch -- a handsome personal aide to a Presidential candidate, with a great future in government service.

It strikes us as unfair to take Dowd's act of kindness, done as a personal gesture, and turn it into a public example of anything other than that. Dowd's an easy and popular target, but that doesn't give people the right to invade her privacy for the sake of making a point.

Where Were The National And Foreign Desks On Tuesday? Somewhere In Long Island, Preparing For A Terrorist Attack.

Is the timing a coincidence, or in response to the recent Times Square bomber?

On Tuesday, the NYT's National and Foreign staffs left the comfy confines of Eighth Avenue to work from the NYT's "emergency facility" in New Hyde Park, on Long Island -- presumably in preparation for a day when the entire newsroom staff might need to evacuate its Times Square offices for an emergency.

An internal memo explains that the business, science and culture desks have previously checked out remote newsrooms in New Hyde Park and College Point -- both of which have the capacity to print papers, put news online, and other key editorial functions.

On Tuesday, the lead editors of both staffs -- foreign editor Susan Chira and national editor Richard Berke -- made their usual appearances at the 10:30 a.m. front page meetings filmed for the paper's daily "TimesCast" video. Maybe the bus left right after the meeting!

The NYT has had a remote newsroom for decades, as a defense against the unexpected. But it seems possible that the paper may be stepping up its practice routines, in the wake of the unsuccessful bombing attempt in Times Square last month.

Here is the memo, reprinted in full:

Where are National and Foreign Today?

Terry Schwadron writes: The National and Foreign desks will be working from the emergency facility in Long Island this afternoon and evening. The normal e-mail addresses and desk phones will reach the desks there. Once people are settled, we will compile a list of telephone extensions for distribution to all.

This is a test of the facility, which was created at New Hyde Park in the event that the Eighth Avenue building is unusable. There are 300 seats equipped with computer and phones. Science, BizDay, Culture and the feature sections have been to spaces at New Hyde Park or at College Point previously to write, edit and produce both pages for print and news for electronic distribution.

May 11, 9:13 a.m.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Holy Fsck! NYT Publishes Photo Today With Famous Geek Four-Letter Obscenity, Clearly Visible.

Who the fsck is responsible for the dirty joke someone slipped in the NYT today?

In the photo that ran with Jim Dwyer's column today about NYU geeks competing with Facebook, a series of words appear along the left-hand side, written on a blackboard.

One of them, clearly visible to readers and repeated twice, is the word FSCK, a computer code word that technically means "file system check," but has become well-known to geeks as a convenient substitute for the word more commonly spelled as FUCK.

There's no question that someone intended for the word to be read as an obscenity, given the list of words that preceded it:


Hmmm...any hidden meanings there?

Also, Wikipedia entries for both FSCK and FUCK note the use of the word as a profanity, and is given as the second definition for the word at

The photo, by David Goldman, appears in the print edition with the words clearly visible; online, the photo has been cropped at some point today to remove the offending words. But thanks to the website, which first noticed the joke, we still have access to the original photo, above.

The NYT notoriously hates to let that word slip into print -- the last time we could find it in the paper was as part of the Starr Report, in September of 1998 -- so we're happy to see it again. About fscking time!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UPDATE: NYT Publishes Editors' Note Saying Its Page-One Story Should Have Reported An Expert's Oil-Industry Connections.

A NYT Editors' Note this morning acknowledges that yesterday's page-one news analysis of the Gulf oil spill should have made clear that one of the sources it quoted -- who told the NYT "the sky isn't falling" with regard to the spill -- works for an organization with strong ties to the oil industry.

Those industry connections, and other dubious sourcing elements in the story, were reported yesterday morning by The NYTPicker.

The story, by reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr., quoted Quenton R. Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, as an objective expert on the crisis in the Gulf.

But as The NYTPicker noted yesterday, the foundation includes several industry leaders on its board, including an official at Transocean -- the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded last month, leading to the spill.

Here's the full text of the Editors' Note:

A front-page news analysis article on Tuesday discussed the uncertainty over the ultimate environmental impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One expert quoted was Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist who is the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. (He said the spill “isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico,” but also said that “we’ve always got to ask ourselves how long can we keep heaping these insults on the gulf and having it bounce back.”)

The article described the Gulf of Mexico Foundation simply as a conservation group. It should have included more information about the organization, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “to promote and facilitate conservation of the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico and its resources” through research and other programs. While the group says the majority of its funding comes from federal and state grants, it also receives some money from the oil industry and other business interests in the gulf, and includes industry executives on its board.

UPDATE: We've since learned that a professor at the University of California at Davis first noted the presence of a Transocean official on the Gulf of Mexico Foundation board on the Huffington Post at 2:19 am on Tuesday, prior to our original story. We've changed our post, above, to reflect the fact that The NYTPicker wasn't the first to report on that aspect of the story.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thanks For The Offer, Jeff, But We Think This Email Pretty Much Answers All Our Questions.

From: jeff ragsdale
Date: Tue, May 4, 2010 at 10:55 am
Subject: Jeff Ragsdale/Megan Brady


I'd definitely be willing to do an exclusive interview with you, but would of course need to be compensated.

Jeff Ragsdale

Huh? Using Anonymous And Dubious Sources, NYT Wonders Whether Gulf Of Mexico Oil Spill Is Really That Bad.

A bizarre page-one news analysis about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill today asserts that the damage isn't going to be as bad as you think -- and lamely attempts to prove its point with anonymous sources, and experts with ties to the oil industry itself.

Under the headline Bad? But An Apocalypse?, reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr. attempt to put recent events in historical perspective, reminding us of the damage wreaked by such memorable spills as the Exxon Valdez in 1989 or the Ixtoc 1 in 1979, which dumped 140 million gallons of crude oil.

After quoting President Obama's assertion that the spill is "potentially unprecedented," the reporters counter with several unprovable assertions designed to suggest that the president's concerns may be misplaced -- a view presumably shared by the corporate interests charged with cleaning up the horrific mess they made.

"Yet the Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented," the reporters assert without explanation or attribution, "nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history."

How does the NYT know this? An expert told them! Which expert? Oh, you unnamed expert!

And to add to the problem, it's an unnamed expert who speaks in meaningless metaphors -- and is allowed to do so in the story's fifth paragraph, right there on the front page of the NYT:

"As one expert put it," Broder and Zeller write, "this is the first inning of a nine-inning game. No one knows the final score."

Yikes! Let's just hope our team wins, and the game doesn't go into extra innings.

To be sure, Broder and Zeller take note of those who worry that this latest spill may hurt the region's land areas and wildlife.

"No one," the reporters declare, "not even the oil industry's most fervent apologists, is making light of this accident." What a relief to know that BP executives haven't started regaling themselves with oil slick jokes!

But the news analysis moves quickly to quote experts who suggest that favorable wind conditions mean "the worst could be avoided."

The NYT turns next for a quote to Edward B. Overton, professor emeritus of environmental science at Louisiana State, who compares this spill favorably with the Exxon Valdez:

“Right now what people are fearing has not materialize. People have the idea of an Exxon Valdez, with a gunky, smelly black tide looming over the horizon waiting to wash ashore. I do not anticipate this will happen down here unless things get a lot worse.”

But Overton has been quoted elsewhere in the media making the opposite statement -- arguing that this spill has been among the most devastating in history. Specifically, Overton has warned that based on early analysis, the spill could include a "heavy crude" oil potentially devestating to the environment of the region.

From the Los Angeles Times on May 1, just three days ago:

The analysis is based on only a single sample, "but it has caused my level of apprehension to go way up," said environmental scientist Edward B. Overton of Louisiana State University, who is analyzing the oil for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. So far, he appears to be the only researcher who thinks there may be a bigger-than-expected problem with the oil.

"We're hoping and praying that it is Louisiana sweet crude," Overton added, but if it is not…this is going to be a very unique spill. We have never seen a spill with this high an asphaltenic content."

Why is the NYT now quoting Overton making the opposite point?

The NYT story goes on to says that "while the potential for catastrophe remained, there were reasons to remain guardedly optimistic."

To support that point, the reporters deliver the ultimate cliche quote -- and from an expert with direct, though undisclosed, ties to the oil industry itself.

"The sky isn't falling," Quenton R. Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, told the NYT. "We've certainly stepped in a hole and we're going to have to work ourselves out of it, but it isn't the end of the Gulf of Mexico."

The "Gulf Of Mexico Foundation," in case you were wondering, is a nonprofit organization supported largely by grants from the oil companies themselves. Most of the members of its board of directors are executives at the oil companies.

Currently on the foundation's board of directors: Dr. Ian Hudson, head of corporate responsibility at Transocean, the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon. That's the rig that exploded last month, leading to the spill.

Of course, this doesn't officially taint Dokken's quotes. But as an executive whose fortunes are tied to partnerships between his group and the oil and gas companies that fund it -- including BP, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, etc. -- he's hardly an objective observer of corporate malfeasance.

It isn't until well into the second half of the news anaylysis that Zeller and Broder get around to interviewing those who think the sky may, in fact, be falling after all.

“Some people are saying, It hasn’t gotten to shore yet so it’s all good," said Jacueline Savitz, a senior scientist at Oceana, a respected nonprofit environmental group with no ties to industry. “But a lot of animals live in the ocean, and a spill like this becomes bad for marine life as soon as it hits the water. You have endangered sea turtles, the larvae of bluefin tuna, shrimp and crabs and oysters, grouper. A lot of these are already being affected and have been for 10 days. We’re waiting to see how bad it is at the shore, but we may never fully understand the full impacts on ocean life.”

Sounds pretty horrible to us!

Why would the NYT feel compelled to present an essentially pro-industry story on its front page, so soon after the spill and the public outcry over its effects? It's hard to know.

But it's easy to see that whatever its intentions, the story failed on its most basic task of providing informative, objective and on-the-record quotes to readers, and letting them make the best possible judgement based on the facts.

UPDATE: A NYT Editors' Note Wednesday morning acknowledges that yesterday's page-one news analysis of the Gulf oil spill should have made clear that one of the sources it quoted -- who told the NYT "the sky isn't falling" with regard to the spill -- works for an organization with strong ties to the oil industry.

Those industry connections were first reported yesterday morning by The NYTPicker.

The story, by reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr., quoted Quenton R. Dokken, executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, as an objective expert on the crisis in the Gulf.

But as The NYTPicker noted yesterday, the foundation includes several industry leaders on its board, including an official at Transocean -- the offshore drilling contractor that owned the Deepwater Horizon, the rig that exploded last month, leading to the spill.

Here's the full text of the Editors' Note:

A front-page news analysis article on Tuesday discussed the uncertainty over the ultimate environmental impact of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One expert quoted was Quenton R. Dokken, a marine biologist who is the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation. (He said the spill “isn’t the end of the Gulf of Mexico,” but also said that “we’ve always got to ask ourselves how long can we keep heaping these insults on the gulf and having it bounce back.”)

The article described the Gulf of Mexico Foundation simply as a conservation group. It should have included more information about the organization, a nonprofit group that says its mission is “to promote and facilitate conservation of the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico and its resources” through research and other programs. While the group says the majority of its funding comes from federal and state grants, it also receives some money from the oil industry and other business interests in the gulf, and includes industry executives on its board.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Brave New World: Top NYT Executive Declares That NYT, Using Personal Data, Must Turn Its Readers Into "Leverageable Assets."

In a little-noticed speech on Friday, the NYT's Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations, laid out a bold and disturbing new plan for the company's future -- one that involves the NYT leveraging every bit of information about its readers it can get its hands on.

Nisenholtz's remarks -- delivered at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and transcribed by Paid Content -- made clear that as the NYT moves toward a paid website model, it also plans to use personal data about its readers to transform the user experience.

Nisenholtz declared that the future of the NYT lays in "the emotional connection that our users have with us" -- a relationship he described as "the essential moat around which our defenses are based."

In other words, it's the information that the NYT has about you, the users of its website -- gathered as part of a registration process it began when it launched in 1996, with more personal data to come when we all start paying -- that will enable the paper to transform a reader's use of the site into an interactive experience.

Armed with personal data about you, the website will one day perhaps answer your questions, offer you games, connect you to other readers, or send advertising your way -- just as Facebook has so successfully begun to do.

Nisenholtz revealed that Sheryl Sandberg, the number-two executive at Facebook -- and who he described as "the Queen of user engagement" -- visited the NYT heaquarters a few weeks ago for meetings to discuss Facebook's success in connecting with its 400 million worldwide users.

It's clear that Nisenholtz has become obsessed with Facebook's success at establishing the power of identity. To Nisenholtz, the Facebook phenomenon represents a fundamental shift from the anonymity that has dominated the Internet for much of its early history.

"Identity is, in my view, a fundamental building block for engagement," Nisenholtz said. "I think Facebook has now proven it to be true."

Nisenholtz's speech suggests a future in which the NYT readers become, more than ever before, a basic part of the paper's portfolio -- meaning the eventual impossibility of privacy for anyone who logs onto the NYT website.

Naturally, Nisenholtz paints a rosy picture of an "interactive" future modeled on Facebook -- but his words carry an ominous tone that suggests that NYT readers may one day be bombarded with advertising and emails aimed directly at them. That "interactive" aspect will be based on their usage of the site, with no mention of privacy protections.

"I’ve always thought that among our most leverageable assets is our audience," Niesenholtz said. "I’m referring to our audience as knowledgeable participants in the life of our web site. This creates the essential emotional bond that will lead to real engagement in an interactive setting.... We couldn’t scale it, but Facebook has."

Nisenholtz seems infatuated with all aspects of Facebook, which he described as "an exercise of one's ego online."

"As I’m sure you all know, the usage statistics on Facebook are off the charts," the NYT's digital chief nearly drooled to the Wharton audience, "in part, because of real identity, the exercise of oneself in the digital realm."

And in case there's any confusion, Nisenholtz doesn't just mean the value of Facebook knowing your name and email address. He means the fact that Facebook knows "a lot" about you -- where you live, who your friends are, where you went to school, where you work, and to which groups you belong.

"At the heart of this kind of knowledge sharing is identity," Nisenholtz explained. "I don’t just mean real names, although that helps. I mean a track record based on a lot of input." (Emphasis ours.)

Nisenholtz noted that the NYT's acquisition in 1999 of Abuzz -- a Massachusetts-based software maker that was supposed to help the paper connect information to readers -- didn't quite accomplish its mission.

"We couldn't scale" the emotional connection between readers and the NYT with Abuzz, Nisenholtz said. "But Facebook has."

The core message of Nisenholtz's remarks seemed to be that the financially-strapped NYT needs an interactive network with its readers to survive.

"A site like must fully transform from a broadcast news experience, to an interactive network," he declared. "It must transition from being on the web, to being of the web."

Of course, Nisenholtz couched his plans in the context of information sharing, and the idea that readers will benefit from sharing knowledge with the NYT that serves their interests.

But the senior NYT executive's fascination with "fun" social-media sites like FourSquare -- built around the idea of knowing exactly who its members are, where they are, and what they're consuming -- suggest a more troubling dimension to all this interactivity, and what it means for user privacy.

In other words, do you like the idea of the NYT knowing where you're having dinner?

That isn't Nisenholtz's plan, of course. He envisions a user-friendly relationship that services the NYT reader, by providing content in bold new ways.

But it's hard to misread these concluding words from Nisenholtz's speech on Friday:

"We have an opportunity to redefine the essential relationship that we have with our users—and change the contract we have with them—from one that is loose, free and casual, to one of real emotional commitment."

Is the NYT reader ready for an emotional commitment to the NYT? One that involves giving up the "loose, free and casual" nature of its relationship to date?

Nisenholtz apparently thinks so. We're not so sure.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

NYT's City Room Blog: Our Story About Megan And Jeff Was Wrong. But That Doesn't Mean It Wasn't True!

A week ago, the NYT's hoax-prone City Room blog posted a story about a 32-year-old computer consultant, Jeff Ragsdale, and his 29-year-old girlfriend, Megan Brady, who works in advertising.

The post concerned the fact that Brady wasn't speaking to Ragsdale, a situation Ragsdale was trying to fix by holding up a sign in Madison Square Park -- near the advertising agency where Brady works.

Late yesterday, after six days of follow-up reporting, the blog's editors came forward to insist that they were "unable to prove that the story of Jeff and Megan, such as it is, is a hoax."

But that's a rather odd conclusion for the NYT to draw, given the fact that it turns out that few facts in last week's blog post turned out to be provable, or true.

Ragsdale isn't 32 years old. There's no evidence that he's employed as a computer consultant. Brady isn't 29 years old. She doesn't work at an advertising agency. During the time period that Ragsdale was holding up the sign, claiming that Brady wasn't speaking to him, Brady sent Ragsdale a message via her Facebook page.

Ragsdale had told the NYT that their relationship had lasted six months, but a network news show reported them having been together for two years.

But Friday's City Room blog post -- written by editors Andy Newman and Wendell Jamieson -- isn't presented as a correction, even though it's now clear that the original post contained several errors by freelance reporter Elisa Mala.

Instead, the post's purpose was to exonerate the NYT blog on charges that it has been the victim of a hoax -- a separate, serious issue for the blog, given that it had already been hoaxed twice in recent weeks.

"After days of reporting and interviews, we’ve been unable to prove that the story of Jeff and Megan, such as it is, is a hoax," the post states. "Many details in the post are accurate."

Really? Which details are accurate?

The only details in the original story that the NYT states that it has able to independently confirm are that Ragsdale and Brady went to the same high school in Bellingham, Washington.

The original story also reports that Brady's mother died of cancer, and that Ragsdale's parents (including an alcoholic father) are dead. Maybe those facts are true, too, but the NYT doesn't say whether it confirmed them or not.

And yet -- despite the heavy preponderance of errors in the original post -- the City Room blog saw fit to focus instead yesterday on the impossible-to-prove point of whether Ragsdale and Brady had hoaxed the NYT.

Why? Well, it's true that media attention -- including The NYTPicker's own story last Saturday morning, which was the first to report many of the inconsistencies in Mala's account -- focused on the likelihood that the NYT had been hoaxed.

The NYTPicker story revealed the fact that both Ragsdale and Brady were actors, and that Ragsdale had made a regular habit of staging stunts for the purpose of publicity.

Regardless of whether the couple was actually having a quarrel, it seemed clear to us then -- and still seems clear -- that Ragsdale's appearance in Madison Square Park was an obvious (and successful) effort to attract publicity for himself.

But the fact that the City Room blog allowed itself to be sucked into a media stunt -- and without any effort to fact-check the assertions of its principals -- seems irrelevant to the NYT City Room blog.

Only at the end of the post about the two actors yesterday do the NYT editors acknowledge "lingering doubts about their veracity."

To us, that's an astonishing statement. It means that the NYT still suspects that on some level, the story they published was fundamentally false.

And yet the NYT offers no admission to its readers of shoddy reporting, and no apology for publishing a story that it still feels may be untrue.

The NYT may think that by publishing the post yesterday, it was demonstrating transparency.

But by focusing its attention on the one question no one can answer -- whether Megan and Jeff were engaged in a media hoax -- the paper distracted attention from the larger truth about its own serious and embarrassing failures on this story.