Wednesday, April 13, 2005
Journalism 101, again: Sunday's New York Times had an article by soon-to-be-departing Public Editor Dan Okrent on, among other subjects, the Times' outrageous Editor's note, which I discussed last week.
Samuel Glasser, a reader in Port Washington, N.Y., who identifies himself as a former reporter and editor with three major newspaper chains, spoke for many: "The idea that editors and reporters would even have to be told not to do such a thing in the first place, let alone that they would 'forget' the policy, defies belief."
But I believe it all too readily. Unless they're enforced by a hanging judge, a mountain of policies (The Times has an Everest's worth; you can find most at www.nytco.com/press.html) will not deter editors and reporters from the heart-pounding, palm-sweating, eye-goggling pursuit of scoops. (Managing editor Jill Abramson told me that the Editors' Note "speaks for itself.") Wanting to be first, to beat the competition, to compel other media to say "as reported yesterday in The New York Times" puts the paper in a position where it can build staff spirit, expand its reputation and win prestigious journalism prizes. And be manipulated like Silly Putty, too.
Okrent has been in the Times New York office too long. It must be something in the water that causes him to think the "I forgot" defense is credible. The Times is more comfortable admitting incompetence than it is institutional bias.
I can understand the drive to get a story first. When I was writing for the Mustang Daily in college lo those many years ago we actually had a "Wall of Scoop" where Daily articles were places side-by-side with those in the Telegram-Tribune with the dates circled in red. But having a competitive story in your hands does not trump the need to do all of the necessary reporting.
These are journalism's basics. Though they may be enshrined in the Times formal policies, they shouldn't be anything any professional journalist needs to be reminded of.