Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Bad journalism: Today's New York Times includes an "Editors' Note" atop the regular list of corrections, major and minor.
A front-page article on Thursday described a report by a committee at Columbia University formed to investigate complaints that pro-Israel Jewish students were harassed by pro-Palestinian professors. The report found "no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic," but it did say that one professor "exceeded commonly accepted bounds" of behavior when he became angry at a student who he believed was defending Israel's conduct toward Palestinians.
The article did not disclose The Times's source for the document, but Columbia officials have since confirmed publicly that they provided it, a day before its formal release, on the condition that the writer not seek reaction from other interested parties.
Under The Times's policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information. In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public. The Times insisted, however, on getting a response from the professor accused of unacceptable behavior, and Columbia agreed.
Last Wednesday night, after the article had been published on The Times's Web site, the reporter exchanged messages with one of the students who had lodged the original complaints. The student was expecting to read the report shortly. But because of the lateness of the hour, and concern about not having response from other interested parties, the reporter did not wait for a comment for later versions, including the printed one, after the student had read the report.
Without a response from the complainants, the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form. The response was included in an article on Friday.
The response was included Friday, in a story that was likely not on the front page (I can't be sure because, unlike The Washington Post, the Times doesn't indicate on its Web site which page the article appeared on). In fact, this editors' note didn't appear on the front page either.
James Taranto likens the Times explanation for failing to practice Journalism 101 to one of Steve Martin's old Saturday Night Live sketches -- if only it were that funny.
I can't imagine any newspaper I've ever worked for, from the Lompoc Record right on up to the San Diego Union-Tribune allowing a reporter to make a deal to publish some report which prohibits the reporter from speaking to subject of the report.
Columbia's report basically accused the Jewish students of overreacting and being hypersensitive (something which is outrageous and laughable) -- then for the Times to get the report a day early, they go ahead and agree to not speak to those same students. The Times did get an exception to the "don't talk to anyone rule" to talk to a professor who was "cleared" by the report. By the terms of their agreement, Columbia was requiring the Times to run a biased report -- and the Times agreed! Not just the reporter, but several layers of editors agreed to deliberately skew their coverage in return for access.
And their excuse, as Taranto summarized it, was: "I forgot." I forgot basic journalistic rules about fairness? Jayson Blair's crimes are the least of the Times' problems if they "forgot" about fairness.
In the past, when I went off on one of my rants about journalists admitting their political leanings in order to give readers a better sense of what bias -- even if unintentional -- may underlie their stories, a reader asked me if I was proposing a return to the days of "Republican" and "Democrat" newspapers. Unfortunately, that's not really possible because the vast majority of American cities have only one major newspaper. But how far gone are we from that situation now, really? Only a partisan rag that wasn't interested in looking at both sides of the story would agree to do what the Times did.
Journalism's wounds are self-inflicted.
On a related note: David Shaw, how many "professional" editors do you think this Columbia piece went through? At America's "paper of record"! Yes, you're so much better than anyone who blogs. A little humility would be in order at this point.