In an email reponse to questions from The NYTPicker, former NYT economics writer Peter S. Goodman has questioned NYT executive editor Bill Keller's motives in mangling a quote from a recent column in the Huffington Post.
In today's NYT Magazine, Keller writes about the need for accuracy in news coverage -- but in doing so the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist innacurately quoted from a February 10 HuffPo column by Goodman.
Halfway through the column, Keller defends the NYT newsroom staff against an attack on the paper's approach to impartiality, by an unidentified critic:
My little realm, the newsroom, consists of about 1,100 people. Every one of them has opinions about a lot of things. But just as doctors and lawyers, teachers and military officers, judges and the police are expected to set aside their own politics in the performance of their duties, so are our employees. This does not mean — as one writer recently scoffed — that we “poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality.”
But in his haste to make a point, Keller managed to misinterpret the meaning of the quote from Goodman, who left the paper in September to join HuffPo as its business and technology editor.
Goodman's point wasn't presented either as a criticism of the NYT, or in the form of a scoff. In fact, he represents the notion quoted by Keller as a "false idea" of journalism, and nowhere does he mention the NYT. Here is the full context of Goodman's comment:
In the sort of journalism I am interested in practicing here, I want my reporters to reject the false idea that you simply poll people at both extremes of any issue, then paint a line down the middle and point to it as reality.
We emailed Goodman last night for his reaction to Keller's misrepresentation of his point. Here is the full text of his reply:
I greatly respect Bill and I still love the Times, and I'm not sure why he construed my sentence as a "scoff." I don't get why he apparently took it as being about the Times, when I was speaking much more generally about a troubling default mode in contemporary journalism. I was simply saying that I think it's crucial that journalists report impartially, insofar as we start our inquiry without being beholden to any particular interest, but equally that we then write it as we see it, without fretting over how readers will see us. I was in particular criticizing the tendency in many publications to insert mentions of bogus contentions as a means of inoculating themselves against claims that they are staking out a clear position. That doesn't help readers decide anything for themselves. It's phony centrism masquerading as impartiality. At the HuffPost, I don't allow my reporters to start out trying to buttress an ideological position, but if the reporting winds up going there, I see no value in muddying it up with dubious pseudo-facts aimed at creating a false sense of balance.
What makes Keller's misrepresentation notable is his ongoing battle with Arianna Huffington that began with his last NYT Magazine column. In that piece, Keller took strong issue with aggregation as a media business model, and his broadside against Huffington led to a brief skirmish between the two media titans.
Curiously, Keller appeared to be ignoring his own commentary about journalism and impartiality in his misquotation of Goodman's column in the Huffington Post.
"Once you proclaim an opinion," Keller wrote in today's column, "you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out."
Perhaps that explains why Keller overlooked the "inconvenient facts" of what Goodman actually wrote before making his point today.