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Saturday, October 09, 2004

Memo to Mr. Okrent, in response to your latest NYT column on media bias and performance

TO: Daniel Okrent, Public Editor of the New York Times
FROM: William J. Dyer (a/k/a Beldar)
RE: Your latest column

Mr. Okrent, you clearly are a bright and articulate man, and one who's possibly in a job that no single human being could perform adequately.  I think you understand and aspire to the concept of fairness in journalism.  And so I am genuinely sad — for you, for what used to be America's "newspaper of record," and for the public — that you could write a column like the one that appears in Sunday's NYT entitled "How Would Jackson Pollock Cover This Campaign?"  How can a man with a keen enough sense of irony to write this sentence —

A definition of irony: what an ombudsman or public editor must appreciate to survive this campaign.

— then blithely follow it only a few paragraphs later with this one?

Those readers who long for the days of absolutely untinted, nothing-but-the-facts newspapering ought to have an Associated Press ticker installed on the breakfast table.

The Associated Press?!?  Oh, Mr. Okrent, that is indeed laugh-out-loud funny!  How very badly you miss the point. 

The American public will accept less than "absolutely untinted, nothing-but-the-facts newspapering"; there probably has never been such a thing in practice anyway.  But what we're hoping for — and the reason we're so, so disappointed in the New York Times and the mainstream media — is that we don't get "minimally-respectful-of-the-facts newspapering," sir.  We don't get it from the New York Times, and we certainly don't get it from the Associated Press or CBS News.  And we don't want an AP ticker on our breakfast tables — we've got internet-connected PCs, sir, that work far better than a ticker or a teletype from any mainstream media source, or even than a cable- or satellite-TV remote control.

As a consumer of news from multiple sources, sir, and an active member of one of the "new media," the blogosphere, I'm keenly aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of the new media.  One thing we do very well indeed — and yes, I recognize that it's making your job hell, sir — is identify and spotlight the shortcomings of the mainstream media. 

Another thing we do is energize and facilitate the competitive marketplace among mainstream media outlets, so that — to pick an example — when Michael Dobbs of WaPo does a decent job of investigative reporting regarding the events surrounding John Kerry's Bronze Star and Purple Heart-winning activities on the Bay Hap River on 13Mar69, we can ensure that his work gets far more public attention and scrutiny than even WaPo can give it.

But then, sir, when Mr. Dobbs (or his WaPo editors) point him in different directions, toward other stories — instead of following up on the unfollowed leads he's identified that scream for further such investigative reporting — we new media types are stuck, or nearly so.  The Kerry campaign or Kerry historian Doug Brinkley  won't return phone calls from Beldar of BeldarBlog.  The White House doesn't answer email from Josh Marshall.  A particularly enterprising blogger like the one who writes INDC Journal may succeed in waylaying a CBS News correspondent on a Washington street for an impromptu interview about CBS News; a talk radio host may unwittingly set up (and unfortunately, in this particular example, bungle) an on-air confrontation between two key, competing eyewitnesses to the SwiftVets controversies.  But those are, frankly, exceptions.  Mainstream media still have access that new media lack.

So new media, and the public, still need mainstream media to do their fundamental jobs, Mr. Okrent — just to get the facts reported, and reported correctly.  And mainstream media — and very prominently among them, your employer, Mr. Okrent — still need you to do your job, and very frankly, to do it better than you are now.

Consider, Mr. Okrent, a correction like this one in tomorrow's NYT:

Because of an editing error, the What's Doing column on Sept. 26, about Honolulu, misstated the number of rooms at the Halekulani hotel, as did the picture caption. It is 455, not 155.

Your newspaper (and by extention, the mainstream media) cares about correcting the number of hotel rooms in a resort hotel.  But then — after the NYT got wrong, on three successive days, the identities of the parties with whom young John Kerry met when he traveled to Paris in 1970-1971, and then finally issued a belated correction — the Los Angeles Times, days later, makes the exact same error (also belatedly corrected)!  And then neither the NYT or the LAT does any investigative reporting at all about the bigger question of whether young Kerry went to Paris to meet with our nation's wartime enemies more than once!

I'm not talking here about shading, spin, or unconscious bias, sir.  I'm talking about consistenly getting important facts wrong, and simply never getting a great many obviously important facts at all

Finally, sir, I am sympathetic to the slings and arrows you endure.  I admire your courage in admitting, as a self-professed Kerry voter next month, the following:

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.

I won't ask my readers to say in public the sort of things you reference, but will continue to ask them instead not to be vile.  And I will continue to urge them to voice — in a civil manner — their concerns to you, Mr. Okrent.  I think you want to do a good job.  But with due respect, sir, you're badly underestimating the size and the shape of the problem you have to tackle.  You and your employer and your profession need help, sir.  And you need it, it seems, more than you yet know.  Will you please recognize that, and ask for more help (from outside and inside) — and then accept it?

Posted by Beldar at 11:37 PM in Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink

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Comments

(1) CERDIP made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 12:08:54 AM | Permalink

Well done!

A minor observation: too many 'sir's, unless of course, it was your intention to visibly lay it on really thick.

(2) Lee Shore made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 1:07:49 AM | Permalink

I am finally in despair over the NY Times. I've read it for 30 years and while its editorials were always left/liberal (so I never read them), its news pages were more circumspect.

Alas, no longer. This year The Times has become the house organ of the Democratic National Committee and the news poodle of the Kerry Kampaign. One small thing: Check out their choice of photos of President Bush. Almost all of them show him with his mouth open, an unflattering pose for anyone. The editorializing in the news articles has become blatant and insufferable.

The Washington Post is a model of (almost) neutral rectitude in comparison.

(3) Norman Rogers made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 7:56:00 AM | Permalink

Beldar, here's a letter you might write to Mr. Okrent:

Mr. Okrent, show us your work.

The absurdity of Mr. Okrent's column is this distillation:

I've been reading The Times's campaign coverage like any other interested (and, by now, exhausted) citizen for months, but with special care, a pair of scissors, two marking pens and three other papers to use for comparison since Labor Day ... I'll be voting for John Kerry next month and will further admit that I have bent over backward to listen to pro-Bush complaints, in a conscious effort to counterbalance my own prejudices ... Here's the question for a public editor: Is The Times systematically biased toward either candidate? No.

1. How long has Mr. Okrent been on the job? And when did he start to take seriously (enuff to actually read the newpaper) the complaints that the NYT's political coverage was BIASED? A month ago? So, even if Mr. Okrent's right, he gives the NYT's a pass on the last year-and-a-half.

2. Mr. Okrent now admits to doing "real" research -- reading the newspaper and cutting out and marking what he thinks are "biased" articles. And he concludes that the NYT is "even-handed".

OK, hotshot, SHOW US YOUR WORK. Publish the articles you clipped (or give us working links to them) so that we can assess YOUR work. And show us the articles from "three other papers" you used as your yardstick. Let's see what you picked up on and what slipped passed you. Give US the opportunity to evaluate YOU.

(4) Steve Teeter made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 12:25:01 PM | Permalink

You know, when I read the passage you started off with -- "Those readers who long for the days of absolutely untinted, nothing-but-the-facts newspapering ought to have an Associated Press ticker installed on the breakfast table." -- I said to myself, now just what the hell does that mean? Did he mean, put the AP ticker on your table and you will get unbiased reporting? Or did he mean, look hard at AP and you'll see that even the primary sources are so biased there's little us mere newspapers can do?

If the NYT ombudsman can't clearly convey such an important point, things are not good.

(5) Kerry Hogan made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 1:31:30 PM | Permalink

My weekly library stop begins always with the new books section. There I found titles I knew, The Journey Up, Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marines, for example. One Saturday I picked up and quickly put back a book whose title I forget, but was a compilation of stories about combat in Iraq. When I saw that it was by author(also I can't recall) and other reporters from The New York Times, I simply did not believe I would find it credible. A wild mushroom I would not chance.

(6) Fred Z made the following comment | Oct 10, 2004 7:11:02 PM | Permalink

1. Journalism is not a profession.
2. Okrent is neither intelligent nor honest.
3. Journalism is NOT a profession.

(7) jayne donaghue made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 7:18:10 AM | Permalink

Great letter. Good job. It will not open his eyes at all, but everything you said is so true. It's sad to watch the demise of the New York Times, but it is also exciting to see the emergence of a more comprehensive source for getting news and opinions taking shape. The New York Times, CBS and other newspapers have been shown to be The Emperor With No Clothes-which will one day possibly explain how Hillary became a Senator in N.Y., and will continue to have many sheeple accepting their word for truth, but the alternatives for thinking people are also out there now.

(8) Nomorelies made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 11:09:54 AM | Permalink

The journalists of the mainstream media, CBS, ABC, LA Times, New York Times and Associated Press have been exposed as partisans. I think there may be more truth coming from the National Enquirer.

(9) LazyMF made the following comment | Oct 11, 2004 1:38:25 PM | Permalink

CERDIP, when a gentleman from Texas is mad at you and dressing you down, you will be called "Sir" many times. Will likely fall on deaf East Coast ears however.

Reminds me of a joke ed-ju-mi-cated Texans like to tell:

Jim Bob aced the SAT and enrolled at Harvard. When he arrived on campus, he stopped a passerby and asked, "Sir, can you tell me where the library's at?"

The Harvard student, fresh out of his boarding school, sneered and replied, "At Harvard we do not end our sentences in prepositions."

Joe Bob paused and said, "I'm sorry, Sir. Can you tell me where the library's at, a**hole?"

(10) Mikey made the following comment | Oct 13, 2004 3:23:12 PM | Permalink

A very Johnsonian post, Sir. I congratulate you

(11) judy murphy made the following comment | Oct 14, 2004 12:54:18 AM | Permalink

i enjoyed reading all the comments. I wrote the nytimes opinion page and received a reply that they were considering it for publication, and not to contact them. It was ofcourse, not ever run. I knew then they were thin skinned beyond belief, because my little piece was funny and only poking fun at them. Where i come from, their attitude is called "all hat and no cattle".

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