So putting aside whether or not that New York Times reporter is the major-league asshole George Bush and Dick Cheney say he is, let’s look at the bigger questions. Is there a nest of assholes over on West 43rd Street-and if so, what kind of assholes? Is the paper reliable? Does it get the spelling of names, the ages and the addresses right? Does it get the big stories straight? Does it get hornswoggled because its reporters are saving on shoe leather? Can you trust it? Is its ratio of hits and errors what it was 15 years ago or 25 years ago? Is the paper edited and administered with the same rigor, the same unyielding standards of accuracy, completeness and precision that once distinguished it? Should saying “I read it in The Times ” still be allowed to end the conversation?
Major institutions often enjoy high reputations years after they no longer deserve them. Many people, for example, are under the impression that Brown University is still a place of learning. Until just the other day, Firestone was a brand people thought they could depend on. The same holds true for certain opera companies, museums, airlines and hotels which sail happily on thanks to what they were a generation ago.
The reverse may also be true. If you say that The National Enquirer is as faultlessly accurate a publication as there is in the United States, you’ll get a chuckle in response from your interlocutor. Few are those who’ve chanced to compare the performance of The Enquirer with the mainstream media, as they call themselves. During the O. J. Simpson period of American life, while every respectable news outlet, The Times included, published rumor, gossip and fancy, The Enquirer got it right every time. We need a Zagat for major institutions to bring us up to date on what they’re doing now, not what they used to be.
How far The New York Times has slipped from being an authoritative journal is revealed in the following correction, which appeared in the paper on Aug. 29: “A front-page article on Aug. 19 and a brief report on Aug. 20 in The Week in Review about the sighting of open water at the North Pole misstated the normal conditions of the sea ice there. A clear spot has probably opened at the pole before, scientists say, because about 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean is clear of ice in a typical summer. The reports also referred incompletely to the link between the open water and global warming. The lack of ice at the pole is not necessarily related to global warming.”
The original Aug. 19 story was a sky-is-falling alarmist lulu. And it had enormous impact. John Noble Wilford, the reporter whose name appeared above the story, probably should be sent back to J-school, but reporters aren’t responsible for what appears in newspapers. Editors are. They are the middle managers of journalism, and they seem to have melted down at The Times .
At one time, the newspaper’s copy desk was legendary. Every story was treated to word-by-word scrutiny. I remember covering stories with people from The Times and looking on as the copy desk would call back five, 10, 15 times because this or that couldn’t be verified or didn’t smell right. Twenty years ago, Mr. Wilford’s story would not have been printed in that newspaper. It simply couldn’t have happened.
The degree of editorial slippage is revealed in this correction, which appeared in The Times on Sept. 6:
“A front-page article on Aug. 29 and an editorial on Sunday about a falloff in support for the Boy Scouts because of their exclusion of gays misstated two cities’ reactions to the ban. Chicago no longer lets the Boy Scouts use parks, city buildings and schools without charge. The public schools of San Francisco no longer sponsor Scout recruitment drives or other programs during school hours. The Scouts are not barred from using parks, schools and other sites.
“The article also misstated the timing of those restrictions. They began before the Supreme Court upheld the ban in June, not afterward.
“The article also cited one city erroneously among those that bar the Scouts from their facilities. Although one San Jose elementary school district, Alum Rock Union, does not permit recruiting or other Scout programs during school hours, the ban is attributed to demands on instructional time, not to the Scouts’ policy.
“The article also misstated the number of United Way organizations that have stopped raising funds for the Scouts. It is about a dozen, not dozens.
“In addition, the article misstated the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on the ordination of gays. Ordination requires a promise to live a celibate life. While the church condemns homosexual activity, it does not have a policy against ordaining gay men.”
How many errors can one reporter pack into a single story? The byline belongs to one Kate Zernike, about whom The Times’ correction has naught to say. Is she a summer intern? An affirmative action hire? An asshole? Whatever or whoever she may be, there was a time when the newspaper wouldn’t have let a reporter who displayed such talents cover a fender-bender on the Major Deegan.
Nevertheless, the fault is not hers. It belongs to those who supervise her. How could whoever assigned this politically charged story have given it to one of such apparently circumscribed talent? You don’t, as the reworked old saying goes, send a girl out to do a woman’s job. And, as in the North Pole story, what happened to The Times ‘ copy editors? Were they in a room off the news floor getting in touch with their feelings? Where was middle management?
If the newspaper had gone out of its way to reinforce certain opinions that are gathering up around it, there was no better way than to print an erroneous story like that one. One dares only whisper it, but an increasing number of people are saying that the newspaper has taken it upon itself to serve the interests of homosexual politics; but more injurious to The Times is that error about the Roman Catholic Church’s ordination policy. The incorrect assumption works to buttress the belief that the newspaper’s vaunted respect for diversity doesn’t include Roman Catholicism.
The decline in the newspaper’s quality is not limited to the botched and mangled. There is, for example, the newspaper’s frequent use of report or study stories. Every small- and big-time organization, pressure group, vested interest and think tank has learned that papers like The Times will not print straight press releases, but will print press releases gussied up as studies and reports. All major media fall for this sucker play, but The Times was, once upon a time, a newspaper that controlled its own pages by checking it out. Since most of these studies and reports are the repackaging of old, tired and already suspect data, there is no reason to print them-least of all in a paper like The New York Times .
Although The Times has-from outward appearance, at least-retooled itself for this up-to-date, buzz-buzz age, the paper is now larded with meandering, verbose stories in which the lead is buried somewhere below paragraphs of secondary human interest. The other day, The Times ran a story under this hackneyed headline: “Autumn of Teachers’ Discontent Is Dawning.”
The story was about the demands of teachers’ unions in big cities around the country. Instead of saying so at the top, the story began with a soft human-interest lead, datelined Boston: “Minutes before the fourth-period bell rang, Kathy Aborn, a computer sciences teacher at East Boston High, laid into school district officials about their contract offer, saying the city’s teachers were dead serious in threatening to go on strike next month.
“‘I think their offer is pitiful,’ she said. ‘They’re trying to take away the few extra privileges we have.'”
This kind of long-way-around-the-barn human-interest lead, once anathema at the paper, is O.K. occasionally, but The Times is besotted by soft leads that force busy readers on their way to Wall Street and the law courts to skim through paragraphs of secondary fluff to get to the point of the thing. For the crisp and reliable imparting of important and necessary information, the style leaves everything to be desired because it invites muzziness, confusion and imprecision. That’s why serious publications-such as The Wall Street Journal -use it very sparingly.
The press watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and a raft of others have raised questions about the role The Times played in the treatment of Wen Ho Lee, the government scientist who was held in solitary confinement for nine months and then released without so much as a howdee-do after being forced to plead guilty to the equivalent of a parking ticket. Did the paper, or some of its reporters and editors, trade exclusive stories in return for carrying the water for one faction or another inside the government?
The stink over the Wen Ho Lee coverage reached the point that, on Sept. 26, The Times abandoned the glacial silence practiced by all American daily newspapers in the face of their goof-ups and printed a statement containing the traditional journalistic claims to infallibility, a few snarly how-dare-you’s, and some thoughtful self-second-guessing. Herewith are a few of the more interesting sentences in the statement:
“The Times’s stories, echoed and often oversimplified by politicians and other news organizations, touched off a fierce public debate.… The article, however, had flaws that are more apparent now that the weaknesses of the F.B.I. case against Dr. Lee have surfaced.… In place of a tone of journalistic detachment from our sources, we occasionally used language that adopted the sense of alarm that was contained in official reports and was being voiced to us by investigators, members of Congress and administration officials with knowledge of the case.… There are articles we should have assigned but did not. We never prepared a full-scale profile of Dr. Lee, which might have humanized him and provided some balance. Some other stories we wish we had assigned in those early months include a more thorough look at the political context of the Chinese weapons debate.…” Two days later, the paper elaborated on its self-assessment: ” … with the benefit of hindsight, we find that we too quickly accepted the government’s theory that espionage was the main reason for Chinese nuclear advances and its view that Dr. Lee had been properly singled out as the prime suspect.”
Give the paper its due for trying to explain itself to its reading public in its fuzzy, fumbling, contradictory way. Nevertheless, its integrity is in question-not because it is suspected of having been penetrated by this or that outside political group, but because it isn’t getting the job done.