Monday, June 28, 2010

Did NYT’s Hilary Stout Invent That “End Of The Best Friend” Trend In Styles Section's Controversial Cover Story?

It's beginning to look that way.

The main source for Hilary Stout's recent cover story on the supposed dangers of "best friends" for kids has told The NYTPicker that Stout misrepresented her views in the piece.

And the suburban Philadelphia mother whose two children Stout featured in the story's lede -- one has a best friend, the other doesn't -- has said she was "blown away at the turn the article takes," and wonders if Stout "wrote a very different piece than she wanted to."

The story -- which led the June 17 Thursday Styles section, and topped the NYT's most emailed list for two days straight -- stated that "some educators and other professionals" are questioning whether children should have a best friend. Stout's provocative thesis prompted nearly 400 comments, most of which disparaged the notion with words like "moronic" and "appalling."

But in fact, the story only quoted two experts who argued against the idea of "best friends" -- and one of them now says Stout got her position wrong.

The story's lead expert, Christine Laycob -- director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis -- was quoted by Stout in the sixth paragraph as declaring without hesitation: “Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend. We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”

But Laycob remembers the interview -- and what she told Stout -- quite differently than what turned up in print.

Laycob says that Stout interviewed her for 30 minutes last February (curiously, four months before the story appeared) and addressed the topic of best friends only "as part of a general discussion about the different aspects of a middle school counselor's duties."

"The topic of best friends was not the focus of the interview," Laycob says.

In that interview, Laycob says she told Stout that "there is nothing wrong with middle and high school students having best friends."

"To the contrary," Laycob says she told Stout, "strong bonds between best friends can last a lifetime. I do not discourage or intrude upon best friend relationships – I recommend to parents that they work with their children on how to avoid 'toxic' or 'overly possessive' best friendships, where, for example, a friend might say 'You’re my best friend so you cannot be friends with anyone else but me!'

Laycob says Stout "used two unrelated come across as if I advocated against the concept of best friends in middle school and high school." That's a view she denies holding.

"Only a small portion of my comments were actually used in the article," Laycob says, "and they were used by Ms. Stout specifically to create the slant and argument Ms. Stout desired."

Laycob wasn't the only one baffled by the end result of Stout's reporting. Robin Shreeves, the mother whose children's experience formed the basis of Stout's lede, has also said she was surprised at what transpired between the interview and the story's publication.

In the lede, Shreeves -- who had her own best friend in childhood -- describes how one of her children currently has a best friend, and the other doesn't. “He’ll say, ‘I wish I had someone I can always call,’ ” Stout quoted Shreeves as saying.

Last week on her blog, Shreeves expressed some bafflement over the story -- for which she, too, was interviewed "months ago."

"Although I think the writer used my information nicely to introduce her subject, I was blown away at the turn the article takes," Shreeves wrote. "I’d be curious to know if Hilary Stout, the writer, ended up writing a very different piece than she intended to."

In fairness to Stout, interview subjects often object to the way reporters quote them, after publication -- simply not understanding the nature of the process, in which a reporter must telescope an extended conversation into a short soundbite. Or, as in Shreeves' case, they're simply surprised by the end result.

But in this instance -- given that Laycob's comments represent the main support to Stout's premise of a debate -- her description of Stout's handling of the interview raises real concerns about the story's legitimacy. The only other expert in the story who argues against best friends is Jay Jacobs, the director of Timber Lake Camp in upstate New York, who hasn't responded to an email from The NYTPicker regarding his interview with Stout.

The other experts interviewed for Stout's story contradict her thesis. Those sources include a professor of psychology, another school guidance counselor, and a psychologist who wrote a book on adolescent behavior. And while that may reflect Stout's desire to add balance to her story, it also shows that she didn't prove the existence of a "debate" over the subject -- and, in fact, may have invented it.

The NYTPicker learned of Laycob's objections to the Stout story on Friday, in an email response to questions we'd sent her right after the story appeared. We'd had immediate doubts about the piece, among them how a Missouri private-school guidance counselor -- one with no published writings on the topic, or established expertise beyond first-hand experience -- came to be quoted as the story's lead expert.

On Friday, we emailed Brett Laursen, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, who specializes in peer relationships -- and who Stout quoted as disputing the notion that kids don't need a best friend.

"I was told from the outset that the premise of the story involved schools that discouraged friendships," Laursen told The NYTPicker. "I asked and was alllowed to see my quote before it was published. I have no quarrels with the way my views were solicited or represented." Laycob apparently wasn't given the same opportunity to review her quotes.

Neither Stout or a deputy Styles editor responded to a request for comment made on Friday by The NYTPicker.

Yesterday, NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty replied to an email request for comment by saying, "We will not be responding to anonymous bloggers."

Stout, a graduate of Brown University, worked at The Wall Street Journal for 19 years before becoming a senior editor at Portfolio in 2007. She has been contributing regularly to various NYT sections, including Styles and Real Estate, since last October. She has three children.


Anonymous said...

Yesterday, NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty replied to an email request for comment by saying, "We will not be responding to anonymous bloggers."

So if one of nytpicker's followers were to e-mail McNulty for a response, what excuse would she use to not comment in THAT case?

Anonymous said...

Anonymity affords its joyless clerks the luxury to dispense with the enemy within and immemorially span depersonalized muttering, from the belligerent to the devotional. Rejection, neglect, being turned down, denied or ignored by the structurally complicit are safer bets than predicting a retraction—the only legitimate action McNult could endorse to save face at Stout's permanent expense.

Anonymous said...

Will McNulty please add to Stout’s employee chart:
“As a passive-aggressive bully, Stout has the ulterior intent to warn against the cultivation of quality friendships.”

Anonymous said...

"She has been contributing regularly to various NYT sections, including Styles and Real Estate, since last October. She has three children. "

But how many of those three children have best friends?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another bank account is paying for her to recur like a nightmare where external truth is discarded for sensational crap. But so what, go away.

Anonymous said...

Why did she lose her last job¿

Anonymous said...

This blog closes doors on her false arguments:

Connie T said...

The word "lede" is used twice in this article. (e.g. "...Stout's lede..." I must say, in all my 65 years as a grammarian nitpicker, I never heard of that word. I tried finding it (to no avail) in two dictionaries. Can anyone enlighten me?

James Kimbell said...

Connie T,

from the wiki:

"The most important structural element of a story is the lead (or "intro" in the UK) — the story's first, or leading, sentence. (Some American English writers use the spelling lede (pronounced /ˈliːd/), from the archaic English, to avoid confusion with the printing press type formerly made from lead or the related typographical term leading.[3])"

quotidian said...

Connie T: The spelling "lede" has long been used in the newspaper business. I've often seen "hed" as well.

Michael J. Fitzgerald said...

Lede actually is common in journalistic jargon (newspaper jargon anyway). Like a number of other cute spellings: graf, foto, hed...

Anonymous said...

Why did you guys deleted the post that was here before about the Village Voice capping this thing?

Anonymous said...

I love the NYT Picker, but I'm totally down with the NYT not responding to anonymous critics. Just as the NYT forbids (or at least notionally tries to forbid) anonymous quotes along the lines of "Politician XYZ is totally corrupt" -- because the reader doesn't know what axes that anonymous source has to grind -- the readers of NYT Picker don't know what axes y'all have to grind (downsized ex-staffers? disgruntled current staffers? freelancers whose pitches don't get any reponse?). Now that NYT Picker has been around a few years and has become a force to be reckoned with in its own right, why not just come out of the closet, and parlay some of that hard work into a paying gig? Just curious, Anonymous Commenter

getz2zjfr said...

The trend (to increasingly ask the Q: should a kid have a best friend) and the arguments against
best friendships are still entirely unsubstantiated. The Village Voice’s supplemental highlights the slack effort at keeping up the good bluff.

I too sip to a future where the NYT could allocate resources for internal pickers at large.

Anonymous said...

Re: 'the readers of NYT Picker don't know what axes y'all have to grind'

How about you showing the way to everyone else by disclosing just where you're coming from.

Catherine said...

I did some additional investigating and have written a blog post on this, with some comments from some of the other sources. It does look like this is a 100% fabricated story.

Debbie said...

Twice in this article you make it sound like it is a problem that quotes are being used from interviews done months before. Unlike breaking news, feature stories are often published months, even up to a year, after they are first researched and written. Come on, you know how journalism works, how writing can get delayed, and how editors can hold pieces often for way too long. The NYTpickers deserve some nitpicking on this point, seemingly done to further question Strout's professionalism.