Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Within 48 Hours, NYT Publishes Two Contradictory Versions Of Carl Paladino's Affair-Love Child Confession. Which One's Right?

Whose NYT version do you believe? The column by Susan Dominus, or the page-one story by Michael Barbaro and David Halbfinger?

With 48 hours of one another, three NYT star metro correspondents published two parallel narratives of gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino's tawdry love affair, out-of-wedlock daughter and confession -- and their versions appear to contradict each other.

Regardless of who's right -- or whether the apparent contradiction was intentional -- how was it possible that the NYT published the two versions of events in such quick succession, without any acknowledgement that the second version didn't fit with the first?

Our stories begin last Saturday, when Dominus -- who writes an entertaining twice-weekly metro column called Big City -- published an interview with Cathy Paladino, the wife of the surprise Republican nominee. In the Dominus version, the wife of the candidate told in refreshing candor how she learned of Paladino's affair:

Since her husband, Carl, won the Republican nomination for governor of New York last week, the only story in the race as compelling as his upset victory has been their personal back story: that her husband not only had an affair, not only fathered a child with that other woman, but also told his wife of 40 years about it all the same week that their 29-year-old son, Patrick, was killed in a car accident. He pulled her aside, Ms. Paladino said, as she was looking for family photographs to bring to the wake.

“He said he was very sorry to cause me pain, the relationship with the mother was over ... and there was a child,” she said.

Cathy Paladino has repeated the story to other reporters, and it turned up in Erica Orden's account in Monday's Wall Street Journal.

But in the NYT's page-one Monday Paladino profile -- a seemingly exhaustive, 2,585-word portrait of the candidate -- reporters Barbaro and Halbfinger ignored the Cathy Paladino narrative in favor of a different one, that cast Carl Paladino in a more favorable light:

As his public involvement intensified, he was harboring an agonizing secret in his private life: He had had an affair with a female employee, which resulted in a child named Sarah. He had begun to tell his children, but he could not bring himself to inform his wife. “I adore her,” Mr. Paladino said. “I didn’t want to bring that hurt.”

His son Patrick, then 29 and struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, proposed a deal: In exchange for his entering a substance-abuse program, his father would have to tell his wife, Cathy, about Sarah, then 9.

Each man kept his end of the bargain, and Sarah, whom Mr. Paladino supports financially, has been fully incorporated into his family.

But in March 2009, a few weeks after leaving rehab, Patrick lost control of his sport utility vehicle on a darkened highway and crashed into a row of trees.

The entire Barbaro/Halbfinger story is told in chronological narrative -- thus leaving the reader (especially a reader who missed the Dominus interview) with a very different sense of how Paladino handled his indiscretion.

Indeed, as we know from the Dominus version, their son never knew that Carl Paladino "kept his end of the bargain," as the reporters put it -- having died in a traffic accident before his father confessed.

We emailed Barbaro, Halbfinger and Dominus in an effort to reconcile the two versions. Here's Barbaro's reply:

I am happy to respond to your request for comment, but I respond only on the condition that you publish my email in its entirely, without edits. If you do not agree to these terms, then you may not use the following:

There is no conflict between Sue Dominus’s column on Saturday and the news story, written by David Halbfinger and me, which ran on Monday.

Sue reported that Carl Paladino told his wife Cathy about his extramarital affair – and the child that resulted from it -- after his son Patrick’s death.

We reported a new detail about that confession: that Patrick had asked his father to tell his mother about the affair as a condition of his entering a substance abuse program.

We did not specify the precise moment that Mr. Paladino told his wife about the affair and the child, and no such timeline is outlined in our story. We simply said that both men kept their end of Patrick’s proposed bargain: Patrick would undergo drug treatment (which he did) and Mr. Paladino would tell his wife Cathy about his daughter Sarah (which he did).

Barbaro's right in saying that their story didn't specify the precise moment Paladino told his wife about the affair -- which strikes us as nothing to brag about. Why add one new detail, and leave out one old one? There's no net gain for the reader in that.

But Barbaro's wrong in saying that his story doesn't suggest a timeline. It's written in narrative form, which conveys to the reader a chronological sequence of events. The reporters clearly state that Paladino informed his wife of the affair and the daughter it produced -- and then report that Patrick died. That presents an inescapable conclusion that one event occurred before the other.

Which it didn't.

Why did Halbfinger and Barbaro choose to leave out the compelling details of the confession already reported elsewhere? Barbaro didn't address that question in his email to The NYTPicker, so we can only guess that Paladino -- or someone close to him -- wanted to make his confession appear more noble and above-board than it did in the Dominus version. The lack of source attribution makes it difficult to know for sure.

But an even more important question is how the NYT --both the reporters and their editors -- chose to leave a revealing fact out of the Paladino page-one narrative, after it already appeared in the NYT.

It's a confusing and contradictory approach to the facts that leaves the average reader less than fully informed -- and careful readers wondering who to believe.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Get Me History Rewrite! Today, Obama Envoy Richard C. Holbrooke Earns His 14th NYT Correction.

Today's NYT "correction" of a reference to White House special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke -- in a reference culled from Bob Woodward's latest book, "Obama's Wars" -- marks the 14th time in Holbrooke's career that the NYT has agreed to publish a correction of his record.

And many of those "corrections" aren't even corrections at all; they're amplifications designed to reshape a narrative concerning Holbrooke in a more positive light -- just the sort of correction most ordinary subjects of NYT stories only dream about.

Here's today's "correction":

An article on Wednesday about the quarrels among President Obama’s national security advisers described in a new book by Bob Woodward referred incompletely to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s reported assessment of Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Mr. Biden is indeed quoted as calling Mr. Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” he also is quoted saying that Mr. Holbrooke “may be the right guy for the job.”

In other words, the story got the words of Biden's tough characterization right. It's just that the reporter didn't manage to reference the vice president's resigned acceptance of Holbrooke's qualifications.

How is that a mistake, exactly? One statement isn't dependent on the other, and both are true assessments of Biden's opinions.

But when you're Richard Holbrooke -- with apparent longstanding, well-oiled access to the top brass of the NYT -- it seems you can get the NYT to admit a mistake even when it didn't make one.

Typically, a Holbrooke correction does damage control on some aspect of his checkered reputation. (Note to Holbrooke: we do not plan to run a correction on our use of the word "checkered.")

Consider this, from May 19, 1999:

An article on April 21 about an investigation into Richard C. Holbrooke's nomination as chief American diplomat at the United Nations referred incompletely to a speaking fee. Mr. Holbrooke's financial disclosure filings with the State Department included the information that he spoke to the Siemens electronics company in October 1998 for a $24,000 fee. But on April 22 Mr. Holbrooke amended his filing to show that the speech had been canceled and no fee paid.

See, he's a good guy. Didn't do anything wrong there.

Or this, from August 27 of that year:

An article yesterday about Richard C. Holbrooke's first appearance at the United Nations since his Senate confirmation as chief United States representative misstated the history of the appointment. While his confirmation was delayed for nearly a year, most of the delay was due to a Justice Department investigation, not to Congressional roadblocks. The article also misstated the duration and nature of the Senate hearings. They did not last months and were not grueling.

How dare the NYT suggest that his hearings were grueling? Not grueling at all.

Or this, from June 5, 1993:

Because of an editing error, an article yesterday about slowness in the selection of American ambassadors referred incorrectly to a statement by Richard C. Holbrooke, a former Assistant Secretary of State. He wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1991 that an American troop withdrawal from East Asia "in the long run" was "probably inevitable." Mr. Holbrooke did not say he favored such a step.

Loosely translated, this correction reads: Pay attention to my words, damnit, or I will call Keller or Lelyveld or whoever I can to make your job a living hell.

This isn't to say that such corrections aren't warranted. They sometimes are. On May 18. 1988, in its first Holbrooke mistake, the NYT had the temerity to not give him credit for work he was doing on Clark Clifford's memoirs. That was a bad mistake.

An article on the Washington Talk page in some copies yesterday about Clark M. Clifford omitted the name of the person assisting Mr. Clifford with his memoirs. He is Richard C. Holbrooke, a former Assistant Secretary of State, who is continuing his duties as a managing director of Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., the New York investment bank.

And that's Richard C. Holbrooke, please. The "C" stands for correction.

Michiko Kakutani, Please Report To The Principle's Office.

In Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michiko Kakutani's review today of "Obama's Wars," the latest Bob Woodward Washington bestseller, she inserts an error familiar to any grade-school student still learning the fine art of spelling.

This being the pared-down NYT, the error managed to make its way through the editorial process and into the print edition this morning -- reminding readers of the paper's declining resources in copy-editing a newspaper that once prided itself of getting everything right.

In a news quiz on grammar published in November of 2008, this is what now-standards editor Philip B. Corbett had to say about the confusion between the words "principle" and "principal:


Here's a screen grab of the offending passage.

In case you're wondering, here's the rule -- as provided by the NYT-owned website, About.com:

As a noun, principal commonly means "administrator" or "sum of money." As an adjective, principal means "most important." The noun principle means "basic truth" or "rule."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Washington Post Kicks NYT's Ass Today With Page-One Stunner: U.S. Soldiers Killing Afghan Civilians "For Sport."

In a profile of Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli this week in the Columbia Journalism Review, NYT executive editor Bill Keller offered one of his characteristically snide comments about his competitor.

“Bless them for continuing to take foreign coverage seriously," Keller condescended about Brauchli's Post, "but it hews more closely than before to stories that fit a Washington agenda, which sometimes has the odd effect of making the Post’s world feel like an appendage of the State Department.”

Keller's words ring a bit hollow today, as we read Craig Whitlock's stunning story about atrocities committed by soldiers in the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade in Aghanistan. His piece reveals charges that rogue soldiers formed a "kill team" that targeted innocent cilivians for death in a "months-long shooting spree."

Three soldiers have been charged with murder in the investigation. The story documents charges that the soldiers dismembered and photographed their innocent victims, and reports that the U.S. military ignored warnings from the father of one soldier that the killings were taking place.

It's a first-class piece of foreign reporting that fits no Washington agenda whatsover. Kudos to the Post for publishing this terrifying and important look into the dark side of the American war effort in Afghanistan, to be found nowhere in today's NYT.

UPDATE: NYT associate managing editor Jim Roberts has just tweeted that today's Washington Post story was first reported in August by The Seattle Times, and has helpfully provided a link to the original piece.

This public effort by the NYT brass to undercut the Post's scoop -- which added significant dimension to the Seattle paper's version -- strikes us as the height of hypocrisy. The NYT reports stories on an almost-daily basis that have appeared elsewhere first, and almost always without credit; The NYTPicker has long since ceased noting these uncredited lifts, for fear of boring our readers with repetitive critiques.

Yesterday's NYT contained two such stories that we passed up on writing about: the story of the closing of the Liberace Museum by Adam Nagourney, and Katie Zezima's account of a debate over the fate of the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy. Both had appeared in other newspapers first, and neither piece offered NYT any significant new detail.

Should today's Post story have acknowledged the Seattle Times for breaking the first account of the case? Probably. But it doesn't take away from the Post's enterprise in developing and expanding the story into one of national significance. It would be interesting to hear Keller, Roberts & Co. explain why they so freely borrow ideas from other newspapers to fill its pages every day, yet left this one to the Post to pick up.

UPDATE #2: We're now getting sent links to suggest that this story had been building in the media over the last few weeks since the Seattle Times first reported it. Extensive articles in Army Times and Stars & Stripes, and fresh reporting by the Associated Press -- picked up in the Daily News and elsewhere -- had advanced the story to the point where the Washington Post's page-one piece served mostly to give it a national newspaper platform for the first time.

All of which still goes to the heart of our first question: why didn't the NYT go after this story, too? Or were its reporters at work on advancing it, and only to get scooped by the Post? With a scandal of this potential magnitude, the question of "ownership" ought to recede as reporters zero in on its details. We still applaud the Post for putting this important story on its front page, where it belonged.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Whoops! In Today's Jackie Chan Wedding Announcement, NYT Offers Hyperlink To Actor Jackie Chan.

In today's NYT wedding announcement of investment banker Jackie Chan to his new bride, Kaibin Hu, a management associate at Estee Lauder, the NYT appears to have mistaken the groom for another Jackie Chan.

In the announcement, a hyperlink on Chan's name takes readers to a "Times Topics" page for the legendary Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan -- who, presumably, isn't moonlighting at Greenhill & Co., the New York City investment bank, as he awaits the 2011 release of "Kung Fu Panda 2."

NYT Gaza Correspondent Quit After Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner's Son Joined Israeli Army. "I Don't Want To Lose My Life," She Says.

In the wake of the disclosure last winter that NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner's son joined the Israeli Army, NYT Gaza correspondent Taghreed E-Khodary has quit the paper -- fearing that the situation could cost the reporter her sources, or even her life.

"If Ethan’s son joined the Israeli army, OK it’s his issue," El-Khodary told a Palestine Center forum in Washington last June. "If The New York Times decided to keep him there, ok, they took a decision. But I took a decision too....I decided, because I don’t want to lose my sources, and I don’t want to lose my life, and I don’t want him to lose his life, so it’s as simple as that. So, I came out with that decision because it’s important to keep my sources. It’s a challenge, and I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to be tainted like ‘the one who writes for someone that has a son in the army’ – I don’t want, I don’t need that. Already there are many challenges around you and you don’t want to add another one. It’s not worth it."

El-Khodary, who was born in Gaza, reported from the region for the NYT since 2001; she is identified on Wikipedia as still contributing to the paper. She had been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2006, and it was Nieman Reports that first posted the transcript of her appearance at the Palestine Center, and highlighted her decision to quit the NYT.

The NYT's decision to allow Bronner to continue serving as Jerusalem bureau chief -- after it was disclosed last February that his son had enlisted in the I.D.F. -- created a brief firestorm in the media last February. Clark Hoyt, then-Public Editor of the NYT, pushed for the NYT to give Bronner a "plum" reassignment while his son served in the Israeli military, but executive editor Bill Keller vigorously defended Bronner's impartiality and his own decision not to cave to pressure:

Every reporter brings to the story a life — a history, relationships, ideas, beliefs. And the first essential discipline of journalism is to set those aside, as a judge or a scientist or a teacher is expected to do, and to follow the facts. Of course, journalism is made by human beings, and our lives seep into our stories — sometimes in the form of bias, but often in valuable ways.

But for El-Khodary, the NYT's decision prompted her to make one of her own.

"I have succeeded to be considered a very critical journalist on the ground, and I don’t want to lose that," she told the forum. "I’m sorry that I left Gaza, but my bureau chief’s son joined the Israeli army and I felt like it’s not wise of me. I don’t want to risk losing my sources that I have been establishing for many, many years. It’s a very sensitive issue, as you all know, not only that, but it’s also risky and you have many small groups who would like revenge and I can be a great person to get a hold of. It’s very sensitive and I was really disappointed that they took this decision but they understand why I left."

Friday, September 10, 2010

NOTICED: In Wake Of Post By Cranky, Anonymous Blog, NYT Discovers A Sudden, Huge Upswing In Deaths Of Women.

In the last two weeks, nearly one in three NYT obituaries has been devoted to women -- a jump of 150 percent over the four previous weeks, when nearly nine out of ten published NYT obits went to men.

The sudden awareness that notable women are also dying comes in the wake of a post from the anonymous, cranky NYT blog known as The NYTPicker, which first noted the NYT's ongoing habit of publishing the vast majority of its obituaries about men. Prior to the last two weeks -- in which the NYT has published six obituaries of prominent women, and 22 men -- in 2010 the paper had noted the deaths of only 92 women, while reporting the demise of 606 men.

NYT Finds A Great New Place To Promote Its T Magazine Fashion Coverage: Above The Fold On Page One.

Here's the caption on the photo appearing across four columns above the fold on the front page of today's NYT:

ON A NEW RUNWAY: A scene from the "Project Runway show on Thursday, the opening day of Fashion Week in Manhattan. The event is being held at Lincoln Center, after 17 years at Bryant Park. Slide shows, blogging and coverage from T Magazine: nytimes.com/fashion.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Did Obama Administration Force Editing Changes To Today's Page-One NYT Story On Court Ruling? Looks That Way.

Did the Obama administration force editing changes to Charlie Savage's page-one lead piece today on the appeals court ruling on CIA torture?

It sure looks that way, from some quiet but substantial editing that took place after Savage's story first went online late yesterday.

The story reported on a federal Appeals Court ruling in favor of the Obama Administration's efforts to prevent lawsuits alleging torture against the C.I.A., on the grounds that they would reveal government secrets.

In the story that went up on the NYT website yesterday -- and which remains posted on the Charlotte Observer website -- Savage noted that the administration's counterterrorism policies "have in some ways departed from the expectations of change" promised by Obama during the campaign.

Savage then summarized the administration's policies like this:

Among other policies, the Obama team has also placed a U.S. citizen on a targeted-killings list without a trial, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas-corpus suits challenging their indefinite imprisonment, and continued the CIA rendition program - though the administration says it now takes greater safeguards to prevent detainees from being mistreated.

But at some point after the story first went online and before it went into print, Savage substantially changed the paragraph -- altering words and meanings, adding and removing phrases, and essentially softening the rhetoric of the passage. The version now online, and in the print edition, reads this way:

Among other policies, the Obama national security team has also authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.

We're not experts in counterterrorism policy, but even the most casual reader can see that the final phrasing isn't nearly as inflammatory as the first version. The story now says the "Obama national security team authorized the C.I.A." to kill a U.S. citizen, instead of saying that "the Obama team" put the citizen on a "targeted-killings list" and the fact that the citizen was ordered killed "without a trial"; it now identifies the citizen as being "suspected of terrorist ties"; it changes a reference to "indefinite imprisonment" of detainees to "imprisonment without trial," and the "rendition program" has been redefined as the "so-called extraordinary rendition program."

The new version also notes specifically that the Obama administration "has forbidden torture" -- a point not made in the earlier version -- and says it "seeks assurances" (as opposed to "take greater safeguards") about the treatment of detainees.

Simply put, the final version of the story appears to go to far greater lengths to reflect the Obama administration's position on the policies cited. Standing side by side, it's hard not to suspect that administration officials may have asked for, and gotten, a softening of Savage's tone after reading his initial version.

We recognize that at times, reporters and editors can and will change stories to improve their accuracy after they've been posted. That's reasonable in small matters, and may be what happened here.

But when changes become this substantial, we don't think the NYT can legitimately leave them unacknowledged. If the original statements were in error, shouldn't they have been identified as corrections to the post, as the NYT often does when mistakes get pointed out after posting a story?

We've emailed Savage for his comment on the changes, and will update when we've heard from him.

UPDATE: Commenters and tweeters seem to think we've declared the Obama administration guilty of meddling in NYT stories, without any facts or evidence. We haven't, and we're not. Our post concerns the fact that Savage's story changed substantially, without any notification to readers -- and in a way that served the Obama administration's interests. It's the NYT's responsibility to explain the changes to its story, not ours. In the absence of an explanation, we're offering what seems to us a reasonable guess.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

An Early Favorite Emerges In The NYTPicker's 2010 Byline Of The Year Competitition: Tudor Van Hampton.

Not since last December's stunning come-from-behind victory for T Magazine writer Jauretsi Saizarbitoria has The NYTPicker seen so formidable a challenger emerge for the title of Byline Of The Year.

Today's "Collectible Cars" column by Chicago freelancer Tudor Van Hampton -- a lovely piece of writing about microcars, horespower and fuel efficiencies -- considerably changes the complexion of this year's competitition.

Van Hampton offers a vivid example of simple, high-toned byline elegance, in the noble tradition of Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Serge Schmemann.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Van Hampton
is Midwest Bureau Chief, Equipment & Materials Editor and ENR Insider Editor for Engineering News Record in Chicago. His specialties include cars, heavy machinery, trucks, and tools. It's about time the NYT had an expert on tools.