Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, August 29, 2005

Still Confused at the New York Times, but Less So


      The New York Times regularly ignores its rules for reporting accurately and objectively.  Very few of its editors seem to care.

At Length:

      I refer to Byron Calame, in his column of August 14th , reprinted in full here.

      So, what does Mr. Calame have to say?  There's a lot of stuff about stringers, and why the Times uses them, which mostly acts as padding.  There's also stuff only of interest to people at the Times (the employees would like the money spent on them, instead of cheaper stringers).

      Eventually, substance:
      The committee created to review the paper's ethics and other policies in the wake of the Jayson Blair ordeal expressed concern about the freelance process.  "The hiring of stringers has been haphazard, ranging from a thorough evaluation process to the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend method," the committee reported in July 2003.  It said freelancers "should sign a statement that they have read and fully understand our ethics policy."  So language was added to the standard contract for freelancers that commits them to comply with all the policies in the paper's 54-page Ethical Journalism handbook, which is also online.

      So, they sign the statement, then they take test online, and if they flunk, they're out forever, right?  Wrong.  They sign the statement, but no effort is made to check whether they actually read the standards, much less understand them.  The Times has no idea whether its stringers are honest and competent, and doesn't care.  There's a real problem, but the Times doesn't seem to be aware of it.
     The risks of a freelance operation that depends too much on harried editors are easily apparent.  Random checks with eight new and existing freelancers in recent days found none of them had bothered to look at the ethical guidelines to which they had pledged compliance.  Also, none reported that the editor who had recruited them called their attention to the guidelines.  (I decided not to name the freelancers in this column.)

      "I can't say anybody told me anything," one new contributor told me.  When another new freelancer received his contract, he recalled, the editor "just told me to hurry up and fax it back."

      As near as I can interpret the "harried editors" line, it means the Times doesn't hire enough editors to do their job competently, or perhaps that despite much of what they say, the Times is more interested in getting something printed now, rather than getting the story straight.  Either explanation is contrary to what the Times says its standards are.  The hypocrisy thus revealed is another problem the "newspaper of record" seems unaware of.  Calame, to his credit, writes about this, but he ought to explicitly condemn it.  That he doesn't shows him shirking his job.

      One of the freelancers with several Times articles to his credit recently used a pejorative quotation from an anonymous source that ran afoul of one of The Times's guidelines -- as was duly noted in a subsequent editors' note in the paper.  "The Times's policy does not permit the granting of anonymity to confidential news sources 'as cover for a personal or partisan attack,"' the note said.

      The freelancer acknowledged to me, "I should have known the rules.  Technically, I should have gone to the Web and read the rules."

      All true, but the fact that the freelancer thinks of the rules as technicalities is a symptom of a much deeper and more important problem.  So is the fact that the story's editor let a perjorative comment through in the first place, much less one with an anonymous source.

      One of the new freelancers who just turned in his first article -- about a drug-resistant strain of staphylococcus infection -- recounted his recruitment for me. When he pitched the idea to the health editor for the Science Times section, the editor carefully asked if he had "any advocacy ties."  He had explained he was on the staff of Housing Works, a New York-based organization that operates thrift shops to help it assist homeless people with H.I.V. or AIDS.  After checking with the paper's standards editor, the assignment editor told him he had been cleared to do the article.

      When I did a couple of basic Web searches, I quickly discovered that the freelancer had been publicly involved in advocacy efforts on AIDS issues at Housing Works.  I brought this to the attention of the assigning editor and Allan M. Siegal, the standards editor, on Tuesday.  The next day, Mr. Siegal decided the article would not be published.  Doing a personal post-mortem in an e-mail message to me, the assigning editor suggested she should have learned more about Housing Works so she could have provided the standards editor with "enough information for him to make a careful decision."

      I think this means that the standards editor can't be bothered to do any research before clearing an article, which I think is a big problem.  And just what is the problem here?  There's no necessary conflict between advocacy for homeless sick people, and reporting on a drug resistant infection.  I'm rather more worried about the reporter who has strong opinions that slant a story, but never reveals them.

      Still, this is Calame's best column so far.  If nothing else, it reveals just how far from its ideal of objectivity and accuracy the Times is.



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