Tuesday, May 10, 2005

DON'T QUOTE THEM. An internal report (PDF file) released this week by a New York Times committee chaired, inevitably, by assistant managing editor Allan Siegal is sensible and unstartling, so much so that it has not gotten a huge amount of attention. The most extensive piece I've seen appeared in the Times itself yesterday.

In today's Boston Globe, Mark Jurkowitz has an interview with executive editor Bill Keller about the most provocative part of the report - a suggestion that the Times speak out more aggressively when its editors believe the paper has been unfairly attacked. And the Boston Herald runs an editorial today arguing that the Times is taking too self-righteous a stance with regard to "background briefings," whereby government officials brief reporters on the condition that they not be identified.

Anonymous sources are one of those facts of journalistic life that everyone seems to think are somehow bad, but that no one is willing to give up. Slate's Jack Shafer has been a particularly harsh critic of what he calls "anonymice." Personally, I've never quite seen what the problem is.

Shafer, as a media reporter, must know more than most that it's all but impossible to report candidly on a news organization - especially one that's in trouble - if you refuse to rely on unnamed sources. Indeed, I've seen sources I've quoted anonymously turn around and give on-the-record quotes to other reporters that were 180 degrees different from what they told me. And I guarantee you that I was the recipient of the more candid assessment.

Still, think tanks produce stacks of surveys showing that the public doesn't trust anonymous sources, and for that reason alone it makes sense to try harder to put quotes on the record whenever possible. I took a shot at it just this past weekend, running a quote by a congressional staffer I had interviewed on background and asking him if I could identify him. No dice. But I tried.

It's too bad that Jay Rosen is away, because I would like to see what he has to say about the Siegal report's recommendation that the Times interact with readers through a blog. Not a revolutionary idea - but a good one.

RELEASE THE GARGOYLES. You will not find a more repellent depiction of human dysfunction than Times reporter Kate Zernike's piece today on the twisted romance of Charles Graner and Lynndie England.

4 comments:

James Mattoon Scott said...

Being NYC born and bred, the Times has been a part of my life for over 50 years. It was used as much as any textbook in Civics and Current Events; it defined to us why Ike opted not to respond in Hungry. The cites would fill a hard drive.

That the Times has become meek under relentless attack is a given, and there has been a real decline in standards in the personnel. Its survivial, true with all newspapers, relies in it regaining its unwavering eye to the greater truth, not the wishy-washy attempt at "balance."

Steve Robinson said...

The NYT has been a standard bearer in the decline of American political journalism, IMO. Their scandalous, unprofessional behavior as recounted in Fools for Scandal (Conason & Lyons) regarding Whitewater, etc., and their surreal coverage of Gore in 2000 as documented at dailyhowler.com (Somerby) have resulted in complete incredibility. Jayson Blair died for your sins.

Anonymous said...

To add to what Steve Robinson said, there's the issue of Judith Miller's stenography on the WMD issue.

Wes said...

The decline in American journalism is rooted in the first 100 days of Reagan. The assassin's bullet did not kill Reagan, but muted and neutered a press that was falsely accused of being antiRR.

In that period of time the GOP love affair with shifting burdens to the states while raising taxes, seeing how debt can create an illusion of wealth while rotting the federal system at the core, was born.

I was there and remember it well. Of course, the chronic failures, frauds, and deceits forthcoming titillated some visionaries, but the collapse had started; there was no turning back.