Tuesday, February 08, 2005

When members of the press reply in private e-mails to my comments on their work

For the last four weeks especially there has been incoming e-mails to the site (common_ills@yahoo.com). I don't mean from members or from visitors, I mean from the press (and the press can be members, we have some who are -- no, they don't get any special breaks -- but I'm referring here to non-members).

This isn't a new thing, but the pace has picked up.

We have had a policy here that your e-mail is private (Beth feels I broke that) and you aren't quoted or named unless you give permission. That's applied to any visitor, not just members.
The exceptions have been when the two people repeatedly insisted upon misquoting me (when the issue was brought up, they weren't named) (regarding David Corn) and, again, Beth feels that she has been an exception.

So let's understand there's a new e-mail policy. If you're claiming something in an e-mail that I supposedly said but didn't, I'll quote you on it. I have no problem at all. I won't identify you, but I'll quote you. I may summarize it if your word style is unique and it may give away who you are or I may not.

I hope that's clear. If it's not e-mail the site (common_ills@yahoo.com) because if it's not clear to you, it's probably confusing to someone else as well so I need to clarify.

There is one exception and that's an e-mail from someone who's work I've commented on.

If I've critiqued your work, you're allowed to respond privately in any manner you elect to respond in. (That means you can hurl abuse if you're so inclined and several have been so inclined.)

My opinions are not handed down from on high and I can be wrong. But as, one person pointed out two weeks ago in an e-mail, this is also how you make your income so if you're upset, rage away. It won't bother me.

I don't mean I'll blow it off. I do mean that I won't go whining to Daniel Okrent that someone hurt my little feelings.

I'm a grown up and I can handle all the strong words that have come in. (And I don't take it personally.) When someone writes in to disagree with a review I've offered of their coverage, I do read it. I do consider the points they make. (Whether they make them in strong language or attempt to be polite about it.)

One point that has come up repeatedly (and obviously this applies to the New York Times, sorry but there's no way to address this topic without that being obvious) is that, in so many words, "I don't put my story on the front page."

No, you don't. And if I'm not being clear that editors are making the decision of what to front page, I do apologize.

Another point that comes up in e-mails regardless of where the person is employed is this one: "I didn't have time to track down that information." That refers to whatever I've raised in my review. To which I reply, if I had time to do it, so did you. With the Times/CBS News poll in November, I spent hours pouring over that. With the Simon Rosenberg ("Questions for a Questionable Simon Rosenberg") post, I researched for hours. If I can find something in two or three hours, then you, a professional journalist, should certainly be able to beat me at that every time.

If I can find it, so can you.

Yes, I can call a few friends and track down something. But you have your own sources. And more often than not what I'm raising is what I've found in an online search. (If I'm referring to, for instance, a friend at CBS telling me something, I state that in the entry. If I'm not attributing it to someone, then I found it online or by pulling books off the shelf.) (Some research includes trips to the library.)

"This is how I make my income." I don't disagree with that. I do think that people need to be a little more focused on their jobs because I think the press, honestly, should maintain a higher standard with their work than they do. (And I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way.)

No one made the point I'm about to make in the last few weeks (if they did, I've forgotten it) but if X writes for the New York Times and is doing a non-hard news story, I can understand that you're not expecting it to be on the front page and you're not expecting to have put the time into you would for a front page story. I can understand that.

But I do think that facts are facts. And if I'm able to find them, so should the journalist.

I've also been advised that a lot of times a story by ___ actually means ____ wrote a draft an editor or editors were quite pleased with but it went through revisions by someone other than the reporter credited.

Consider that point noted to the community. However, your name's on the piece. If it's good, you're going get the credit and if it's poor you will get the blame. I realize that you cannot say, "That's ___ that did that!" publicly. I understand your dilemma. But your name is on the piece and we're looking at here as readers.

This morning I read an e-mail that, had it been written by a visitor or a member, would have gotten a reply. I appreciate what the member of the press was saying. I appreciate the issues that were being raised.

But I went to people I know with the ethical struggle I felt I was in. Without revealing who actually sent it, I explained it was someone who'd been mentioned on this site and felt that their work was wrongly criticized. Issues were raised that I would have addressed with a member in an instant.

But I'm no longer able to reply to each and every e-mail. (There were 756 yesterday.) And as the e-mail began to regularly top 500, an automated message was created.

That's what a first time visitor gets, that's what Ben or Kara or Shirley get.

We're The Common Ills, we're the community. If I don't have the time to reply to every member who writes, I don't see that it's fair that I take the time to reply to someone who's not a member or a visitor new to the site.

To me, it seems like replying would be giving special treatment.

And we're not an "insider" site.

The person I'm speaking of wrote a great e-mail. But when members aren't getting personal replies, I can't see taking the time to do a person reply for him/her.

I'm not trying to suggest that the person wanted special treatment. I'm merely saying that on my end, that e-mail deserved a personal reply if it were from a member or a visitor.

So I spoke to an old ethics professor, two close friends and e-mailed three journalists who are members. (The person's name was not revealed nor the substance of the e-mail, only that if it had come from a member or a casual visitor, it would have gotten a reply but that this person works for the Times. And I'm putting this in the entry because without it being put in, the post will be twice as confusing. This person wasn't the first person working for the Times to reply to this site.)

One friend basically said it could go either way. The other people all agreed that if everyone is not getting a personal reply than it was showing special treatment to respond to that e-mail with a personal one.

It was also suggested by the three journalists and my former ethics professor that I post on this so that it's clear. (I doubt the person who e-mailed will see this. But the point was to make it clear that there's no special treatment.)

I also want to make it clear that if you're someone who's been commented on (by me, not by members) on this site, you can reply on this site. Just e-mail and note that you want to be quoted. We'll put you in your own entry. The only rule is if you're griping about comments, they're comments made by me. I have no problem with that. And I certainly don't think I'm always right.

If you don't state that you wish to be quoted, you won't be.

Your e-mail will be read as every e-mail that comes in is read. But replying to you is out of the question when I can't personally reply to all the members who are writing.

If someone ever does reply to be quoted, we do have a language policy for entries on this site and that means if you're using the f-word, it will appear f**king or something similar. Otherwise, your words will be exactly as you put them down.

And I'll also note for the person who wrote the great e-mail, your points were seriously considered and will continue to be. I disagree (and I'll assume that you'll know what that refers to) with some points but others were heard and agreed with.

If this were a different kind of site, I would gladly respond with a personal e-mail. But your work has been commented on here and will be again and I don't think I should be engaged in private e-mail exchanges with you or anyone else that we're covering.

I'm not suggesting that you were asking for that. As far as I know, you were just pointing out things you felt needed to be noted. That's fine and that goes for anyone who's commented on here. But I'm not going to reply because I don't think it's fair to the community when members aren't getting personal replies and when you're someone at the New York Times that I may or may not end up critiquing the next day.

It was a great e-mail. I laughed at least once (as I'm sure was intended). I enjoyed it. But I don't want to fall into the seduction of access in any form so I won't be replying privately. To me, even a private reply would question whether or not I could be objective. (And Lord knows, Beth's got enough questions already without adding you to the mix.)

I think I could be, but should I reply and you reply and I reply and I continue to laugh at your jokes, I'm not sure I'd be applying the same standard to you that I would to someone else who wrote a similar piece in the paper.

Everyone is welcome to e-mail privately (members, visitors, people whose work I've commented on). And all e-mails are read. But to enter into a private e-mail exchange with someone when it's likely I would be commenting on their work doesn't seem fair (to me).

I'll also add that the person wasn't John Burns.

Currently, we are not highlighting pieces on Iraq from the Times because I'm not sure who's reporting from the Green Zone and who's actually out there. (I'm assuming Burns is actually out there but I don't know so I'm not making any exceptions. That's why we highlighted The Guardian's coverage of Iraq this morning.)

But whenever I highlight an article by John F. Burns, I get a ton of e-mail about how I don't know what he's really like. (I know I typed an entry on this up in December, I hope I posted it.) I don't care what he's really like. I care what's in the paper, what's on the printed page.

My opinion, Burns writes real journalism. I do know three people who know him and vouch for him but I don't need that to enjoy his reporting. That doesn't mean he's a hundred percent accurate. I'm not there, I'm depending upon what I'm reading and from that attempting to see if it fits the guidelines for what I rate as good reporting. Burns presents various voices in his pieces. He has the who, what, where and when down.

I also know someone who actually did go to school with Judith Miller. And she vouches and vouches for Miller. She can continue to do that it won't change my mind. (And the Sunday of the Rudith Miller post was honestly inspired by my reading Miller's article that morning and thinking, "Oh God, I can imagine how ___ is going to try to justify this." At which point, I thought -- "Hey humorous post, someone who went to school with Miller and we'll turn it into a Single, White Female kind of post!" Rudith was noted as parody and that's what it is. It's not based on my friend's experiences attending school with Miller. Just to be clear.) But ___ is a very good friend of mine and the fact that she bends herself backwards to try to justify Miller's "reporting" doesn't make me go any easier on Miller.

And the fact that three people I know on a much less personal basis vouch for Burns doesn't influence my opinion of his reporting.

With the Times, I'm not just highlighting, I'm giving a critique. And I've exempted myself from Robin Toner's reporting because friends have told me I completely miss the boat with her work and am far too kind (I've been told that for two years now -- long before The Common Ills came into being). A member is welcome to comment on Toner, but I'm exempting myself from commenting.

So to reply privately to the person who e-mailed would, my opinion, even if it was only one exchange, enter into some kind of relationship that could effect my evaluations skills (such as they are).

I hope that's been as clear as possible under the circumstances.

To recap:
1) If you're offended by my review of your work, by all means write in. Your comments will be read the same as anyone else's.
2) You won't get a personal reply even if you write a great e-mail. (I've never felt the urge to reply to any other member of the press who's written the site.)
3) But your comments will be considered.
4) If you wish to be quoted and note that, you can't have your own rebuttal on the site.
5) If I feel it needs further comment from me, I will or won't comment (in a different entry) based upon the time I have at that time.
6) Once you bring it to the community, any member of the community can reply. This isn't my Common Ills, this is the community's Common Ills.

I hope that's clear and if any member is confused, please let me know and we'll try to clarify it together on the site.