Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Times policies regarding ethics (no, this isn't intended as a humorous post)

There have been two e-mails that indicate to me I need to clarify a position I wrongly thought was clear. (Won't be the first time.) In addition, Frank in Orlando writes that I am "now going after Cubans and won't be happy until they are unemployed." (FiO gave permission for that partial quote, and only for that partial quote, to be quoted.)

For more than a century, men and women of The Times have jealously guarded the paper's integrity. Whatever else we contribute, our first duty is to make sure the integrity of The Times is not blemished during our stewardship.

The above? From the ethics policy of the Times. Let's walk through it now. We'll start with point 3:

Conflicts of interest, real or apparent, may come up in many areas. They may involve the relationships of staff members with readers, news wources, advocacy groups, advertisers, or competitors; with one another, or with the newspaper or its parent company. And at a time when two-career families are the norm, the civic and professional activities of spouses, family and companions can create conflicts or the appearance of conflicts.

From the tenth point:

Every staff member is expected to read this code carefully and to think about how it might apply to his or her duties. A lack of familiarity with its provisions cannot excuse a violation; to the contrary, it makes it worse. . . .

From point twenty-three:

Even though this topic defies hard and fast rules, it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias.

I'm assuming that "movies" fall under this list because although it doesn't list them in many points (points 134-142 cover "Culture, Style and Dining") when terms such as "studios" and "movie contracts" pop up in this section, it's obviously applying to something other than "theater."

134. The Times has exceptional influence in such fields as theater, music, art dance, publishing, fashion and the restaurant industry. We are constantly scritinized for the slightest whiff of favortism. Therefore staff members working in those areas have a special duty to guard against conflicts of interest or the appearence of conflict.

Terry scanned a page from John L. Hess's My Times (page 17) and e-mailed it:

The Associated Press, a news cartel founded in an era when publishers displayed strong and conflicting political passions, is credited with fashioning the cloak of objectivity -- the straighjacket, if you will -- worn by our press. It was designed to avoid offending individual members, but it came to be presented as a virture: no opinions, just the news, extruded in strings like sausage that could be cut to fit. Early on, The New York Times, under Adolph Ochs, became the model for this apparently bloodless journalism. Every day the wire services would advise all users how the Times was playing the news on Page One. Especially on those big, complex issues that seem boring to boring minds, the Times became a handy desk reference. And so it remains.
Journalists and the public need to know better.

Lewis e-mailed that the journalist I was referring to was Jay Blotcher, the one the Times fired.
He sent this article from Southern Voices entitled "Conflict of Whose Interest? National Gay Journalist Group Drops Fired Gay Reporter From Panel" by Christopher Seeley.

The Times dismissed Blotcher in January, not over his membership in ACT UP, but “because of his work as a press spokesman and a public relations consultant,” Arthur Sulzberger, chair of the New York Times Co., said at a shareholders meeting April 13, according to meeting transcripts obtained by Blotcher.
Blotcher served as media coordinator for ACT UP from April 1989 to January 1990.
Ann Northrop, one of the original members of NLGJA, said she was “appalled” by NLGJA’s refusal to take a stand against the New York Times decision and for “kicking him off the plenary session.”
“NLGJA should be up in arms about it and instead they’d rather hold expensive fund-raising dinners where they cozy up to establishment media bigwigs rather than challenge the policies and practices of those mainstream media,” Northrop said.
Northrop, a former journalist with CBS News and ABC, now anchors the national cable television show “Gay USA” on DISH network.
NLGJA declined comment on the criticism.

Next up with an e-mail was Irene who sent this from The Nation by Eric Alterman, "The (Not So) Gay Old Times," which we'll quote from:

Steve Reed, an editor for the NYT Regional Newspaper Group, who coordinates the Times Gay and Lesbian Caucus, thinks the editors made a reasonable decision, though he notes a division within the caucus itself. Bruce Lambert, a longtime Times reporter who covered ACT UP, complains of "an apparent blackballing" and notes, "By the premise being imposed on [Blotcher]...a long-ago former activist on breast cancer issues would be barred from being a hockey reporter."
[Bill] Keller complained to me of attempts by Kramer "to turn this into a replay of the Stonewall raid." He cannot but be frustrated by some of the sloppy coverage of the events, particularly that which appeared in Howard Kurtz's online media column for the Washington Post, which left out all the complicating details. (This is particularly ironic, as readers of this column will be aware, since Kurtz, who reports on CNN for the Post while receiving a paycheck from CNN, provides a daily definition of journalistic conflict-of-interest.)
Even if one accepts the paper's argument that its only crime is a kind of post-Blair hyper-fastidiousness about appearances at the expense of fairness to one of its stringers, the story cannot be allowed to die there. First, both Edgerley and Keller declined my repeated invitations to delineate a consistent policy regarding just which kinds of associations are allowed and which aren't. And as the Times has been perfectly comfortable in the past to hire stars like Richard Burt and Leslie Gelb, who shuttled between high-level State Department appointments while covering one another for the paper, we are left with the appearance of favoritism and inconsistency for machers as opposed to stringers. (Let's hope Ahmad Chalabi doesn't show up in Times Square one day, looking to formalize his role as a WMD reporter.)
Second, for all its commendable commitment to diversity, the policy is still not working. The Jayson Blair/Gerald Boyd problem is just one overworked example. A second is that, with the departure of Adam Moss to New York magazine, the Times lacks a single person in a position of significant editorial authority--or on the editorial board for that matter--who is openly gay. As one longtime and loyal Times writer put it to me, "The problem is not homophobia; it's homo-ignorance. Nobody openly gay sits in on any of the big meetings."

Irene also sent Blotcher's reply to Alterman's article which he's posted online at his site:

First, some backstory. When I was dumped from the Times, I wasn't the only one shocked. So was a longtime friend of mine. Because, like me, he was a former ACT UP spokesperson. Like me, he had been flacking merely as an extension of his gay and AIDS activism and had repped several organizations. Like me, he had started as a journalist and ached to return to the field. And, like me, he was now writing for The Times.
When I was ejected in January, I immediately alerted this friend. He begged me not to go public with my story, because he felt it would cost him his longtime freelancer gig. I still contacted the media. But in all interviews, I refused to finger him. (My friend, fearful of guilt through association, subsequently distanced himself from me.)
Here's the coda: At a Thanksgiving dinner last month, I ran into a Times editor, for whom my former friend now writes. This editor was aware of my dismissal and informed me that my former ACT UP comrade was indeed called on the carpet in the wake of my ejection. Apparently, five years of freelancing for the City and Escapes sections means something; the powers-that-be decided my friend should not be shown the door. So much for a uniform NYT editorial policy.

I've found a post at his site that I want to note as well:

The Times does not want a reporter to have any political baggage. However, I was active in ACT UP from 1989-1990 chiefly, and have worked on perhaps four projects since then. My last involvement was writing a press release for them in December, 1999.
Conflict of interest? Never mind that my Times articles focused on reservoirs, farmers, the death of a local mayor and infanticide. AIDS or gay issues never entered the formula. So where's the so-called conflict of interest?

. . .
The New York Times reaction smacks of blacklisting. How else to explain that I am forbidden to write for any section of The Times, be it Arts & Leisure, Escapes, House & Home, etc. How does past AIDS activism tar me as a prejudicial reporter and preclude writing about film or interior design or bed and breakfasts for The Times?

Lucy e-mailed a story on Blotcher also, Ryan Lee's "Conflicts of Interest? San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times Remove Gay Reporters From Stories" from The Washington Blade:

On Jan. 12, Jay Blotcher, a gay freelance writer who contributed to the New York Times, received a call from one of his editors at the Times, Lew Serviss, who Blotcher said began the conversation by saying, “Jay, we have a problem here.”
The problem, Blotcher learned, was that several writers and editors at the Times recognized his name from the days when he served as media coordinator for ACT UP, an AIDS advocacy group, from April 1989 to January 1990. That service might cause readers to question the objectivity of his reports, editors at the newspaper said, according to documents provided by Blotcher.
“If I’m writing a story up here about farmers, or vandalism at a local college, how does my former involvement impinge upon the credibility of these stories?” Blotcher said this week.

That's the incident I referred to in this paragraph:

A reporter was let go by the Times (believe he was a freelancer, but I've forgotten the details, sorry) supposedly because he had been active in the gay rights movement (believe it had to do with AIDS, again, I may not be remembering correctly). He was thought to have a conflict of interest. (If I remember correctly, the Times questioned any comments that he was fired since he wasn't exclusive the paper and also implied that it was a business decision that had nothing to do with any past activities.)

Thanks to Irene, Lucy and Lewis for finding articles and sharing them. And thanks to Terry who tracked down the objectivity passage from Hess' book and shared it with us.

Cuba, like Israel, is a charged topic. One that will result in people looking for conflicts. Whether Ojito has a conflict of interest or not, I don't know. I do know that there's the appearence of a conflict on interest when her history is added in to a fluff piece on Garcia.

Marcia: Come on! We're talking about a guy who has to look for press in cigar magazines, which by the way, I didn't find amusing, that the paper chose to run a photo of him with not one but two cigars. That's off topic, I know, but I'm adamentally anti-smoking, so excuse the tangent. This sort of piece appearing in some podunk paper would be allowed if Garcia was visiting the town because that might be big news for a town that consisted of two gas stations and a car wash. But for the paper that's centered in one of the two entertainment meccas of this country to play up a faded actor who's now doing bit parts as the oily villian is beyond ridiculous. Someone gushing over the phone, "Oh my God, I just interviewed Andy Garcia!" might have been greeted with a gasp in 1990. These days, they'd more likely be asked, "Who?" or, "Is he doing Hollywood Squares now?" Garcia's entitled to his opinions and can express them anywhere he wants and I'll support that right. But I do not support the fact that he's profiled in such a prominent manner at the end of his dying career for a film that can't even find a distributor. To me, this smacks of activism passing itself off as feature writing.

Billy: I don't get it. There was a film festival in Miami. Did anything win awards? The Lost City didn't because he didn't show it. The article's not even about what film was shown. Or about a film festival. Or about anything but Garcia's views on Cuba. I've got nothing against actors or anyone weighing in on some topic. We all learn when we hear as many voices as possible. But this is a story in the arts section and I'm trying to figure out where the arts angle is. I don't see it. And I don't see it as news that a man who never was Antonio Banderas or Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or any other male star, a man who never had a blockbuster, can whine that politics prevents Hollywood from investing in his attempt to direct and star. Garcia, you rocked in Internal Affairs, but face the music coz Hollywood ain't investing. Joe Pesci won the Oscar for best supporting actor the year you were nominated and Hollywood's probably not going to fund his dream project for him to direct and star in either.

Tyrone: You have to drop back 15 years for Garcia's only Oscar nomination, he's never steered a blockbuster and if we're going to highlight the supporting players from Ocean's 12, start with Don Cheadle who actually has an Oscar nomination this year. Kick it to the curb and let 'em cart it off, 1990 is so over. There's no reason for this story to be in the paper. I'm not remember Halle Berry being treated so fondly by the paper or Denzel [Washington]. And they actually won Oscars.

[Whenever we note movies or music, people weigh in. The e-mails above were the ones who gave permission to be quoted. But we got 117 -- my math is always bad so consider it "a counted estimate" -- on this.]

The two who asked questions made it clear to me that I wasn't clear in my earlier post.

Let me try to clarify with no tangents. (Don't apologize for including tangent, Marcia, my entries are nothing but.)

The Times printed a story and gave it promince as a lead story on the arts page, it included three photographs (rather incredible for the paper). This is huge play for a celebrity profile.
The article focused not on the film he had just shown (Feb. 7th is the date on the article appearing in Saturday the tenth's paper) but on the film that didn't show at the festival.
The author of the piece didn't know Garcia's filmography. (And even a casual fan of The Godfather films might argue it was unforgiveable to confuse II with III.) The thurst of the article is that Garcia (who defines himself as an exile) is being prevented from telling his truth about Cuba because of the positions of people in power in Hollywood.

Paragraphs like the following raise issues as to what this arts feature is about:

In the Cuba of the 1950's, the Garcia family lived an enchanted life. His father, René, was a lawyer who ran a farm outside Havana. Mr. Garcia and his siblings grew up on that farm, and spent weekends and holidays in an oceanfront house in an exclusive neighborhood of Havana. But in 1961, fearful that the Castro government would take their children to be educated in the Soviet Union, a common belief at the time, the family left for Miami with $300 and a box of cigars.
"That first Christmas we didn't have enough to buy presents for the children," said Amelie Garcia, the actor's 83-year-old mother. "But the children never heard us complain about what we had lost, only about our longing to return."

I'm confused as to why this story is about Cuba. There was a film festival, he showed a film. That's not the focus of the story. He hasn't been there since he was five, I'm sure that other topics, in an art story, can be explored.

I have no idea why the writer felt that Garcia was worthy of a long profile at this late date. I have no idea why the focus was on a film that no one saw at the festival. I have no idea why the piece plays like Stella Davis. I do know that there are plenty of mid-level performers who don't get that kind of play in the Times. I do know that when the reporter is someone who also fled the same country, the paper should disclose that fact in the article.

I do know that's he not bankable in a leading role due to his past box office so Hollywood doesn't need to go to the issue of politics to avoid financing his first attempt at directing a non-documentary that he's starring in. (Again, I'm sure politics entered into it since Hollywood avoids political films.)

But at the crux of the story is the fact that he's old by Hollywood terms. He's never carried a hit film. You don't get to keep trying. It's a cautious (some might say cowardly) industry that invests in what it thinks will bring in money based on past performance. And when hope is invested in someone and they don't live up to that potential, consider yourself lucky to be employed if you are employed. (John Travolta was in that situation prior to Pulp Fiction.) The hair's getting thinner, the waistline's getting thicker. Not a good position to be in for a contender that never delivered the box office expected.

But the Times covers this in a way they didn't cover Melanie Griffith or Antonio Banderos's debut on Broadway (in a hit play). Griffith was nominated for a lead Oscar, Banderas has starred in several blockbusters and both were making news in New York due to the success of their plays and the fact that the two are married to one another.

The Times takes us to Miami, where a film festival happened, to tell us not of the film festival or a movie shown there, but of Andy Garcia's film that he didn't show and can't get a distributor for.

When the paper wants to maintain it's objective stance, to the point that they fire a gay writer for his activism in the past even though he's not writing on "gay topics" for the paper, I think you might want to be careful about appearences of conflicts of interest.

The objectivity the paper strives for is their policy, not mine. If they're going to enforce it for some, they need to enforce it all. One of the questions that popped up in the two e-mails was should the writer not be allowed to cover Cuba, should all writers covering D.C. be from another country? That those questions are asked underscore that I wasn't clear and I apologize for that.
Everyone brings a unique perspective and that should be appreciated. But if the Times is going to declare that certain things (such as gay activism) are out of bounds, then they need to ask themselves if running an article by someone who fled the country being discussed without disclosing that the reporter did that creates the appearence of a conflict of interest. By the standards they used to justify the firing of a reporter in 2004, the Times shouldn't allow Ojito to have filed this story.

As a subscriber to The Nation, In These Times, and The Progressive (among other magazines), I'm no stranger to partisan reporting and have no problem with it. I'm not speaking of my personal taste, I'm speaking of the policies of the Times.

By their standards, one would think that on the same day Scott Shane discloses that Richard Clarke works for the paper (in an article about Clarke and Condi Rice), there should have been a disclosure included in Ojito's article. As it read, there should have been concern with statements like "like many other Cubans he refuses to go back until Fidel Castro has stepped down" should have raised a flag. (For one thing, "many other Cubans" live in many other countries. For another, as we've seen with the Bully Boy's attempt at banning travel to Cuba, a number of people in this country do want to return to Cuba for a visit. "Some" might have passed the test.)
When this article about Andy Garcia twice credited him for a film that he did not appear in, one made when he was 18 and released sixteen years prior to the film he did appear in, the reporter comes off as less than interested in Garcia's career. So it's only natural that, as Dallas did in his e-mail this morning, people wonder why exactly this article appeared as it did in print.

Ojito's article wasn't read very closely by her editor since no one caught the error. (Though I'm sure we'll read in the corrections that a "printer error" was the reason for the wrong film being cited.) (I see that so often, I'm beginning to wish the printers would respond in kind: "It has come to our attention that a story on page six was offensive to many readers, we would like to note that this was reporter error and not anything on the part of the printers.") (If a correction runs, and if it's blamed on the printer, could someone explain how the printers could make the same mistake more than once?)

Dallas wondered about the sloppy fact checking/proof reading in the e-mail. I would have printed it as a stand alone but there is the appearence of a conflict of interest.