November 11, 2004
What Does a Great Newspaper Want From its Critics? Accountability Committee at the Times
New York Times assistant managing editor and head standards guy Allan M. Siegal lays out plans for a special committee to improve "accuracy and accountability." I give you the memo, and my read on it. You hit the comment button and give yours.
Here’s how it made news today at Romenesko, “Your daily fix of media industry news, commentary, and memos.”
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 2004
NYT committee to study ways to improve paper’s credibility
Times assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal announced the committee’s formation yesterday in a memo titled “Re-examining Our Credibility.” Jack Shafer posts it, and writes: “If the past predicts the future, we should expect the memo to inspire the anonymice to start reproducing in the New York Times faster than tribbles on the starship Enterprise!”
The first Siegal committee (see PressThink on it) investigated the Jayson Blair mess and the Howell Raines reign. It led to the formation of the Public Editor’s position, and to Daniel Okrent, who is himself a revolution in accountability, since he is creating the office of ombudsman where never there was one. The story of that committee’s work is told in Seth Mnookin’s new book on the New York Times during the Blair agony and after. It’s getting attention from press watchers. (For the first Siegal report, click here.)
Here’s the Siegal memo about setting up a second committee, verbatim, with my commentary on its bullet items:
Memorandum for: THE STAFF
In the last year and a half, The Times has deepened and widened its efforts to deserve readers’ trust. Most notably, we have appointed a public editor and given serious consideration to his questions and advice; we have required that every unidentified source quoted in the paper be known by name to at least one editor; we have tried to describe our sources and their motives more candidly and usefully. We’d like to believe we have reduced our dependence on anonymous sources; certainly we have begun trying and intend to push ahead.
Now, as Bill Keller told us in his town hall meetings before the election, we want to examine our practices, and our readers’ demands, even more thoroughly. We especially want to examine the measures we have NOT yet taken, asking ourselves why not, and whether they could improve our accuracy and accountability.
For that purpose, Bill has asked me to put together a committee of news people to collect and evaluate those possibilities. It will be a small group, but a central part of its mandate will be to reach out to everyone anywhere in the news department who offers a useful idea. Some of our first thoughts about proposals to examine include these:
- Can we cut back, or even cut out, our attendance at background briefings by nameless officials?
Background briefings allow administration officials to give out news and views “on background,” meaning the reporters there agree to use no one’s name. Instead it’s: “senior officials in the Bush Administration.” The advantages for the Executive are obvious— and insidious.
There’s no question you, the New York Times, “can” pull out of this sordid arrangement, the background briefing. You just make it Times policy never to go to one. Problem solved. There’s a reason this item makes the list: reporters competing for news are not sure of the consequences if they exit the arrangement.
If you knew it wouldn’t cost you in the competition for news, you would have pulled out a long time ago. But you don’t know. If everyone in the press stayed away, the practice would end. But again, you don’t have confidence that everyone would stay away. That’s why you end up going, hating that you “have to go.”
(By the way, New York Times, there are many social scientists and amateur students of game theory who could tell you about your situation, since it has elements of a tragedy of the commons case, and a prisoner’s dilemma case. Why not sick a reporter on some of those sources?)
I think the question should be re-phrased. Rather than “can we cut out our attendance at…?” ask: What role does the New York Times wish to play in resisting devices like “background briefing by Bush officials?” This is the actual policy question, I believe.
One option: In a public and pro-active approach, Bill Keller, the boss of Times journalism, signs a decree, forbidding his reporters from going to any such briefing. He writes an op-ed about why he took that step, then does a few talk shows—Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer—where he says: “the Times staff is behind me and we’re not going back.”
If you are willing to be pro-active, you just act, then make your case in public so people will know why you acted. Predicting what others in the game will do is no longer a factor. Seizing the argument is.
Think about it: who is going to come forward and make the case for background briefings when Keller makes the public case against? When Jim Lehrer’s staff calls up the White House press operation and asks them to send someone over to defend the practice when Keller goes on the air to denounce it, will they send someone over? My guess is no. And a small point will have been made: that was an indefensible practice. These small points may add up. It is certainly the business of the New York Times to start making them.
But maybe the Times is not ready for a public and pro-active role. “We don’t want to be out front on this…” is a coherent policy, too. If you want to be passive in your approach, then make it Times policy to “discourage” attendance and leave it at that. Nothing changes and you had the benefit of “looking” at it.
- Can we otherwise squeeze more anonymous sources out of our pages? Can we make our attributions (even the anonymous ones) less murky? Are there some stories we can afford to skip if they are not attributable to people with names?
This is either a continuous improvement problem (doing the right things, we just have to do more) or there’s a disconnect between official Times policy—demanding strict reductions in use of anonymous sources—and a plausible Times practice. (See Okrent on it.)
Jack Shafer of Slate, who has tracked the nameless sources story (he calls it the “anonymice”) writes: “Despite the fact that nobody in American journalism professes to like anonymous sources, they keep replicating in newspapers like flesh-eating bacteria.” I would be surprised if some crackerjack game theorists couldn’t help the newsroom think through why this keeps happening, and shed new light on options.
First hurdle always with a subject like this: journalists think they know the subject already. Often this is half their problem. “We already understand the ‘game’ of anonymous sourcing; after all, we’re in it.” A more intelligent attitude would be: there’s something we’re missing because we keep falling into the same trap.
I’m no expert in game theory literature; maybe there are PressThink readers who understand how it applies to the game of news sources, reporters, and the agreements between them.
- Can we encourage writers, in an organized way, to cultivate the respect of our sources by checking back with the people they have interviewed, and making sure they have both words and nuances correct?
One meets them all the time. Journalists who always call sources back and check quotes with them. Many are top flight magazine reporters who meet a very high factual standard. The fear is this gives too much power to the source, who will say something in candor and then try to take it back or fuzz it up. The people who practice quote checking have the same fear, yet they find it doesn’t work that way. The committee should ask them: Why not?
- Is there a systematic way to keep track of the errors we make, and analyze their causes, and make better use of training to reduce their frequency?
If there is, it will probably be found in another industry, not the manufacture of news. Rate of error, being accurate within a range, are big problems in other fields. Maybe those fields have something to say to journalism. Check it out, Siegal Two.
- What are the best practices in our business for accuracy and accountability, and which ones should we adapt or emulate?
No. Best practices period. “In our business” sets the bar too low.
- Should we join the small number of papers that send out random questionnaires after publication, to ask our story subjects what they thought of our accuracy and the civility of their encounter with us?
Can’t hurt to experiment. You might learn something. Journalists, in my experience, like to argue the merits of things based on their savvier-than-thou prediction of what will happen if you try it. In an experimental approach you avoid holy wars based on someone’s anticipation of what will happen. You try something and actually see what happens. Then you modify your aproach, and try again. Simple, right?
- Should we print the writer’s e-mail address at the bottom of each story? Does our practice have to be identical throughout the staff? Can it differ by department? By writer?
Well, if you are still agonizing about this in 2004, it’s probably best to let those who are comfortable with it put their e-mail address in the paper. But stop for a second: will the Times give reporters and writers the help they may need to tame the information tide and get something useful out of a rising IN box?
I think the puzzle is how to help reporters use that more public e-mail address to start pulling in more knowledge. It’s setting up a kick-ass feedback system for them, in which e-mail is only a part. The first reporter to ask for that will be demanding a newsroom innovation. (And the first reporter for a decent-sized newspaper who learns how to use a reader feedback system to improve, guide and correct her reporting is going to be a hero to those who follow.)
Progress on this question will vary in direct proportion to the numer of people on the Times committee who have read and absorbed Dan Gillmor’s We the Media. (See The Guardian’s review.)
- Should we consider an electronic spot-check for plagiarism?
- Should we be responding systematically to outside critics who attack our believability for political or commercial reasons of their own? What is an effective vehicle for doing this? A column by the editor or editors on how we work?
Here, I think the direction is all wrong. Except for the part about the editor having a column. The editor of the New York Times should have a blog, and use it to explain himself and his thinking. (One example.)
In regard to critics…who attack our believability for political or commercial reasons of their own… That happens. Ax grinders will grind their ax. When criticism is totally politicized (which happens) it loses its value. But some critics attack the Times believability because they think they’ve been asked to believe things that aren’t true. To reason from their “motives” does not seem fair, or especially illuminating. All critics have reasons of their own. And partisan critics often make excellent points. As Matt Welch argues, this is because they have the motivation to watch closely.
But seriously: what use does the Times have of these “outside” voices? That’s what I want to know: What does a great newspaper want from its critics in the public-at-large?
Does it want for them to go away?
Does it want for them to be heard?
Does it want them less partisan, more capable of taking an “objective” view?
Does it want them to be better informed about Times journalism?
Do outside critics offer anything of value, in the eyes of Times writers and editors?
Find out what your people think, New York Times. Is the newsroom in a state of “criticism overload” most of time, or does it actually lack for intelligent feedback? And isn’t the handling criticism question related to the being more accurate question?
Before you can start “responding systematically,” it helps to know the answers to questions like these. Siegal:
The membership of the committee is listed below. Our introductory meeting will take place on November 11. We expect to meet for a few weeks, but not in marathon sessions like those of the 2003 Siegal Committee. We’re trying to blend many kinds of expertise. We’ll be grateful to everyone in the newsroom who has an idea to add to the list above, or who is willing to share thinking with the committee members.
Hey, I know this memo wasn’t addressed to me. Yet I’m willing to share thinking with you, New York Times. Add a few ideas to your list. And I like that phrase, “blend many kinds of expertise.” Does it include expert readers?
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links.
Okay, I gave you the memo, and my read on it. Now hit the comment button and give me yours.
More from Matt Welch: New essay in Reason is a must. Biased about Bias: The hunt for ideology becomes an ideology.
Developing hypersensitivity to hidden ideology can easily become a distorting ideology of its own, especially when inconvenient facts, such as journalism’s culture of rejecting overt political agendas, are brushed aside. “It is the tragic story of a ‘mental short circuit,’” Vaclav Havel wrote in a marvelous 1985 essay on a different topic. “Why bother with the never ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth when a truth can be had so readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. Think of all the difficult questions which are answered in advance!”
Chris Geidner reacts to this post at his weblog, Law Dork: “It’s not enough to set up an insiders-only committee and say that you want to improve your accuracy and accountability. The number one way to improve your accountability is to go outside the paper and to the readers, however that might be construed.”
The Washington Post’s Policies on Sources, Quotations, Attribution, and Datelines.
Related: The Chicago Reader’s editorial: Tribune, Explain Yourself.
Long and intricately-constructed essay criticizing PressThink for becoming tedious and “academic,” in the negative sense. From Udolpho.com. To give you the flavor:
Rosen writes in a professorial tone – fair enough, he’s a professor – but if you recall your college lecture courses you might remember the specific variation that professors enjoy using, the “I’ll ask the questions” tone. “I’ll ask the questions” means that we will all acknowledge the essential questioning, challenging, and terribly important nature of the dialogue going on here, but the dialogue’s premise is going to be determined by me and certain obvious questions will simply not be entertained.
There’s more, and this is someone who has PressThink on his blogroll.
Members of Siegal Two: The Accountability Committee
David Barstow, Metro
Dana Canedy, National
Rebecca Corbett, Washington
Steve Crowley, Washington Pictures
Kevin Flynn, Metro
Steve Holmes, Washington
Christine Kay, Investigations
Charles Knittle, Metro
Patrick LaForge, Metro
Mike Leahy, Managing Editor’s Office
Eric Schmitt, Washington
Terry Schwadron, Newsroom Technology
Al Siegal, Chairman
Phil Taubman, Washington
Duff Wilson, Sports
Diane Cardwell, Metro
Fred Andrews (Rapporteur)
The first Siegal Report is here, a pdf file. It would be great to have it in HTML. Update: Done.
Posted by Jay Rosen at November 11, 2004 11:40 PM
Al Siegal, for the Siegal Committee, asks:
Should we be responding systematically to outside critics . . . ?
Jay Rosen's response, in part:
But seriously: what use does the Times have of these "outside" voices? . . . What does a great newspaper want from its critics in the public-at-large? . . . Does it include expert readers?
My response, for what it's worth:
As it so happens, a bunch of us long-time journalist "readers" have been discussing this of late, not just about the Times, but the entire newspaper business.
With circulation falling or flat, the blogs on the rise and the tenor of the political times, taking criticism and dealing with it publicly is a far more important issue to me than the same old bias arguments or the use of anonymous sources, the "anonymice."
If the Times wants to take a stand and not attend background briefings that would at least show some courage, which has been lacking in the press of late, with the exception of the AP's lawsuit to obtain Bush's military records.
Any reporter who has ever covered a serious story related to politics, the military or the intelligence community knows, however, that anonymous sources are sometimes critical. And not just to get a silly background story and beat the competition. We must be able to talk to whistle blowers and others who shed critical light on issues important to the successful functioning of our democracy.
The more important issue is this: Newspapers have long taken the position that they should run critical letters to the editor, for example, with no response.
Getting a response to an e-mail is close to impossible even from the public editor's assistant, and even when the issue being raised is in the attempt to help, not knock the paper or the staff.
Then, papers like the Times have allowed critics such as Rush Limbaugh and others for years to call them "that liberal newspaper," similarly with no response.
I've long disagreed with both of these practices, and even back in the late 1980s tried to make the case against the letters policy when I was being attacked by the right and the military for aggressive environmental reporting on the Gulf Coast.
Environmental Reporting Can Be Hazardous to Your Career
We've always turned the other cheek, when perhaps we should be investigating some of these critics. Jerry Falwell anyone? Pat Robertson?
As for the constructive criticism of readers, maybe they will listen to you, Jay.
Talk about institutional paralysis, today the Times ran a story about social security with a headline saying AARP opposes the Bush plan for private accounts in Social Security, but notes without comment that polling on the word "privatization" has led Republicans to run from it. They additionally note without comment that the AARP has chosen to embrace the Republican framing language.
This seems to be very common in Times articles--editors picking a headline that fundamentally contradicts central elements of the story they run. Any thoughts?
I'm impressed that they at least register the marketing-driven debate over vocabulary, but disappointed that they refuse to explicitly address it as an issue of framing and what it might mean for the AARP to have officially adopted the Republican narrative.
Lastly, note the language of the headline: The Times itself avoids the language Republicans are running from in favor of the language the AARP has just chosen at the behest of the Republican party. The Times itself explicitly adopts the Bush-AARP language for its own headline (a "Bush plan" for "private accounts") even while noting Democratic efforts to keep the story one of "privatization."
The Times adopts the Republican language in their coverage. Could there be a more perfect example of Alterman's fallacy of the "liberal media"? Will the Times ever be able to connect framing issues to their own practice? How hard is that? Are they self-consciously choosing Republican language? It's hard to think otherwise after this article.
"The fight over Social Security, pitting Mr. Bush's vision of an "ownership society" against the Democrats' determination to preserve a cornerstone of the New Deal, is reflected in a battle over the proper terminology.
The White House dislikes the word "privatization,'' which it sees as a misleading and imprecise way to describe Mr. Bush's ideas for Social Security. Democrats insist that the term is accurate.
E-mail messages circulated within AARP in recent weeks indicated that the group would avoid the word whenever possible.
One message, by an editor of an AARP magazine, says, "There is a new forbidden word at AARP: Social Security privatization.''
Another e-mail message, by a manager of its Web site, says, "The term 'privatization' is stricken from our vocabulary forever.''...
The Cato Institute, a libertarian research center, established a Project on Social Security Privatization in 1995, but in 2002 it was renamed the Project on Social Security Choice.
"Republicans in Congress do not like the word 'privatization' because it does not poll well,'' said Michael Tanner, director of the project. "The word polls more poorly than the actual concept, in part because people do not understand what it means.''"
Glynn Wilson's suggestion "perhaps we should be investigating some of these critics [Falwell, Robertson]" sounds like a recipe for ever-greater defensiveness on behalf of the current trajectory of the media. Now that will make me want to read more!
As a reader, I recently e-mailed a reporter at a major newspaper about a vague story regarding multicultural and perhaps theological controversy at a religious seminary. When I asked the obvious questions, he referred me (and I thank him for answering) to the equally superficial public releases by the seminary management.
My concern, as an educated (JD, MA) reader, is this, the superficiality and illogic of typical daily newspaper reporting. In the above example, there were glaring questions about what had happened, why, when, to whom, what was expected to happen next, what were the positions of those accused... The editor or the reporter had apparently allocated no effort to burrowing beneath the vague institutional public pronouncements to learn anything.
This kind of superficiality and failure of intelligent factual inquiry has driven me almost entirely to the internet for information. I read three papers -- NYT, WSJ, local daily -- mostly for local and lifestyle information, and to track the time-lag or spin on breaking stories easier to keep up with via a variety of portals, weblogs, and international journals.
In fact, I Googled the main features of the seminary story and in 5 minutes cobbled together the outlines of the controversy's background. With the kind of access a large newspaper can arrange, the looming questions could have been illuminated in two or three 15-minute interviews, so that the reader would have some ideas about a controversy touching "racism," "pressure to retire," "first [minority] president" "loss of faculty support," "cultural intolerance," "too conservative."
It's the difference between journalism and typing. And between a media establishment that implicitly deplores "racism," and one that succinctly educates the readership, emotionally and intellectually, about human beings grappling with institutional, social, and personal complications.
Well, I've overrun my own column length here, but unless the needs and questions of interested readers are engaged and answered, in close to real time, these crinkling sheets full of vague reports may become, sadly, a diminishing pile at the curb.
What bothers me most about the memo is that it doesn't even mention the number one problem: vacuousness and lack of substance. Take a look at the front page of today's NYT. I see four headlines:
"Bush and Blair Put Mideast and U.S.-Europe Ties Atop Agenda"
- The article is a series of comments from both leaders indicating that they're "committed to democracy in the mideast." No comment about what they actually plan to do. No comment about the decaying relationship between Bush and Blair. No comment about Clinton's past failures or about what is likely to work this time. Just random quotes. The entire thing is completely vacuous.
"Peterson Convicted of Murdering His Pregnant Wife"
- Why is this even on the front page?
"Iraqi Insurgents Shoot Down U.S. Army Helicopter"
- This article contains some straightforward reporting of some of the casualty statistics from the Falluja attacks. It's fine, for what it is.
"Amid Grief and Chaos, Arafat Is Buried in West Bank"
- This article discusses the outpouring of Palestinian grief over Arafat's death. Of the four articles on the front page, this one is the one that comes closest to having some substance, in that it provides strong evidence that some Palestinians feel unhappy about Arafat's death. What would have really made the article useful is if the impressionistic stuff had been followed by some hard poll data: such-and-such percent of the Palestinians are glad that Arafat is gone. Without the hard data, we are left guessing: is it just a few extremists who miss Arafat, or is it the whole population? The article is so close, yet so far.
I feel that if I were to read this newspaper, I wouldn't learn anything except random factoids. Without any larger context, without any larger analysis to tie it all together, it's just sound and fury.
The loss of credibility they're experiencing is much more subtle than they think. The problem isn't that they're making a lot of reporting errors. The problem is that the sheer vacuousness of the paper makes it easy for people to see whatever they love to hate in every article. That's why both liberals and conservatives decry the bias of the paper. It's not bias, it's the fact that the paper is an empty vessel into which you can pour out your frustration.
The first question is: Does the Times want to be more credible, or simply appear that way?
Another question: The Times has long been an active force in politics, using its power as the paper of record to both set the direction of the daily news, and to manipulate reality rather than just reporting it. Does the Times want to become more credible while still wielding that power?
The Times is unusual. It is a paper of record, an agenda setter, for national issues, but it is also a local paper for a liberal area. I would guess that most of its revenues are from local advertising.
Should it cater to the biases of its local community, who presumably loved the anti-Bush crusade it ran all year, or try to be a national paper. Where does revenue considerations alter editorial direction? For example, we know that at Fox News, coverage critical of China is almost completely suppressed - obviously because of Murdoch's interests in China. How about the Times?
The owners could presumably order up an anti-Bush (or whatever) crusade and get one. Are they willing to risk the financial value of their asset in order to use its political clout?
In general, what does it say to have a local newspaper also being a national agenda setter, and why does the rest of the MSM pay so much attention to what the Times is reporting?
Matt Welch tries to deflate the bias narrative, even calling it (improperly) an ideology. But if the MSM remains as biased as it was this year, those on the wrong side of that bias are going to continue to raise hell. And sometimes they will intentionally or unintentionally overreact.In any case, credibility will decline. If the Times is happy with half the country considering them to be politically motivated liars, that's their chosen fate. Their local constituency, who are largely liberal, will continue to buy ads.
One problem with hidden causes of visible results is it leads to theorizing that may be wrong.
I saw nothing in the Times list about correcting bias. The closest was the reference to those (outsiders) acting out of political motives, implying that bias was a problem of others, not the mighty Times.
On some specifics... I cannot imagine dropping the use of anonymous sources, of which the backgrounder is a variant. The sources will find someone else to talk to, and the "responsible" media will be scooped. I cannot imagine the practice ended.
This also brings up a question: should the reporter intentionally avoid learning information? That is what is being suggested. I would think that someone who has a background to fit the new information into would be in a better chance to determine if it was of value. And if the information is presented to the public with the right tag, they could make their own decisions.
Even thought the Times memo is written in terms of "readers' trust" and "readers' demands", JR gets it right when he frames the discussion in terms of the "critics". Its very nice for the Times to make this semi-public commitment to its readers, and certainly there is ground that needs to be retaken before the Times can regain its former stature. These problems are readily solvable by looking to the Times of the past, and by realligning with core journalistic principles. But that process is not the real threat. It is not a good sign when the Times Leadership and staff can't acknowledge, even among themselves, that the Paper of Record is under siege from the Critics on the Right.
Every reader has an interest in seeing more accurate reporting, so that the quality of information imparted can enhance the integrity and influence of the Times and begin to resurrect the paper.
But the timidity of the language of this halting, searching memo speaks to a Times still reeling under a siege mentality, still caving towards its attackers.
Of course they should reaffirm their independence by noisily withdrawing from unsourced administration background briefings. Leave that 15 minute scoop headstart to Fox. Of course track and correct errors, set up and adhere to best business practices, print e-mail contacts, monitor for plagiarism.
But as for the rest, it would be better if the Times regrew its spine.
Take accurate notes and quote accurately. Don't give every source a final edit, a second chance to fuzz up the record. If a reporter can discern a nuance, print it, rather than trying to get a source to endorse "nuance". Madness.
The "questionnaire" might have its place at the Krusty Krab, but it will only be a source of embarrassment and exploitation if sent to story subjects. Much of the memo reflects a weak-kneed need for validation from story subjects. If the Times fluffs and puffs enough, it might be able to say, "You like me! You really like me!" but it would be pablum. It suggests a hollowness at the journalistic core, to look for outside sources for stamps of approval. Print the true story and stick to it, come hell or high water.
If the Times did its job, by definition, that validation would almost never come from story subjects. I don't recall Nixon handing out "I-gotta-give-it-to-you's" to the Washington Post. Forget fairness, recall accuracy and you will also rediscover integrity and authority.
An accurate story will borne out by reality, not by waging a running debate with the critics. The idea of responding to systemic attacks is damn silly. The Times will look defensive, think defensively, and in time, report defensively. The answer to the attacks is not point-counter-point debate; it is accurate and thorough reporting. The attacks are a drumbeat, not a rational argument. And the beat is pitched to an audience that is incapable of hearing any other music.
The idea that the paper would beleive it was "readers" driving the assault is almost pathetic. It isn't even accurate to call the attackers "critics". They were and are political operatives. They have developed sophisticated methods for undercutting the Times. I'd guess that most of these outraged "readers" of the Times, read only those excerpts prepared and dressed up for them by the opposition political machinery. Times debunking is already way beyond a cottage industry. It is churned out by the metric ton, and its bunk.
I find it amusing that here, just like other outlets for liberal thoughts, those on the other side are painted as dupes being fed by political operatives. It's the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy once again. The last paragraph of Mark PcPherson does exactly that.
In the real world, there are stories which a reader will recognize to be biased, or a pattern of stories which is not consistent with accurate and reasonable journalistic practices.
The Times had a huge number of stories on Abu Ghraib - something just under 100 above the fold and a total around 160. Except for the terminally naive, there can be no explanation for this overcoverage except an ag enda- another attempt to attack Bush.
The information could have been delivered in three or four stories. In any objective sense, the story was not that important. It should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Apparently the press was trying to turn it into a symbol of excess under Bush, or something silly like that.
Note that I know of no inaccuracies in the stories. But the vast number of stories made the event significant, setting off a typical scandal game, where leftist politicians hold hearings on an issue important only due to a huge amount of overreporting. Even the beheading of an American, which took place in the middle of all of it, got only a tiny fraction compared to Abu Ghraib story.
I could list many more, but Jay would strangle me.
Those who deny the existence of not only a bias but agendas by the MSM, including the Times, are either naive or disingenuous. With the Times never even admitting this, its credibility goes to zero among
many of us.
Certainly conservatives castigated the media this year, and had the capability to do so through blogs. But that doesn't make bias complainers into fools or dupes.
The tendency of the leftist elite to imply those on the right are idiots except for the evil VRWC leaders is one reason the election was won by the right, and is one reason that the MSM suffered this year. People know when they are being talked down to, and they don't like it.
For the Times to ignore this issue is for it to continue to lose credibility. At some point, it will be seen first as a left-wing attack machine. It can be perfectly accurate and renounce anonymous sources, and it's selection of stories will still cause it to lose credibility.
One thing not covered in the list is how stories are selected for publication, and how their importance is selected. From the above, it's pretty obvious that those processes can lead to a loss of credibility just as much as an incorrect fact in a story.
An observation, and a provisional answer, to the "Does [the NY Times] want [its critics] to go away/be heard?" question, based on an article that squatted on the front page of the Times website all day today.
Imagining that among the "critics" in question, bloggers are toward the top of that category, I think the answer is fairly clearly "No, we don't want them to be heard. Yes, we want them to go away, or at the very least we want to reinforce our own expertise, and that of our expert sources, at their expense."
This from reading the article titled Vote Fraud Theories, Spread by Blogs, Are Quickly Buried by Tom Zeller, Jr. Maybe I'm biased as a reader, but there seems to be a profound, and profoundly self-serving (for the Times) disconnect between this headline and the article that follows. The article's about the black-box voting machine conspiracy theories that have become so popular on a variety of liberal blogs. It contains many citations from electoral and voting-machine experts who say that such theories are essentially crap, it also touches upon the virulence and resilience of these rumors and theories, even in the face of "official" debunkings. The article even goes so far as to quote election officials complaining about how annoying and distressing they find these theories, and the widespread credence that is given to them over the internet. This combined with the consistent implication that e-voting was generally more or less perfect, and isolated anomalies don't mean anything, and bloggers are shoddy journalists for not calling officials up and asking them.
There are several things that are wrong with this, I think:
1) "Quickly buried" is deceptive, dismissive, and not borne out even by what the article says. And if one visits liberal blogs, it's pretty clear that those theories are still kicking. Beyond the blogs, Ralph Nader seems to think enough of the vote fraud theory to have filed suit with the Federal Election Commission to have a manual recount done in New Hampshire, and to pay for it out of his remaining campaign funds. The story, therefore, seems to be more that, despite the experts, vote fraud theories persist, and rather resolutely refuse to be buried. So what gives?
2) If one actually goes out and talks to tech people who know about this stuff, it seems to be a fairly widespread conviction that the Diebold machines are in fact hideously insecure and vulnerable to hacking, which suggests a baseline plausibility that the Times doesn't wish to acknowledge at all. Depends on which experts you ask, doesn't it? This is particularly shameful, I think, because I recall reading an article, I think in September 2003, entitled Report Raises Electronic Vote Security Issues that appeared in the very same paper. So it's not like the vulnerabilities are news to the Times. Well, not if they have any institutional memory. Which is, perhaps, another issue.
Given these two considerations, it makes it hard to look at the "Quickly Buried" article as much more than an anti-blogger hit piece. Granted, Tom Zeller Jr. doesn't seem to be on the Accountability Committee, so maybe he didn't get the memo. But the competitive pressure the Times feels to the blogosphere, and its ongoing antipathy to blogging as an alternate source of news, seems manifest in this article.
Perhaps this should be turned into a moderated discussion of some kind. I tried to convince the Times Web team to make its Web forum that in the beginning but, instead, it's just a wide open platform for angry people to constantly attack the Times. Since it is not a regulated discussion worth following, I rarely go there anymore.
I'm assuming that decision was made on the same basis that writers are never allowed to respond to letters to the editor. Turn the other cheek. Let people have their say. Or, it may be all about the money. The traffic counts in Web advertising rates.
There is an interesting pattern here related to my earlier point. The Times seems quite willing to attack the bloggers on the left, presumably to counter its reputation as "that liberal newspaper." In other words, let's go out of our way for the sake of the appearance of objectivity.
Note Mr. Okrent's aside a couple of columns back that the most "vile" comments he gets come from "the left." (The link is now down or I would provide it.) We'll be watching to see if this continues.
As I wrote near the end of another recent column critical of the local and national press, Mr. Okrent seems to focus on the use of anonymous sources and the liberal bias as if those were the main issues of concern to average readers, presumably because those issues constitute the bulk of his e-mail complaints.
Note to Mr. Okrent: The right-wing attack machine trains its faithful to focus on this. These people do not actually read your newspaper – and never will.
A final related point. There are those who are recommending that the Times take all kinds of measures to show people they are not a "liberal newspaper." This is sort of like those who say the Democratic Party should find ways to express faith as openly as President Bush in the attempt to appeal to "values voters."
If this is where the Times goes, it will lose, as The Nation recently wrote on the subject: If Democrats Fight for Alabama, They Will Lose
Right question: Why is the liberal media so mainstream?
I think the answer is obvious. There's plenty of conservative media: Limbaugh, the Washington Times, etc. The problem for conservatives is that their media outlets have not managed to achieve an aura of respectability. I think there might be an obvious reason for that, but I'm not going to go there.
I almost choked when I read this. The left has all the major dailies, the three broadcast networks, CNN and NPR, and Hollywood which puts political messages into its product.
The Right has the Washington Times and Fox.
And you think the Times is reacting to the right?
Just for fun, try explaining why left wing talk radio is such a failure (except for a few cases in deep blue states).
Re: The Times and Swifties. As a Vietnam Vet who was active in a sister organization to the SBVT and provided SBVT with some media analysis, it was clear to me that the media did its best to ignore the organization entirely. The Swifties didn't just pop up in August, they held a press conference in May that should have been a major storie (all of Kerry's commanders and their commanders up the chain of command to and including the legendary Admiral Zumwalt claimed he was unfit to serve). They timed it with the hope of knocking Kerry out of the primaries, since a number of them were Democrats and wanted a different Democrat nominee (because of their knowledge of Kerry). That press conference was essentially ignored.
I have previously hashed out behere various details about the pathetic coverage the bias against the SBVT before. I won't do it again here. The Times' chart was misleading at least, in that the ties that existed were not exercised - they were historical (if they had been, they would have been felonious).
There were a whole lot of stories that had an anti-Bush bias: Bush's National Gguard service, the lack of investigation of Kerry's history (hint: he got a less than honorable discharge from the Navy, and he had to revise dates in his biography on his website when he published part of is Navy records, the press never pressed him to release the rest of his records), overemphasis on Abu Ghraib (Times ran something like 160 stories). Anyone who wants to debate this can go here to avoid cluttering Jay's blog.