Does the New York Times Have Standards?

by Brien Jackson

Clark Hoyt is the omsbudman at The New York Times, a fact which may explain why the intellectual standards of that paper have slipped so badly. Given the recent criticism and scandals surrounding the paper, it was inevitable that Hoyt would weigh in, and his effort is both infuriating, but at the same time telling of the way elite media thinks about both itself and its critics, as Hoyt strikes a dismissive tone right from the beginning. This is the column’s opening:

IT has been a busy week or two for the ethics police — those within The Times trying to protect the paper’s integrity, and those outside, ready to pounce on transgressions by Times journalists.

Did you catch that? If your concerned about the intellectual standards of prominent writers and the influential corporations that publish them, you’re the “ethics police,” which I suppose is sort of like the grammar police. It’s an incredibly dismissive way to treat critics that more than implies that you don’t really take them, or their criticism, seriously. And the rest of the column flows in essntially the same manner, as Hoyt is arrogant, dismissive, defensive, and downright misleading throughout. Here’s how Hoyt addresses McMegan’s recent reporting that Times business writer Edmund Andrews omitted the very relevant facts of his wife’s poor financial history and his own prior tenuous footing from his book detailing his struggle with subprime mortages:

Andrews is an excellent reporter who explains complex issues clearly. There are plenty of them to cover without assigning him to those that could directly affect whether he keeps his own house. He is too close to that story.

He can’t be too cautious. On Thursday, he came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.

Here’s Brad Delong’s response, which I basically agree with 110%:

  1. “a weblogger” has a name: Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Monthly. She deserves credit for her work.
  2. “a weblogger” has a reputation–a considerably better reputation at this point than Clark Hoyt or the New York Times, I believe. When something appears attached to Megan McArdle, I know that she is smart, has worked hard, and is trying her best to get the story right. Readers deserve to know who Clark Hoyt is pitting himself and his organization against so that they can make their own assessments of credibility. I know that Megan McArdle tries (if not always succeeds). I don’t know about the reporters and editors of the New York Times–indeed, I know that at times they work hard to get the story wrong, witness Elizabeth Bumiller, “1 in 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad”.
  3. At the time when Hoyt wrote he knew or ought to have known that Patrica Berreiro’s second bankruptcy discharged $29,000 in family loans, $7997.25 in lawyers’ bills, $3604 in telecommunications bills, $9065 in medical bills, $5377 in credit-card debt, $188 in veterinary bills, and $83 in fines from the Los Angeles Public Library. To write that it “involved an old loan from a family member” is remarkably incomplete.
  4. Megan McArdle’s point is that dysfunctions in mortgage lending have next to nothing to do with Edmund Andrews’s personal financial crisis. The crisis comes from the radical disjunction between the style of life Andrews and his wife expect and Andrews’s income–$10,000 a month, $3,500 in taxes, $4,000 (in the book; $5,000 in the bankruptcy filing) in alimony and child support, leaving $2,500 a month to live on for all expenses. If Andrews hadn’t bought his house in Silver Spring he would, McArdle believes, be in a worse financial position right now–for one thing, his landlord would have evicted him. I think she is probably right, and that Patricia Berreiro’s second bankruptcy is telling evidence for McArdle’s position. Hoyt’s claim that “I think it was clear that [Andrews] and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no” appears to me to be a deliberate attempt to miss the entire point.

I would just highlight the way in which Hoyt defers to what Andrews claims to be the case, without so much as noting that his claims have been disputed. You only do that if you’re trying to mislead your readers. Period.

Hoyt then moves on to the Maureen Dowd plagiarism issue:

I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.

Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, said journalists collaborate and take feeds from each other all the time. That is true with news articles, but readers have a right to expect that even if an opinion columnist like Dowd tosses around ideas with a friend, her column will be her own words. If the words are not hers, she must give credit.

Let’s unpack that for a second; Hoyt thinks writers must give credit for words that are not their own, which Dowd did not, but he doesn’t “think” that Maureen Dowd plagiarized Josh Marshall. But of course, passing off someone else’s words as your own without citation is the very definition of plagiarism. This is nothing more than an instance of argument-by-denying-English, a rather strange thing for a print journalist to do. It’s entirely possible that Dowd unintentionally plagiarized Marshall, but unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism, and to make such an assumption you have to concede that Dowd plagiarized Marshall by definition.

The larger point here is simply to note that, in addressing some legitimate issues that have come up recently, Hoyt does the reading public a great service. Not because he’s keeping journalists honest or looking out for the ethical and intellectual standards of the paper, but because it’s plainly obvious that the point of the column is to dismiss, denigrate, and white-wash the criticisms leveled at the Times, and to “defend” the corporation by sheer spin.

Very Serious People these are.

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