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Sunday, October 10, 2004

Sniffles at the Times

How dare you insult our fine reporters

Atrios pointed out this cheer gem from the Times public editor, Daniel Okrent today

But it is equally axiomatic that the reader who has already tilted toward a particular candidate or position will instinctively view the world and The Times - from his or her own personal angle.

This piece turned out to be more of a rant than I intended, but given the vicious nature of some of the attacks levied against certain reporters, I wasn't inclined to be temperate. There are many critics of The Times's election coverage who are measured and reasonable, and their views - very different from my own - will be represented in this space next week. I also don't wish to discourage readers who in good faith find errors, misrepresentations or unfair characterizations. They may occur randomly, but their frequency is disappointing, and I'll continue to forward meritorious complaints to the appropriate editors and reporters. Many will find expression in the corrections column, or in this one.

But before I turn over the podium, I do want you to know just how debased the level of discourse has become. When a reporter receives an e-mail message that says, "I hope your kid gets his head blown off in a Republican war," a limit has been passed.

That's what a coward named Steve Schwenk, from San Francisco, wrote to national political correspondent Adam Nagourney several days ago because Nagourney wrote something Schwenk considered (if such a person is capable of consideration) pro-Bush. Some women reporters regularly receive sexual insults and threats. As nasty as critics on the right can get (plenty nasty), the left seems to be winning the vileness derby this year. Maybe the bloggers who encourage their readers to send this sort of thing to The Times might want to ask them instead to say it in public. I don't think they'd dare.

The point is this: people are unhappy with the Times coverage because of bias. What about Nagourney being quoted that he hoped "he didn't oveshadow John Kerry". I mean, come on, that's an outrageous statement on it's face. Or Jodi Wilgoren's often misleading reporting.

People feel the Times is biased and the current Rolling Stone doesn't much help matters when Elisabeth Busmiller is cited for refusing to say anything positive about the Kerry campaign. like the large crowds which have come to see him in even Republican counties.

I think people blame the Times and Judy Miller for encouraging the war and have reacted to it. Of course, the fact that the Times is defending Miller and not suspending or firing her for her conduct may encourage people to think the Times went in the tank for the Bush Administration.

I don't know of anyone who has encouraged nasty comments to the Times, the loss of faith in their reporting has seem to have done that.

But as I have said in the past, journalists have extremely thin skins and react like scalded cats to criticism.

Here's my letter to Daniel Okrent

Dear Mr. Okrent,

I wish my insulting readers were only so mild. Usually people wish for me to drop dead.

Have I ever published their name and hometown? No. I could, if I wanted to, do so. But I don't, and for two reasons. One, it gives them more attention, two, they have a right to privacy. Did Mr. Schwenk give you permission to use his name and what he wrote? If he didn't, what you did is as much a violation of a source's right to protection as the Times alleges the court case you're now waging to prevent Judith Miller from revealing her sources. Just because you didn't like what Mr. Schwenk said doesn't give you the right to reprint it in your column.

When I get hate mail, I usually ignore it. I would think a correspondent for the Times would and could do the same.

Mr. Okrent, you cannot pretend that the Times is an innocent victim in all this. Combine Jeff Gerth's often inaccurate reporting on Whitewater, the near conviction in your pages of the completely innocent Wen Ho Lee, a man who did nothing more than serve this country honorably for decades, and Judith Miller's questionable and error-ladened reporting from Iraq, reporting so bad, you, personally had to discuss it in the pages of the paper. Yet, you wonder why people no longer trust your reporting?

Then we get the cheery spectacle of the current edition of Rolling Stone reporting an instance where Elisabeth Busmiller barely mentions a massive Kerry crowd she was covering.

With things like that, some people may well feel the need for hyperbole and insult.

However, if you're going to accuse people of inciting death threats and ill wishes from the blogs, then you should make specific charges. Because I think most sane adults would agree such actions are wrong.

But if you don't like the fact that people are closely following Times reporting because they feel let down by it, and I don't mean ideologically, then that's a different story. Why should the public trust the Times after Judy Miller? Maureen Dowd admitted, in the same issue of Rolling Stone, that she "boycotted French wine and mayonnaise". How are readers supposed to take that? She defines herself a "very patriotic" and yet, you're surprised people wonder why the Iraq coverage and commentary has had notable flaws and omissions?

You would find life very hard as a blogger, if such a mild insult upset you so badly. I would think Times reporters were made of sterner stuff. The simple fact is that technology has made institutions vulnerable to challenges. If the Times goes into a tissy over one e-mail and violates basic principles of privacy, how can its reporters deal with the increasing scrutiny that new technology will bring?

If you find a popular blog which has encouraged people to wish death and misfortune on Times reporters, it would be a public service to let us all know, so we can inform the owner we disagree with such tactics.

If you care to respond, here's how.


Phone: (212) 556-7652

Address: Public Editor
The New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036-3959

posted by Steve @ 7:06:00 AM

7:06:00 AM

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