Saturday , May 18 2024
Why must The New York Times be so flaky?

Stop Getting Scooped!

To: The New York Times
From: A Former Reporter/Current News Junkie
Re: Why so flaky lately?

Oh, The New York Times, why must you be so unlikeable? So hard to rely upon for news about its own biggest current newsmaker?

Why are you making moves that makes me wonder if I need to buy you a journalism 101 textbook?

Do you not see that this situation – especially your habit of getting scooped on your own reporter’s actions – is switching from comic to tragic?

I started writing this column Friday morning. I was all set to write that it was generally a good week for the news media, especially for The New York Times and the Washington Post.

Both newspapers had excellent editorials attacking President Bush’ comments about vetoing a bill that would have blocked torture.

Both newspapers had what seemed – seemed being the key word – thorough articles on this whole sordid mess about Judith Miller. She is the one who has been in bed with the White House administration, first for being their stooge for trumped up stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and then for having some role in this whole mess with outing a CIA agent.

Meanwhile, Jay Rosen – one of my favorite media critics – wrote his influential column about how he no longer considers The New York Timesthe nation’s best newspaper.

Derek Rose and other bloggers quickly came to the Timesdefense.

I wanted to love you again, New York Times. Really, I did. Why must that love be unrequited?

Trashing you week after week was getting old.

I had criticized you for being clueless – especially as compared to the Washington Post – in adjusting to the Internet age by putting content behind walls.

And when Judith Miller got out of jail I questioned how the New York Times can get scooped on its own reporter’s release and why some questions are being met with new questions.

So as you can see some good news was welcome, and not just for The New York Times.

After Katrina, some reporters were acting lazy and too self-congratulatory. When it became clear that some of the rumors they reported were, well, rumors, they began to understandably shut up. I urged them to get off their butts, put away the champagne and get back to work.

And many did.

There were excellent news stories in the Times on topics other than Katrina and Miller and I was starting to like you again. I mean, who wants to regularly beat up on a newspaper nicknamed the Gray Lady?

Sure I can quibble – and did – about how The New York Times and other publications did the public a disservice when it continued its habit of trying so hard to avoid offending its readers that the reader has to go to other publications to understand the story. In this case it was with a woman whose t-shirt so offended other passengers because of its content, which just happened to include White House officials.

But fine, that maddening puritanical streak is nothing new.

I was ready to overlook Miller’s annoying habit- as Sydney Schanberg wrote about it – of refusing to come clean on her conduct while taking steps to try to look like the martyr or hero of the situation. She was even pointing out, to Barbara Walters, that she was in prison longer than any other journalist.

And then it happened again! You got scooped again! And to make matters worse, it was on another questionable action by Miller.

This time it was the New York Observer – a weekly, mind you – scooping the Times with the news that Miller had just found (whoops!) other notes she had from a conversation with I. Lewis Libby.

Either you give up the notes or you don’t – by “accidently” finding new ones Miller just gives more ammo to future prosecutors fighting for reporter’s sources. I can just hear them saying they will need all the notes of a reporter, not just the ones the reporter first “finds.”

The new notes may explain why Karl Rove and Miller are getting renewed interest from the prosecutor.

For a few hours Saturday I even felt bad for my characterizations of Miller and her reporting. What made me rethink my stance was an article suggesting she was right to be skeptical about whether Libby Lewis’ waiver to her was truly voluntary.

So maybe she had more reason to sit in jail than to prep for a future book deal after all. I felt bad. Poor Judy!

But wait a minute?!

Why was it Reuters, not the Times, obtaining and published the letter by the prosecutor encouraging Lewis to give Miller the waiver?

Why was Reuters scooping the Times? Had the Times forgot that it had won past journalism awards for being first, not last, with stories? Why was serial news fabricator Jayson Blair, formerly of the Times, looking good in comparison to Miller?

Why, as the Columbia Journalism Review, Press Think and others are rightly asking, is the Times not disclosing what is going on?

Meanwhile, Miller’s lawyer has reportedly stopped returning journalists’ phone calls.

While The New York Times referred to new information in the case its readers were once again forced to read elsewhere to find out what was really going on with its own reporter.

This, just to be clear, is not how it is supposed to work.

As a journalist I learned the hard way that you can do the best job ever covering a complicated issue but if you flub a detail like the spelling of a person’s name you lose major credibility.

That’s the situation now with the Times – it can do a great job covering Iraq but if it can’t do a decent job covering Miller it’s hard to avoid wondering what else it is doing wrong.

Is it any wonder that employee morale at the Times is supposed to be in the toilet?

The Times can do better but for now, I have to think that Jay Rosen is right about the Times and Derek Rose is wrong: The Times is looking inferior to its peers.

Go ahead, Times. Prove me wrong.

Meanwhile, I remain your constant reader,

Scott Butki

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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