Journalistic Fraud

Journalistic Fraud (How The New York Times Distorts the News and Why It Can No Longer be Trusted) by Bob Kohn (WND Books, 2003)

Since arriving on these shores in 1980, from a country with three (now four) daily broadsheets, I have had an ambiguous affair with the New York Times, effectively the only game in town, and have learned to live with its vagaries. On the plus side have been its breadth of coverage, its occasional searing exposures (such as the recent analysis of OSHA incompetence), its Tuesday Science Report, its business reporting, its book reviews led by the incomparable Michiko Kakutani, and the crossword. On the minus side have been its overall pompous air, the unimaginative letters page sprinkled liberally with expressions of dubious logic, its highly selective coverage of “abroad”, with quirky features that could have been written months before, and its divisive obsession with issues of “race” and “ethnicity”. In recent years, however, Bob Kohn, an attorney who describes himself as an “avid reader” of the paper, methodically tracked a more insidious trend. The “Old Gray Lady” had become a sassy teenager.

Kohn’s thesis is that, when Howell Raines moved, in 2001, from Editorial Page editor to assume responsibility for the news, the Times abandoned its traditional policy of objective reporting, and became a crusading publication whose only object was to attack George Bush and his administration – not just on the editorial pages, but in the news stories. He backs this up by showing dozens of examples of loaded headlines, slanting of stories by opinions and polls, the attribution of criticisms to unidentified sources, distortion by loaded language, and the selection and placement of reports, that completely undermined the paper’s reputation for integrity. He highlights the story of museum looting in Baghdad as an example of unprincipled and erroneous reporting for which the Times never apologized. His message is a little repetitive, and a little indulgent towards any Bush administration missteps, but it chronicles well how the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., must have blessed this radical departure from standards set down by his predecessors. Much of this saga ended in tears after the disastrous Jayson Blair affair last year, when Raines’s autocratic but sloppy management style was revealed, and he was forced to resign.

Does all this matter? First, it was an affront to the principles on which the newspaper was founded, and on tenets of good journalism everywhere. And second, the influence of the Times, in the degree to which it dominates the press, should demand more sober reportage. Hundreds of publications depend on the paper for newsfeeds, and the Times owns several regional newspapers (including the Wilmington Star-News), through which it passes its news coverage and features. Kohn documents all this well, and reminds us of the Times’s arcane governance structure, whereby its board is dominated by Sulzbergers and their relatives and friends – hardly an exemplar of transparency.

Sulzberger may have gotten Kohn’s message. Since the book was published, and Bill Keller (who has more of a news reporting background) became Executive Editor, I have noticed a return to more objective reporting practices. And a few months ago, Keller announced the appointment of a new post, the “Public Editor”, Daniel Okrent, who is supposed to represent the readers’ interests. To me, this is rather like appointing a Manager of Quality Control instead of having the principles embedded in the management chain, and Mr. Okrent appears to be struggling a little with his role. Still, it represents a small step toward greater “openness”. Bob Kohn was not the only observer to notice the deterioration at the paper, but he was certainly the most painstaking, and has maintained an overall balanced stance in the current media slanging-match between left and right.

By the way, I wrote emails to the three top editors of the Times during this review period, asking for any comments they might have on Journalistic Fraud, but predictably received no reply. The paper has not sued Kohn for the provocative title of his book; do not, however, expect to find there a review of it by Ms. Kakutani.

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