Monday, September 26, 2005
I don't like Geraldo either: For the record, whenever Geraldo Rivera appears on the TV screen the channel is immediately changed (if it's live TV) or I skip forward until his visage no longer contaminates my screen (if it's TiVo'd). Having said that, the New York Times' libel of Geraldo, and its unwillingness to correct the record, is just one more reason that the Times continues to lose the respect it once had.
The underlying issue arose from the penultimate paragraph of Alessandra Stanley's TV Watch column on Sept. 5 about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina: "Some reporters helped stranded victims because no police officers or rescue workers were around. (Fox's Geraldo Rivera did his rivals one better: yesterday, he nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety.)"
Mr. Rivera denied that he had "nudged" anyone and demanded that The Times publish a correction. Mr. Rivera and Fox said a videotape of the segment that Ms. Stanley had watched on Sept. 4 shows no nudge. The segment was then rebroadcast on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox, and a videotape has been made available to The Times and other media outlets.
The Times informed Fox on Sept. 7 that no correction would be published. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, personally made the final decision after "multiple viewings of the videotape in question," he told me in a Sept. 8 e-mail message that defended his ruling and was later provided to other journalists.
Stripped of its speculation in defense of Ms. Stanley, Mr. Keller's e-mail to me explaining his decision winds up acknowledging that the "nudge" she reported seeing is not shown in the videotape. Here, with my emphasis added, is that key paragraph of his e-mail:
"It was a semi-close call, in that the video does not literally show how Mr. Rivera insinuated himself between the wheelchair-bound storm victim and the Air Force rescuers who were waiting to carry her from the building. Whether Mr. Rivera gently edged the airman out of the way with an elbow (literally 'nudged'), or told him to step aside, or threw a body block, or just barged into an opening - it's hard to tell, since it happened just off-camera."
So if Ms. Stanley couldn't have seen the nudge, why not publish a correction? Mr. Keller's message unfortunately turns to a line of reasoning that raises, for me, a basic question of journalistic fairness. He suggests, "frankly," that in light of Mr. Rivera's reaction to the review, Ms. Stanley "would have been justified in assuming" - and therefore writing, apparently - that Mr. Rivera used "brute force" rather than merely a "nudge" on Sept. 4.(One of the on-air threats cited by Mr. Keller, however, actually was made by Bill O'Reilly.)
I find it disturbing that any Times editor would come so close to implying - almost in a tit-for-tat sense - that Mr. Rivera's bad behavior essentially entitles the paper to rely on assumptions and refuse to correct an unsupported fact.
Mr. Keller's final reason for rejecting a correction was that Ms. Stanley, "who is writing as a critic, with the license that title brings - was within bounds in her judgment." He elaborated: "Ms. Stanley's point was that Mr. Rivera was show-boating - that he was being pushy, if not literally pushing - and I think an impartial viewer of the footage will see it that way."
Based on the videotape and outtakes I saw, Ms. Stanley certainly would have been entitled to opine that Mr. Rivera's actions were showboating or pushy. But a "nudge" is a fact, not an opinion. And even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions.
I wasn't just throwing out a legal term for shock value when I termed the Times' behavior as libelous. Rivera is a public figure, and therefore would have to prove that the Times acted with "malice aforethought" when it attacked him. Based on Keller's "defense" of his TV columnist's piece, I'd say that Rivera has a good chance of proving that.
Just because you believe someone to be a horse's hindquarters doesn't mean that you can make stuff up about them.
Bill Keller seems to me like the type of guy who would drown puppies. That doesn't mean that I can go around accusing him of animal cruelty.
Keller has only succeeded in making himself look like a petty, preening snob and making his newspaper look like a propaganda rag. Maybe it's a good thing that people will recognize exactly what it is they're buying when they pick up the Times. Unfortunately, it reflects poorly on the profession as a whole.