Monday, June 28, 2010

Yes, It's True: In Today's NYT Crossword Puzzle, A Six-Letter Word For "Curly, Ethnic Hairstyle, Colloquially" Is...


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.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

NYT Corrects Jon Pareles' Account Of Adam Lambert And His Bass Player's Kiss. "They Licked Each Other's Lips," NYT Says.

Correction from today's NYT of a review by sixtysomething fiftysomething pop-music critic Jon Pareles of Adam Lambert's Thursday night concert:

A music review on Thursday about a concert at the Nokia Theater on Tuesday night by the singer Adam Lambert referred incorrectly to kissing between Mr. Lambert and his bass player, Tommy Joe Ratliff. During the song “Fever,” they licked each other’s lips; Mr. Ratliff did not merely give Mr. Lambert a quick peck on the shoulder. (He did that later in the show.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Trifecta! Publicist Successfully Plants Three NYT Puff Pieces On New Local Bar, In Span Of Less Than 48 Hours.

Just thirty-six hours ago, a new Lower East Side bar, the Blind Barber, hosted its opening night party -- and yesterday the establishment opened its doors to the public for the first time.

Yet as of this morning, the Blind Barber has already been the subject of three separate puff pieces in the NYT!

We know the NYT is anxious to demonstrate its hipness to young readers drifting away from the paper, but we're a bit surprised to see this blanket, fawning coverage of the bar -- an oddly-conceived attempt to merger a hipster bar and a barbershop in a neighborhood where trendy watering holes come and go every day.

The onslaught of stories kicked off at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday morning with "Vain Glorious," a post by Katie Chang on the NYT's "Moment" blog that offered readers a fawning recitation of the basic facts -- presented in a who-what-when-where-why format for easy digestion.

"Contrary to the name," Chang wrote, "the vision of the men behind the Blind Barber is crystal clear." We haven't seen the press release, but we're pretty sure that could have been the lede sentence.

Less than 24 hours later -- at 9:19 a.m. Thursday, after the launch party -- the NYT website revisited the Blind Barber in the form of a "Nocturnalist" column on the City Room blog, by Sarah Maslin Nir.

"Unlike most bars with a similar conceit," Nir wrote, "this one’s shop is not just a gimmick."

That's right, everyone -- this combination bar/barbershop isn't just a gimmick. The press release says so!

Now, this morning, comes the all-important Frank Bruni review. After only two previous Friday columns, Bruni's "Tipsy Diaries" -- a promised look at the New York drinking scene -- has already succumbed to the hook of a promotional gimmick.

By way of semi-apology for falling so quickly into the trap of chronicling an untested bar, Bruni acknowledges the lure of the release -- "Although we reporters are usually loath to admit this sort of thing, the release got my attention" he writes -- and tests the product himself.

This time, of course, Bruni is forced to shed the anonymity that served him so well as a restaurant critic, and comes away seemingly smitten with the bar's kooky concept. "Sometimes the best pairings are the most obvious ones," he concludes lovingly, in reference to the best beer to go with a mullet.

Bruni also fell for the bar's wondrous opportunities to pepper his usually witty prose with the stuff of ad copy: "Get buzzed while getting buzzed," he riffs. "Combine hygiene with high jinks." Or is he being ironic?

And this, in reference to one of the bar's cutesy drinks: "I was determined to kill two birds with one Sweeney Todd."

This promotional bonanza represents the apparent handiwork of Tracey Henry, the owner of a local PR firm called Type A Media. It represents such other Lower East Side landmarks as the Sunburnt Cow on Avenue C. We emailed Henry for comment yesterday on her NYT trifecta, and haven't heard back. She may be too busy pasting the clips into her scrapbook.

As for the NYT, we contacted Bruni yesterday to ask how he came to be the third NYT writer on the Blind Barber story, and whether it bothered him to see one place get so much fawning coverage -- especially before doing anything.

To Bruni's credit, he has answered The NYTPicker with an eloquent response, which we're printing here in full:

No hard feelings, but I have a problem with responding to an anonymous questioner. We put our names on stories, shouldn't our critics put their names to their criticism? I'd love it if you included that as part of my response.

Only because of that problem, I'm going to be more terse in my responses than I'd otherwise be: My new column will feature, as it has already, a mix of established and new places and people and rituals and drinks. Of course new places---announced, as new places typically are, in press releases---will be included, not because we shill for anything or anyone but because, as a newspaper, we constantly alert people to what's new: in movie theaters, on stages, in restaurants, in bars. This particular establishment seemed, to me, to afford the possibility of some fun for a column writer, and thus for readers. And it's emblematic of the aggressively entrepreneurial, conceit-driven nature of the city's current cocktail scene. I 'budgeted' my story on it more than a week before that story went online, and at no subsequent time learned that others within the Times's large web universe had decided to turn their attention to it. Such duplication is, I think, inevitable in a news organization as ambitious and comprehensive as ours: it's an admittedly imperfect byproduct of the newspaper's admirable energy, thoroughness, staffing level and reach. The Blind Barber's publicist, whom I contacted to set up interviews with the owners of the establishment, certainly didn't tell me that she had begun dealing with other Times contributors.

No surprise -- the publicist probably forgot to tell Nir or Chang about Bruni, either.

We don't hold any of the individual reporters responsible for this ridiculous overkill. But we'd argue strenuously with Bruni's contention that three promotional stories on a brand-new bar reflect a positive illustration of the NYT's "admirable energy, thoroughness, staffing level and reach."

The NYT should save its "ambitious and comprehensive" coverage for stories that matter.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Whoops! In Page-One Story, NYT's Jennifer Steinhauer Confuses The Words "Arab" And "Terrorist." An Easy Mistake.

In Jennifer Steinhauer's page-one report on John McCain's Senate campaign today, she refers to a memorable 2008 campaign incident -- when McCain defended Barack Obama against a supporter who referred to the Democratic candidate as an "Arab."

"No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues," McCain said at the rally, on October 10, 2008, according to the NYT's original report. (Here's a link to a video of the event.)

But in today's recounting of the episode, Steinhauer made the unfortunate slip of conflating the words "Arab" and "terrorist."

"Back in 2008, at a town-hall-style meeting," Steinhauer wrote, "presidential candidate McCain snatched the microphone away from an older woman who referred to Mr. Obama as a terrorist and protested: 'No, no ma’am. He’s a decent family man with whom I happen to have some disagreements.'"

Hmmm. Not such a serious mistake, really. Not unless you're an Arab who isn't also a terrorist!

UPDATE: The NYT has published this correction of the Steinhauer article in its Wednesday editions:

A Political Memo article on Tuesday about Senator John McCain’s having gone from presidential candidate to a senator furiously defending his seat quoted incorrectly from a comment about Barack Obama at a town-hall-style meeting during the 2008 campaign. Mr. McCain came to the defense of Mr. Obama when a woman at the meeting called him “an Arab” — she did not say “a terrorist.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Who Is This Clown?" NYU Prof. Tony Judt Asks, Denying Michael Wolff Allegation That He "Made Up" Son's Contribution To NYT Op-Ed Piece.

This morning, media critic Michael Wolff posted a piece on his blog claiming that NYU professor Tony Judt "made up" his son's portion of their Father's Day dialogue published on yesterday's NYT op-ed page.

Contacted this morning by The NYTPicker, Judt -- a widely respected Euopean historian who is paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a 2009 ALS diagnosis -- flat-out denied Wolff's accusation, and attacked the columnist for failing to contact him first.

"Who is this clown Wolff - I've never heard of him," Judt told The NYTPicker via email. "What sort of media commentator doesn't check his facts first? He could have written to Daniel or me and we could have set him right. Since, as he kindly points out, I have advanced ALS and use a secretary for dictation, he could have checked with him too. But then he would not have had a story."

Judt went on to defend his son, Daniel, against the specifics of Wolff's charge -- unsupported by anything aside from the columnist's supposition -- that his portion of the dialogue was in fact written by his father.

"He could also have made the perfectly reasonable assumption that an intelligent 15 year old (not 16, another mistake) was capable of writing good prose drawing on his own views," Judt wrote. "But perhaps Mr Wolff is not acquainted with any intelligent 15 year olds." Daniel Judt is currently a ninth-grader at the Dalton School.

Wolff -- a famously provocative columnist who often posts his theories and arguments without reporting -- presented his position today as fact.

"[Judt]’s made up his son’s part," Wolff wrote. "How the New York Times could not have been wise to this is preposterous (figuring, no doubt, that if the parties in question were in agreement on their respective authorship, who could say otherwise)."

We've contacted Wolff for comment on Judt's statement, and will update when we hear from him.

UPDATE: Wolff has replied via email to our request for comment on Judt's statement. Here it is, in full:

What else would he say? You expected a confession? I stand by the obvious: No 15--or 16 year old--writes like that. None, Never.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tweetgate, Cont'd: Columnist Gail Collins Tweaks NYT Twit With Sneaky, Not-Yet-Banned Use Of "Twitter" As A Verb.

You all remember the NYT's June 9 "ban" on the use of the word "tweet" in the paper, right?

That's when NYT standards editor Philip Corbett issued a now-notorious memo strongly discouraging reporters from the use of the word "tweet" in news stories. "Outside of ornithological contexts," the NYT's reigning style functionary harrumphed, “'tweet' has not yet achieved the status of standard English."

Corbett denounced the word's use as a noun or verb, and offered various awkward and arcane alternatives:

“Tweet” may be acceptable occasionally for special effect. But let’s look for deft, English alternatives: use Twitter, post to or on Twitter, write on Twitter, a Twitter message, a Twitter update. Or, once you’ve established that Twitter is the medium, simply use “say” or “write.”

But wait, Corbett didn't say anything about "twitter" itself as a verb!

Seizing this sliver of an opportunity, op-ed columnist Gail Collins has boldly inserted the verb into her column this morning, seemingly daring some more douchebaggery (sorry, Phil!) from the man who also, last week, took the "shit" out of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's "shit sandwich."

Here's the not-the-slightest-bit-offending passage from Collins:

While the startled Chu started to talk about shifting tectonic plates, Barton beamed smugly. “I seem to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question: where does oil come from?” he twittered.

This is fun. We'd love to see more tenured NYT reporters and columnists engage in this modest form of civil disobedience, by finding new ways to skirt the absurdly antiquated rules that still govern the NYT in the 21st century.

You go, Gail!

NYT Columnist David Pogue Declares: "I Could Not Name You An Under-25 Year Old Who Subscribes To A Print Newspaper."

Is David Pogue right? Has an entire generation abandoned print completely, and forever?

The NYT's popular personal-technology columnist offered that deeply discouraging assessment on Friday at Book Summit 2010 in Toronto -- at least according to several Twitter accounts of his keynote speech on "Reading: The Next Chapter."

Of course, we don't dispute the obvious facts. Print newspaper circulation is down everywhere, in some cases dramatically. In 2009, the NYT itself felt a 5 percent drop in Sunday circulation, with a near 9 percent slide on weekdays.

Maybe we at The NYTPicker have a skewed view of things, dependent as we are on the NYT print edition for our persnickety purposes. Plus, as most people have probably figured out by now, we're still in our early teens.

But really, does anyone know an actual college kid who still springs for the two-buck-a-day print habit? Do any newly-employed young Millenials of your acquaintance opt for the Weekender package and its inky pleasures? Or has an entire generation -- the one that will determine, finally, the permanent fate of print -- turned its back on the medium, never to return?

Sadly, we're pretty sure David Pogue got this one right.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Huh? Confused IBM Supercomputer "Watson" Thinks "Police Academy" Actress Colleen Camp Might Own HBO!

It turns out that "Watson," the IBM supercomputer currently challenging NYT readers to a trivia game on its website, still has a few kinks in his program.

Or maybe we just conjure a slightly different image when we hear the word "supercomputer" -- as in, a machine that doesn't think that Abe Lincoln's favorite form of hatwear was a sombrero.

The NYT Magazine cover story this Sunday is devoted to the latest advance in artificial intelligence: an IBM supercomputer that answers complex questions in ways that mirror human thought. It uses the "Jeopardy" format to compete with people on matters of historical and cultural trivia, and the story reports that it typically wins -- deducing information about Sherlock Holmes and Roy Scheider that would stump mere mortals.

But when we played "Watson" late last night, we were a bit surprised at the results. It turns out "Watson" was programmed to correctly answer only 17 out of 30 questions -- not nearly enough to impress The NYTPicker, let alone a true super-brain like, say, Alex Trebek.

Confused, we settled in to read Clive Thompson's "Smarter Than You Think," a 6,315-word cover story, that was interesting enough -- though it skimped a bit on facts (no mention of how much it cost IBM to develop "Watson") and seemed a bit promotional for our tastes. At one point, Thompson even acknowledges that the idea for "Watson" stemmed from IBM's need for some fresh media attention.

Smart idea, guys -- it worked!

The story briefly notes Watson's shortcomings, including its occasional and odd obsessions with irrelevant answers. Apparently it all too often responds to questions, inexplicably, with the words "Tommy Lee Jones."

But it seems a bit odd for the NYT to devote that much space and attention to a supercomputer that we can beat handily in a trivia standoff at two in the morning, after a long day of NYTPicking.

Still, we're grateful for the distraction. Otherwise we would have been forced to write a post about Hilary Stout's Styles cover story today -- the one that claims experts are discouraging kids from having "best friends."

Sorry, Hilary, your story is not correct! Try again.

Monday, June 14, 2010

NYT Taste Police Edit The Shit Out Of Rahm Emanuel's Quote In Matt Bai's NYT Magazine Cover Story.

While the civilized world continues to reel from the NYT's decision to ban the use of the word "tweet," the newspaper still maintains its antiquated ban on the word "shit" -- even when used by a high-ranking government official to describe a previous President.

In yesterday's magazine cover story, "Democrat in Chief?" by Matt Bai, White House chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel used the expletive "shit sandwich" in describing the Bush administration's inheritance gift to the incoming Democrats. But Bai took it out, and replaced it with this convoluted joke:

As Rahm Emanuel told me when we sat down in April, “The American people know overwhelmingly that he inherited a” — and here Emanuel used a word I can’t repeat — “sandwich.” (Suffice it to say the sandwich wasn’t pastrami.) “They know that. They don’t need to be educated. I believe it’s worth reminding them of the scale, size and scope of the” — that word again — “sandwich we got."

It's worth noting that the NYT has used the word "shit" four times since 1981, presumably with the prior approval of the good-taste police. In 2007 it turned up in a quote from a Michael Lewis story on field-goal kickers; the year before, Tom Friedman slipped it into a column as a quote from the sandwich-maker-in-chief himelf, George W. Bush:

George Bush and Condi Rice need to realize that Syria on its own is not going to press Hezbollah — in Mr. Bush’s immortal words — to just “stop doing this shit.’’

How does Bush get permission to say "shit" in reference to Hezbollah, but Emanuel can't use it to describe Bush? Maybe it's time for NYT editors to lighten up on curse words, and let them through when no other word will do. Unlike tweet, shit's here to stay. These ludicrous efforts to keeep cursing out of the NYT only call attention to the words -- and to the fact of the NYT's prudish attitude toward language most of us use every day.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Metaphor Of The Week: NYT Gardening Columnist Calls Fragrance A "One-Night Stand Who Demands Brunch The Next Morning."

Synthetic perfumes do a poor job of awakening that connection to green things, according to some natural perfumers. They argue that commercial perfumes can have all the subtlety of the men’s room at Yankee Stadium. And that synthetic fragrances cling indelibly to the body for 12 hours or more, like a one-night stand who demands brunch the next morning.

-- from "Making Flowers Into Perfume," by Michael Tortorello, front page, Home Section, Thursday, June 10, 2010.

Friday, June 11, 2010

WORST STORY OF 2010: An Early Winner -- That Page-One, May 4th Clunker By John M. Broder And Tom Zeller Jr., "Gulf Spill Is Bad, But How Bad?"

On Thursday, May 20th -- more than two weeks after the NYT published an embarrassing page-one news analysis that sharply questioned the severity of the BP oil spill, followed by an equally embarrassing Editor's Note about its sourcing -- the NYT quietly slipped a correction into the paper that fundamentally undercut the faulty story's premise even further.

"A news analysis article on May 4 about the severity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, misstated the amount of oil that was spilled in 1991 into the Persian Gulf by Iraqi forces in Kuwait," the correction read. "The agency now puts the figure at 252 million to 336 million gallons -- not 36 billion gallons, as it initially estimated."

Hmmm. Out of context, it's hard to know how significant a correction that might be.

But when you go back and look at the news analysis, you discover that the correction removes the story's primary statistic -- the first one cited by reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr. in their campaign to correct the view that the oil spill was "unprecedented," as President Obama had already called it.

The story asserted that we were in "the first inning of a nine-inning game," a quote the reporters attributed to someone described as "an expert" -- and that the Deepwater Horizon spill was "not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history."

The NYT analysis went on to declare: "The ruptured well, currently pouring an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, could flow for years and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991."

Yes, but that was wrong. The correction makes clear that the reporters used a phony statistic to make their point. There's a big difference between 232 million gallons and 36 billion gallons.

More important, Zeller and Broder should have known then -- and have since come to understand -- that this wasn't simply a numbers game.

On May 28, Zeller reported in the NYT that the spill had been "established as the worst oil spill in U.S. history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez disaster from 1989."

That version of events also contradicts the Broder/Zeller news analysis on May 4, which stated:

And it will have to get much worse before it approaches the impact of the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989, which contaminated 1,300 miles of largely untouched shoreline and killed tens of thousands of seabirds, otters and seals along with 250 eagles and 22 killer whales.

The morning the Broder/Zeller story appeared, we were troubled by its seeming determination to show that the spill wasn't as bad as some were saying. We're no engineers, but somehow that seemed a risky assertion.

So we started poking around, and quickly discovered that the reporters had interviewed sources with direct ties to the oil industry. The NYTPicker reported on it that morning (as did a professor at UC Davis, who posted his concerns on the Huffington Post), and by the next day the NYT had printed an Editors' Note, acknowedging the faulty sourcing.

The damage and destruction caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion has since become the stuff of history.

Today's NYT leads the front page with a story reporting that "the amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every 8 to 10 days."

As long as the NYT continues to call itself the "newspaper of record," it will have to answer for that shameful piece, passing for journalism, that it published on May 4, 2010.

[UPDATE: See comments section below for discussion of "newspaper of record" reference.}

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Jim Roberts, Call Your Agent! NYT Quietly Drops Morning Page-One Meeting From Its Daily "TimesCast" Video.

Damn! Just as we were really getting to know all those wonderful, wacky personalities at the NYT's daily Page One meeting -- thanks to its inclusion in "TimesCast," the paper's five-day-a-week promotional video -- the NYT has gone and yanked it from the format.

Yes, it's true: As of June 2, the NYT has quietly dropped the Page One opening sketch from "TimesCast," in favor of a mix of interviews and analysis from NYT reporters and editors.

We're miserable!

We've lost those langorous shots of executive editor Bill Keller's chin-stroking as he considered the commentary of his editors on that day's news. We're denied our daily dose of the impressively-tressed Jim Roberts, in his role as "Stage Manager" of the morning meeting. We'll miss the furrowed brow on foreign editor Susan Chira's face, the twangy confidence of business editor Larry Ingrassia, the apple-polisher persona of national editor Richard say nothing of our endless curiosity about all those women in the second row! Who were they? Were they editors or paid extras? Now we'll never know.

We're no television experts, but it seemed to us that the more effective way to improve TimesCast was to expand the morning meeting's role, not eliminate it. We wanted more personality, more cross-talk, more debate. It was fun whenever Keller commanded a piece, or an angle, from one of his subordinates. We loved checking the paper the next morning to see whether anyone actually listened to him! (They never did.)

Instead, TimesCast has now become more focused than ever on explanatory pieces from its reporters. Not a good move. Henry Fountain has been doing an impressive job covering the oil spill in print, but to put it politely, his television persona lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. David Sanger, Brian Stelter, David Carr -- you're all whiz-bang reporters, but with you as regulars, we won't be putting TimeCast on our TiVo Season Pass.

And while Keller may have the matinee-idol looks to make it big, to call his delivery in the one-on-one format "wooden" isn't really being fair to wood.

We've emailed the NYT public-relations team to get comment on the switch. We'll update if we hear from them.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Blimey! Pretentious Wankers At NYT Real Estate Section Now Refer To Apartments As "Flats."

The NYT appears to have introduced a bizarre style change in its Real Estate section: it now uses the British expression "flat" to describe apartments.

Is this a jolly good idea, or some numpty's idea of a joke?

Or maybe it's all part of the NYT's fevered competition with a certain wrinkly Australian bloke who owns a British media outlet or two.

From a photo caption on page 4:

Rodrigo Garcia, a hospital administrator, rents a flat in a town house on a block acclaimed for its architecture.

From a caption on page 8:

Jordan Cooper is a founder of JumpPost, a new Web site that gives subscribers a heads-up about flats that will soon be available.

From a caption on page 9:

A flat on East 74th was smaller than the old one, but just as pricey.

Dictionaries -- American ones, that is -- refer to the real-estate usage of "flat" as "chiefly British," if they refer to it at all.

It appears that the usage of "flat" in the real-estate section began just last month -- during the last fortnight, to be exact.

It popped up a couple of times in Joyce Cohen's column, "The Hunt," in reference to a "ground-floor flat" and a "railroad flat." A May 23 headline reported that "Jessica Hecht Buys Flat In Landmark Building."

Yesterday appears to mark the first time the word "flat" (for apartment) crept into standard usage at the NYT, which tends to avoid British slang in print. But you know how it is with pretentious wankers, sometimes they can't help themselves!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Worst Lede Of The Day, From A.O. Scott: "...And The Guy To Whom The Film’s Imperative Title Is Addressed Is Aaron Himself."

“He’s one of the last remaining rock stars!” says Aaron Green, referring to Aldous Snow, the “him” in the new film “Get Him to the Greek.” The Greek is a famous concert hall in Los Angeles, and the guy to whom the film’s imperative title is addressed is Aaron himself.

--from "On the Road to Rock, Fueled by Excess," by A.O. Scott, page C1, June 4, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rule Change: NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt Is Allowed To Show His Stories To Sources In Advance. And So Are You!

Hey, guess what? It's now okay to show your stories to the people you're writing about, before they're published.

In an interview with his college alumni magazine, NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt has made what strikes us as a startling admission: he routinely gives his columns in advance to his interview subjects -- NYT reporters and editors, often including executive editor Bill Keller -- before publication, for an "accuracy" review.

"Hoyt shares his stories before they are printed with those he has interviewed," wrote reporter David McKay Wilson in "Watching The Watchdogs" in Columbia College Today's May/June issue, "to make sure his columns accurately reflect his subjects’ positions."

Wilson added that "top editors who aren’t in the column see it first when it appears on Sunday." But that fact is rendered meaningless, of course, by the appearance of top editors in Hoyt's column almost every week.

Simply put, this means the NYT Public Editor is sharing his column every week, in advance of publication, with the NYT itself.

At first, we thought we'd uncovered a rules violation by Hoyt. Like a lot of journalists, we were under the distinct impression that writers weren't allowed to show their stories to anyone outside the paper before publication. Or inside the paper -- when the story is the paper itself.

But as it turns out, it's fine!

First of all, we discovered that NYT rules don't expressly prohibit showing a source an article in advance of publication. Which means that Hoyt hasn't broken any written rules.

But we still weren't sure about the ethics involved, so we checked with some journalism experts. The ones we reached told us that Hoyt's "read my story and get back to me with any problems" approach was perfectly acceptable.

Here's what we heard from Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, and who Hoyt and other NYT reporters often turn to for guidance:

I'm OK with sources seeing a story ahead of time, when there is a journalistic reason to justify the prior review and if the reporter makes it clear that the opportunity for review is a courtesy for the sake of accuracy, not editing. After all, sources should never be surprised by what gets published and pre-publication review is one way to prevent such a surprise. (So is calling the source and describing the story, if it changed after the interviews.)

Some common reasons for allowing sources to see stories ahead of time include complicated science/medical subjects or articles that examine incredibly private subjects.

The risk is that the source demands the right to edit the story or somehow mounts a PR campaign to undermine good reporting. But if the story is well-reported that second risk is pretty minimal. The other problem that arises is one of fairness. Although I don't believe you can justify showing all stories to all sources, you don't want to find yourself in a position of showing stories to friendly sources only.

In other words, go ahead!

We then checked with Daniel Okrent, the NYT's first Public Editor. He, too, basically signed off on Hoyt's habit. Here's what he told us:

I don't think it's necessary to show copy to someone you're writing about, but neither do I think there's anything wrong with it. Accuracy is accuracy, and showing (or reading back) quotes, etc., can only help achieve accuracy. The only harm arises if you allow yourself to be intimidated by someone who falsely claims misquotation -- and I'm confident Clark Hoyt isn't easily intimidated.

We double-checked with Okrent to make sure he understood that Hoyt was handing over his stories, not just a source's quotes. We asked him point-blank if, as Public Editor, he would approve a NYT reporter turning over a story to a source. His reply:

I would approve of it if a) the goal was accuracy, and b) if I was confident that the writer would not be intimidated by false assertions. I used to feel otherwise, but I think I was under the spell of an outdated fetish of gotcha journalism that has plagued our profession for too long.

I learned, during my time as public editor, that accuracy is the most important currency journalists have, and anything one can do to enhance it is worthwhile, as long as it isn't illegal or dishonest. But please let me reiterate: I don't by any means think it's a requirement; I just can't see any LOGICAL reason why, in most instances (I can of course come up with exceptions), it should be frowned upon. If you know of any such reason, I'm all ears.

We took the bait. Via return email, we offered Okrent three possible reasons:

1. The contents of a story could be leaked, given to the competition, or otherwise compromised. In the email era, it's arguably too easy for an email to be forwarded, etc. This hasn't happened to Clark Hoyt -- his subjects have little interest in leaking his stories, and as journalists, have a clear understanding of the ethical issues involved in doing so. Others might not be so ethical.

2. We agree on your point that a writer must not be intimidated by false assertions. But a writer can be distracted by the multitude of reactions/responses (not all of them false) that presumably result.

3. If the subject of a story felt he was going to be libeled, he could seek prior restraint. An unlikely scenario, but still possible, and intimidating to a smaller publication.

Okrent's response:

I accept the first point. On the second -- as I said, depends on the writer; Hoyt's balls are big enough. The third is so far-fetched it's almost specious.

Not wanting to pepetuate a debate over the dimensions of Clark Hoyt's balls, we emailed some other media experts for their opinion. We're still waiting for an answer from, among other places, the ethical hotline at the Society For Professional Journalists. We've also sent questions to Hoyt himself. Nothing yet.

We did get a non-committal reply to our general questions on the subject -- not mentioning Hoyt specifically -- from Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, who is also a prominent press critic. Here's what he wrote us:

I am often asked to render judgment on these kind of ethical questions and I almost never do. The reason is I don't have any "extra" measure of knowledge about what is ethical in these situations, compared to other sentient, informed and rational creatures. I would urge you to decide whether the practice you have in mind is ethical or not. My point is: you are as qualified as I am.

We're pretty sure the NYT doesn't agree with that!

Still, we do have an opinion.

Honestly, we think it's a little weird for Hoyt, a journalist with decades of reporting and editing experience, to need an "accuracy" check on the quotes and facts contained in a typical Public Editor column. Doesn't the dude know how to take good notes?

We'd understand if Hoyt were writing a story about oil spills or the latest findings in the AMA Journal. But come on, Clark -- an analysis of a City Room blog post shouldn't really need a going-over by the story's principal characters in advance of publication.

So yes, we're okay with the theoretical idea that reporters can show their stories to sources in advance, when it's the only possible way to fully ensure a story's to ensure accuracy.

But we're even more okay with the idea that skilled reporters like Hoyt can check facts and quotes on their own, rather than turning over their pieces -- and the task of fact-checking -- to the sources themselves. The risks remain greater than the reward.