May 27, 2003

SO WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THE NEW YORK TIMES STORY? I don’t know. (Reader Vish Subramanian says that my repeated posts on this subject are “boring and annoying.” Sorry, Vish! I’ll get back to my usual obsessions soon, I promise.) Part of it is vindication: despite the cult of the Times, it’s a flawed human institution, as bloggers have been pointing out, and it’s kind of nice to see that presented in undeniable fashion. We all make mistakes, and we all have biases. But the Times is slow to correct the former, and laughably pretends to lack the latter.

Part of it is also that some of this is an insult to our intelligence, much like the Administration’s absurd claims (which I was flaming about repeatedly here last year) that the September 11 attacks were somehow unimaginable. That was absurd. The Columbine killers planned to hijack a plane and smash it into Manhattan, and anyone who has flown over Manhattan has surely thought about the damage an errant airliner could do. Anyone who honestly believes that such an attack was unimaginable, — as opposed to, perhaps, being something that a reasonable person would consider imaginable but unlikely — is sufficiently unimaginative that he/she shouldn’t be working in a position of responsibility.

Weirdly, the White House still seems to be trying to push this line, though, judging by its recent efforts to keep quiet a report suggesting that the President was warned on August 6 that Al Qaeda might try to hijack airplanes. Why? The question isn’t whether it was a possibility. The question was whether it should have been recognized as an imminent threat. The answer to the former is pretty clearly “of course.” The answer to the latter isn’t nearly as clear. But why pretend it’s not a question at all? Who do they think they’re fooling?

UPDATE: Subramanian also notes:

However, while discussing blogs and newspapers, you miss one hugely important point in favor of blogs – the ability to mark corrections on articles. A responsible blogger should always go back and mark the permlinks in case of errors etc. The Times cant. Which is why it is vulnerable to articles like Rich Lowry’s. In fact, over the last few weeks, it is the NY Times which has done fine reporting showing that its own initial reports are misstated. However, the original articles were on the front page and will be read by future generations on microfilm – without the later qualifications.

Excellent point. The character of newspapers makes it harder for them to seamlessly correct errors than it is for, say, blogs. [So why do many people consider them more reliable than blogs? -- Ed. Good question!] But making the original versions of articles show evidence of correction is a good idea. Linda Seebach suggests, rightly, that I don’t give the technological problems with this enough attention. But I think it’s important to come as close to this ideal as possible.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Vish doesn’t like it, but other readers can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet NYT blogging. Hank Fenster writes: “I, for one, am following
the NY Times stuff with great interest.” And Bob Spretnak emails:

Is this a Milli Vanilli moment for American journalism? Y’know … passing off the work of someone else as your own, with the public being shocked and angered at the first revelation. Of course, re Milli Vanilli, the public eventually accepted the notion of lip synching (see, e.g., Spears, Britney), but nevertheless Fab & Rob — around whom the scandal originally broke — remained pariahs in perpetuity.

The Jayson Blair scandal is the journalistic equivalent of Enron — massive fraud and deceit. Bragg is Milli Vanilli, minus the braided mophead hair.

And if the NY Times does equal Milli Vanilli, does that make Howell Raines Frank Farian?

(PS: You aren’t blogging about the NY Times ENOUGH.)

Hmm. Well, you can’t please everybody, so — to quote that great journalistic philosopher Ricky Nelson — I guess I’ll have to please myself. And we can at least be grateful that we’ve been spared the hair.

ANOTHER UPDATE: James Lileks explains how to write a New York Times feature story, and offers this observation:

Yes, you can take some stringer’s notes and compose a story, but the difference between that an a piece you wrote from your own research is the difference between a Penthouse Forum letter and your recollection of your wedding night.

Indeed.