Saturday, December 18, 2004

What's news? The New York Times seems confused Saturday

The same readers who complained about Alex Berenson's "An Industry in Poor Health" [see]
also sought to compare and contrast it with Gardiner Harris's "Drug Trial Finds Big Health Risk in 2nd Painkiller" ( which, they felt, did the job of "news analysis" that Berenson's article failed at.

Susan Sach's "Europe Bloc Says Turks Can Apply; Long Road Seen" is news and belongs on the front page. Marc Lacey's "In Congo War, Even Peacekeepers Add to Horror" is news. It may fall into the pattern of UN bashing, but it's also news. Marc wonders if "Judy Miller's so busy with promoting herself as the victim of an out of control judiciary that she's handed over her UN bashing kit to Marc Lacey who seems to be pulling liberally from Miller's bag of tricks."

I don't enjoy the details in the story, but if true, they are news. "San Quentin Debate" might seem like news (by Dean E. Murphy" deserving of the front page until you bump up against the second part of the title "Death Row vs. Bay Views." That's correct. This is a beautification debate that ignores the whether "death row" itself is "beautiful" enough to belong in our modern society? Instead, we're focused on what upsets the landscape -- not in terms of the environment, but in terms of the view. Aesthetics are important but they don't strike me as front page news when we're not even dealing with such factors as the continued desire to build additions onto existing prisons or the construction of new ones.

What is news? How about John F. Burns' "Iraq's Election, Its Outcome Murky, Is Seen as a 'Jungle of Ambiguity" (

With the Janurary 30th election looming, Burns is on the ground in Iraq trying to provide readers with a picture of what might happen (speculation, granted) but this issue, the impending election in a country we chose to go to war with, is inside the paper news? This doesn't qualify as front page news?

The election, the official said, was the most ambitious democratic exercise ever attempted in an Arab country, one in which 14 million eligible Iraqis will choose from more than 7,700 candidates seeking seats in a provisional national assembly, 18 provincial councils and a regional Kurdish parliament. He invited comparisons with a clumsily rigged referendum two years ago, when Mr. Hussein declared himself re-elected president with 100 percent of his countrymen's 12 million votes.

And Burns doesn't just say "official." This isn't "executive" that might or might not be a "real estate executive" (as we saw this week in the Kerik 'love nest' Times article) or the usual "administration sources" or "administration officials."

Burns fleshes it out as much as possible "a senior Western official with decades of Middle East experience" while noting that this official is "guarded by the anonymity commonly demanded when reporters are briefed in the Green Zone command compound here." Whether you agree that the official should or should not by left unnamed, you're given some detail about the anonymous source -- detail that is too often missing in most Times' articles.

And on the ground, outside the Green Zone?

The only rally so far was held Friday at a Baghdad sports stadium, where 2,000 Communist Party supporters, their ranks decimated under Mr. Hussein, met to chant slogans that would have provoked executions before his downfall.
Otherwise, the only sign in the capital of an impending election have been giant posters showing the country's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and his recent decree declaring it a religious duty for all Shiites to vote.
. . .
When the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, began his campaign on Wednesday with an appearance with members of his slate at a Baghdad sports club, the Americans who form the core of his security team judged the risks so great that they ordered a large area of central Baghdad closed to traffic for several hours.

I'd say we're in the front page territory but that's my opinion.

Stephanie Strom's front page "A.C.L.U.'s Search For Data on Donors Stirs Privacy Fears" ( is distrubing. More than any other organization, the A.C.L.U. should not be participating in data mining. If they wanted information on donors, they could ask. They're probably aware that most donors would refuse to answer inquiries about their personal information and the A.C.L.U. should respect that and not go through a third party to data mine.

They have no response to the Times' article posted on their web site. If they do post a response, we'll be happy to link to it. The A.C.L.U. does strong work and is a positive force in our society. That doesn't change the fact, however, that, if Strom's article is accurate, the A.C.L.U. needs to strongly apologize for both hiring Grenzebach Glier & Associates and for the actions GG&A undertook at the direction of the A.C.L.U.

I support the A.C.L.U. so this story was news to me. But why is it on the front page? Is it the "contrast" element -- organization that fights for privacy rights and liberty caught with pants down?

What I'm getting at is that the A.C.L.U. apparently conducted data mining on their donors. That is news. But on a day where inside the paper we find two other secrecy stories, I'm not sure this is the front page one. (Had this run with the other two all on the front page, the Times could have had a very strong front page today.)

David Johnston & Neil A. Lewis' "Officials Describe Secret C.I.A. Center at Guantánamo Bay"
( seems a much more pressing front page story.

The Central Intelligence Agency secretly operated a holding and interrogation center within the larger American military-run prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, current and former government officials said on Friday.
. . .
The existence of the center was disclosed on Friday by The Washington Post, which described it as related to a network of holding centers operated by the C.I.A. at undisclosed locations around the world since the American authorities began capturing operatives of Al Qaeda after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
. . .
So far, the Bush administration has not said how it plans to deal with these detainees. They might someday be tried before a military tribunal or could be held indefinitely. One official described the high-value detainees as a long-term problem "without an endgame."
. . .
In addition, the use of Guantánamo has raised the possibility of legal problems for the C.I.A., which has sought to keep its detention operation outside the United States to deny detainees rights under American law. The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo are entitled to some legal rights.

That's front page news. (Please read the article.)

So is Eric Lichtblau's "2 Agencies in Accord on Inquiries Into Spying" ( :

The statement grew out of concerns by some domestic security investigators about what they viewed as a power grab by the bureau after the publication on Nov. 15 of a new rule by the Justice Department in The Federal Register.
The rule, signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft and first reported by Newsweek, sought to "eliminate confusion" about possible limitations on the authority of the bureau.
Officials at the Homeland Security Department said they were given no formal notice about the rule change before publication, and it caught some officials there off guard because of what they said could be interpreted as an expansion of the F.B.I.'s powers.

The Times needs to hold the A.C.L.U. accountable and shine a light on them if they were conducting data mining, no question. But when these two stories are buried in the main section and the A.C.L.U. story is highlighted, there's a problem. I hope the A.C.L.U. has many donors (disclosure, I donate to the A.C.L.U.) but this is a story that concerns them largely. The other two stories have domestic and global implications. They trump the A.C.L.U. story for that reason and should have been featured along with the A.C.L.U. article on the front page or in place of the A.C.L.U. article.

And I'm going to harp one more time on the issue of the Times needing an op-ed columnist (such as Nancy Chang or David Cole) with a firm grounding in civil liberties. [See] The
events that are going on and as well as the events of the last four years speak to the need for the Times to replace William Safire with a columnist who can address these issues. The paper
and the country will not benefit from yet another standard party bearer for the GOP (the
echo chamber is quite crowded enough as it is). But by hiring someone that can speak to the issues of civil liberties and privacy rights, the Times could increase our national dialogue. That would be a service to the country and one hopes this will factor that into the selection process.

[Note: This post has been edited to include a link to "The Times fails reporter Alex Berenson."
That post was done first. But for whatever reason, this post appears beneath it. That might straighten itself out. I have no idea why the first post today is at the top and the second post of today is currently below it. Nor do I know why the time signature indicates that this post was created before "The Times fails reporter Alex Berenson."]