Monday, May 09, 2005

About the study by the Times' panel

The Times had a panel report issued today. Ten full pages (with a few names continued on the eleventh). E-mails arrived asking how I missed it?

I missed it. If I had seen it, I wouldn't have written about it this morning (but I didn't see it). Ten pages of attempts to deal with serious issues isn't a quick read for me. I would have wanted to read it, think about it, re-read it, think some more. There's no way I would've posted anything about it this morning if I had seen it (but, truthfully, I didn't see it before I posted).

A lot of members were angry with the conclusions. Those who were angry generally expressed the review that an issue had already been addressed and nothing had come of it. Susan Q. Stranahan addressed a similar thought at CJR Daily:

At the time -- March of 2004 -- Bumiller was describing President Bush's eagerness to get into the campaign fray. "'People are viewing him already as a candidate, so why should we muzzle one of our most effective voices in framing the debate?' said a senior White House official who asked not to be named because he did not want to be pestered by reporters." (Emphasis ours.)
Our first thought, then and now, was that the news that Bush was eager to hit the campaign trail hardly ranked as an astonishing development, whether sourced by name or not. Our second thought was this: obviously, two interests were served here -- those of the source who didn't want a raft of reporters on his trail, and those of Bumiller, who didn't want reporters not named Bumiller to get to said source. Our third thought was that it's less clear whether the interests of the Times' readers were, or are, served by this sort of coy tomfoolery. Since that time, the Times -- and the Washington Post, for that matter -- have repeatedly paid lip service to erasing
anonymice from their pages -- an effort that has largely failed. (We get the feeling nobody was trying very hard.)
So, today the Times is taking another stab. The paper released an internal committee
report recommending ways to build reader confidence. Among the measures, as the Times' Katharine Q. Seelye writes, is one more attempt to limit reliance on anonymous sources.

A large number of members expressed frustration that the same issue was being addressed again after little had changed since it was last addressed.

Far be it from me to defend the Times, but possibly the people serving on the panel shared your frustration which is why they included it in their findings.

We're going to deal quickly with the nine recommendations. After this posts, there will also be an addendum of sorts. The purpose of the panel's recommendations is to improve the quality of the paper and they focus on what's going into print and what the response from editors and reporters could be. The panel didn't include another segment (and it may have been outside their scope but Dallas has raised the issue and I've been working on it for two weeks now) so we'll address that in an addendum.

1) A dialogue with our publics.

Only two members brought up this recommendation and the subheadings under it. Liang and Terry both felt this was a good idea. Terry felt it contained "the strongest ideas in the entire report."

(Use the link provided in the CJR Daily excerpt to access the report.)

2) Reaching out to readers, improving our sources.

The e-mail issue (readers to reporters and editors) we'll pick up in a bit.

The second suggestion is something I want to weigh in on because, as I'm reading it, I disagree with it: "Encourage the practice of reporters' interim and final checks with sources to verify specific points."

That can read like (and maybe it's not intended to), "check your quotes." While magazines have traditionally done that, my worry here is that someone will give a strong quote and then back down from it when it's read back to them. If that's not the way that point's meant to be read, fine. But about ten years ago, a friend of mine got burned on a quote (that appeared in print) and after, she'd only quote if she had someone on tape. The tape machine tended to inhibit people she was interviewing.

(If that seems off topic, some people who know me read this and if I didn't raise that point, I'd catch hell over the phone.)

The third point seems a practical one and no one raised it so we'll move to the e-mail issue.

Elaine: There's not a problem reaching someone on my end. There's a problem getting a reply. I made a point to praise Robin Toner's writing to her editor last summer in an e-mail and got an immediate response that was quite lengthy from the editor. I'd e-mailed him prior and after and never heard from him. The problem's not with reaching someone, it's with getting a response when you have a criticism.

Dallas: Spring 2004, I praised a piece by Kit Seeyle to Bill Keller. I had a response in a matter of hours. But anytime I've had a question or a problem, I've never heard back from him. It's not an issue of contact, it's an issue of getting a reply. With the exception of Daniel Okrent, his assistant Arthur Bovino and Gail Collins, no one else ever wants to reply to a criticism. And I'll add that my e-mail Gail Collins replied to was far from "pleasant." Her reply was pleasant and lengthy. I didn't agree with it but I think more highly of her than others at the paper due to the fact that she's the only one at the paper (Okrent and Bovino are independent contractors) who's ever replied to a serious complaint.

It can be hard for many to navigate the Times' web site to find contact information. But Eli and Lynda both offered comments similar to Dallas' (Lynda also noted that Gail Collins responded).
So I'm not sure the issue is a lack of contact information. That said, as someone who puts the contact information at the bottom of each post (of mine), I obviosly support the practice. I'm just not sure, based on members comments, that it will make a great deal of difference.

3) Unidentified sources: some next steps.

This was addressed at the top of the piece. And this was the one that members found most frustrating (482 if my math was correct -- always a big if).

4) Reducing factual errors.

This recommendation resulted in the second largest number of comments to this site (296 -- again, my math is always a big if).

There are internal and external suggestions.

But there's a problem because the current system isn't working. Everyone of the 296 had a horror story. We're going with Dallas' horror story because he's been waiting (and waiting) for the topic of the addendum to be addressed and because earlier a number of you had noted it (back in December).

Dallas: What does it matter what they suggest when the current steps don't work? Alan Wolfe wrote a book review entitled "The New Pamphleteers" that was published July 11, 2004. For three months I attempted to get a correction. Wolfe reviews several books including David Brock's Republican Noise Machine. Could you quote from the previous entry about this? [Yes, we will.] But I e-mailed Keller, Okrent, Sulzberger and the corrections department. I typed up letters to Keller and Okrent. I phoned the paper repeatedly. They've never corrected the review as of today when I checked online.

From December:

So let's take the book review that has thirty of you still upset: Alan Wolfe's "The New Pamphleteers."
It appeared in the July 11th Sunday Book Review. There's been plenty of time for the Times to issue a correction but the paper has failed to do so.
Calls, e-mails and letters have resulted in no correction.
What needs to be corrected?
Read the following two paragraphs closely:

Brock's previous book, ''Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative,'' his 2002 mea culpa for gutter-shouting from the conservative side, was engaging and informative. Too bad, then, that he now seems blinded by the left. ''The Republican Noise Machine'' is as petty in its discussion of people as it is sloppy in its handling of facts. Unable to keep an insult in his quiver, Brock gleefully announces that the Catholic theologian Michael Novak had his thesis rejected at Harvard and that the political scientist Abigail Thernstrom did not get academic tenure, factoids that are either irrelevant (anyone familiar with the academy knows what thesis committees can be like) or wrong (Thernstrom rejected a full-time academic career).
Brock also fails to grasp the conflicts that have emerged within right-wing punditry since he served in its ranks. Chris Matthews was not a supporter of the war in Iraq and Bill O'Reilly has serious questions about it. Lou Dobbs now sounds like Dick Gephardt when he discusses outsourcing. Andrew Sullivan's position on gay marriage is anathema to many other conservatives. Conservatives may well have shared a party line when they were out of power, but now that they have an actual president advancing their worldview, their ideas suddenly have consequences -- and turmoil is the inevitable result. Libertarians attack Bush's statism; fiscal conservatives, his big spending. This kind of behavior among liberals is called political suicide.

Did you note the emphasis? Let's go to the book Wolfe is supposed to have read to review it:

During the George W. Bush era, [Chris] Matthews distinguished himself as the lone host of a cable talk show who opposed the Iraq war, joining hands with both the liberal Left and some members of the Far Right, such as Pat Buchanan (p. 240 of The Republican Noise Machine).

We can quibble over Bill O'Reilly's "serious questions" (if they're so serious, why did O'Reilly admit he was wrong about the war on ABC's Good Morning America -- when pressed to do so -- and not on his own show?). But the fact is Wolfe makes the claim that David Brock doesn't realize some on the right are against the war. Brock is aware of that and notes Pat Buchanan. Wolfe asserts that Brock doesn't realize that Chris Matthews didn't support the war. Right there on page 240 of Brock's book is Brock addressing that issue. The book Wolfe was supposed to have read before reviewing it.
Translation, Wofle is wrong and the Times has addressed this matter by ignoring it.

What do you have to do to get a correction? Calls, e-mails and letters don't appear to work. Maybe you have to stand outside the entrance with a sign begging for a correction?

(In fairness, I'll note that the panel does speak of problems with e-mail reaching the person it's sent to.)

5) The News/Opinion divide.

Shirley noted that the oft referred to "floating op-ed" might result in less criticism for Elisabeth Bumiller. Todd brought up the point Bob Somerby has often made at The Daily Howler, that a "White House Letter" needed to be balanced out during a presidential election year. Wally objected strongly to the attitude that a sports columnist was not allowed to comment on events outside of sports in his/her column.

Wally: That seemed snide and petty to me. If that's the operating system than Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof and others shouldn't be allowed to mention any sports, even in passing, in their op-eds.

Under this recommendation, there was a discussion of the magazine vs. the newspaper.
That resulted in 47 e-mails. Five members felt that the daily paper had superior journalism and that the magazine had 'too much attitude.' Forty-two members expressed the belief that the magazine had stronger reporting. (Yazz, Lloyd, Nora, Wally and Joe felt that the magazine reporting had fewer errors.)

Having addressed the Times, I'll comment on e-mails with regard to this site. There's someone (as we all know) who feels that one response to his two e-mails wasn't sufficient. He was also upset that he wasn't quoted, despite never having asked to be quoted. I'd noted that in personal e-mails he was told the policy. What I didn't think of, until Shirley caught it and e-mailed about this today, was that each e-mail gets an automated response:

Thank you for writing. Your input shapes the community. Due to the rising level of e-mails, this may be the only response you get. If there's something that needs additional comment, an e-mail will go out. If you'd like to be quoted, please include your permission for that and the name under which you should be quoted. Feedback and criticism is appreciated and welcome. Your suggestions make the community so don't hesitate to bring up something you feel is not being addressed. Thank you. -- ci

The person can hold whatever opinion they wish, but the automated reply goes out (automatically) anytime someone writes. The policy is outlined there. I'm not going to chase down quotes. If I had to do that for some, I'd have to do it for all. As noted before, there was a period where we were getting some people claiming to have been members (of what, I don't know, the "years" they spoke of didn't apply to this site which isn't even a year old) who wanted to gripe about Amy Goodman or Katrina vanden Heuvel. I didn't chase them down with, "Can I quote you on this?" A) They weren't members. B) If they'd wanted to be quoted, the reply told them how to go about that. So the person in question didn't have to go through the blog (as I wrongly assumed) to be familar with the policy here. Thank you to Shirley for catching that.

I'll also note, again, that we (which really can mean "we" because Ava of Third Estate Sunday Review is helping with some of the e-mails) don't reply to the press. Anytime someone, for instance, from the Times has written, it has been read. If they've brought up an error, it's been corrected. When they have repeatedly brought up that an article bearing ___'s name didn't mean that ____ wrote it as it was printed, we've noted that here. In January, one of the funniest e-mails came in from someone's at the Times that had been criticized. I didn't agree with all of _____'s points, but we have incorporated _____'s comments from time to time. I noted that e-mail here to say that if I ever was going to respond to someone from the Times it would be that writer because it was a great e-mail. (It was not a kiss-ass e-mail. It was, however a funny one.) But, as noted then, if an e-mail correspondence were to develop, I don't know that I could be objective. So e-mails from people who are criticized at any publication or from any broadcast medium are read, but there's no reply going out other than the automated reply.

In terms of e-mails that get replies, not all require them. Some people are just attempting to highlight something and it then goes up here. Other people will say, "I need to get this off my chest" and offer a critique of the Times or something else. When replies are needed, members come first. After members, it's bloggers. After them it's visitors. But with 800 e-mails on a slow day, even with Ava helping out some days, there's no way that everyone will get a response. I do read all of them myself. If Ava's helping out, she'll ask if there's anyone I would've replied to if I'd had the time and she writes them.

There's also a criteria for bloggers in that community members who've created their own blogs will get replies more often than bloggers who are non-members.

Members have been very understanding of the policy and none of have complained. But I'll say again that I preferred the old days when I could personally respond to every e-mail that came in. The day Barbara Boxer backed Stephanie Tubbs Jones on the Ohio issue, the e-mails soared and they've never dropped down to their previous level again.

A visitor e-mailed Saturday asking what was the point in e-mailing if there wouldn't be a reply.
One point of it would be that input does shape the community. The issues we emphasize are impacted by the e-mails.

Left to my own devices, every day would probably be "Bring the troops home now!" And there's never a day that I don't think about some topic, "Oh, that's what I'll write about this evening" and then, going through the e-mails, I find another concern (or concerns) that the community has. (This is the perfect example. When I did see the panel's report, I thought, "Oh, there may be a Saturday entry in this. Then I started reading the e-mails and it was obvious the community wanted to weigh in now.) Of the entries I've written, the best ones have resulted from members e-mailing saying they wanted something addressed.

The e-mail address for this site is

[Note: This post has been corrected for some spelling errors, thanks to Shirley for catching them. This includes Susan Q. Stranahan, of CJR Daily. Middle initial is "Q" not "!" -- I was tired. My apologies to Ms. Stranahan.]