Tag Archives: New York Times

Muckraking – Why Good Intentions Aren’t Good Enough

Following on the heels of my earlier post on the David Paterson affair, the New York Times breaks a new development today (from the same journalists as the original investigative report) which finds, by way of two anonymous sources, that Paterson did instruct two staff members to contact the woman accusing one of his aids of domestic violence. The article is laid out beautifully, except for this gem buried in its own paragraph midway through the article:

These accounts provide the first evidence that Mr. Paterson helped direct an effort to influence the accuser.

This is why I don’t feel compelled to recant the previous post even though Paterson’s relative guilt is now, at this point, pretty much a moot point. By floating the previous three articles – the same articles that led, directly, to Paterson’s resignation – the Times unquestionably laid the groundwork for the two sources paraphrased here to come forward. Without those articles, the sources say nothing. But if this is, quote, the “first evidence” that Mr. Paterson ever directed anyone to do anything, on what grounds are the other articles justified?

I am not saying that domestic violence is not a crime. I am not saying that Paterson is innocent. This, however, is a procedural question, and procedural questions are endemic to how institutions like the press, and like the law, are ordered; it’s the kind of thing that, not coincidentally in a show called “Law & Order,” goes wrong during the police investigation and leaves Sam Waterston glaring. No one likes to see guilty people go free; and no one likes to see crooked politicians abusing their position of power to exploit the innocent, let alone the victimized. But to build journalism on mere supposition – as the new article admits, without direct evidence – is not journalism: it’s muckraking, of the foulest, most generic kind.

Maybe the Times is feeling unloved, given all the hype – even in the Times! – surrounding the National Enquirer’s attempts to earn Pulitzer approval for their coverage of the John Edwards scandal, but whereas the Enquirer carried the day by actually implementing conventional journalistic practice, the Times here is only aping the worst habits of the tabloid press.


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What’s with the New York Times and Albany?; or, We Are Pathetic

I’d considered writing about this earlier, then figured that adding fuel to the speculative fire would only run contrary to my conviction. Lee Siegel sums up my own thoughts on the David Paterson affair today on the Daily Beast. Money quotes:

Conscientious and admirable as the Times’ reporting was, the paper’s investigation could not even determine one essential point: Whether the woman Johnson is accused of attacking was called by Paterson after the incident, or whether she called Paterson herself. In a case where wrongdoing turns on the possibility that Paterson tried to intimidate the woman into not pressing charges, who made the call is essential to know. But we don’t know.

Yet so intense is our need for an outrage-fix that we turned innuendo into the instrument of a massive high and drugged ourselves into certainty that Paterson had traduced his office in the most thrilling and intolerable way. And—voila! Paterson announces he’s terminating his campaign, and The New York Times has the scalp of a second consecutive New York governor hanging from its belt.

For weeks – it seems like years – now the Times has percolated anticipation as to what Paterson’s sin might be. Online outlets even claimed that the charges were so severe that Paterson had called the paper himself to strike some kind of a compromise (how this would ever work, once the mere existence of a transgression had become public knowledge, who knows). The paper managed all of this adroitly, first running a profile on Paterson’s driver-turned-confidante (my god, he doesn’t have a Master’s!) to yawns, and only gradually turning up the heat. Their restraint alone is admirable; it’s the kind of move that one would never expect to see in the 21st century information marketplace, where anyone wanting to sell papers (correction: online advertising space) would do well to lay out as much dirt as quickly as possible. But still, the entire exercise seems somewhat pointless. The Times hinted its way towards another gubernatorial resignation, but it wasn’t the quality of its information, or even the thoroughness of its reportage, that warranted any real mention. Really? It was the fragility of the public psyche and the gullibility of the newshounds who followed the paper’s forty-seven (okay, it was three) part installment. Such gamesmanship is to lower journalistic standards, not to raise them, but still, because of Paterson’s resignation, the Times is empowered to call it a win. Maybe it is. But not for us.

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Correction of the Moment

This from Charles Blow’s NYT op-ed about “Tyler Perry’s Crack Mothers,” which uses Mo’Niques likelihood of winning an Academy Award for her performance in “Precious” as a jumping off point for discussing the demonstrably false stereotype of black crack mothers prevalent in Perry’s films, and in the culture more generally:

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described Mo’Nique’s character in the movie “Precious.” She was not a crack addict.

Now it’s common enough practice for op-ed writers to use a particular cultural moment as a springboard to broader sociological inquiries. I’ve got that. But if Blow’s central premise is faulty, if he’s never apparently seen the film in question, why does the article exist in the first place? Why wouldn’t the Times just pull the online version entirely? Besides his analysis of “Precious,” Blow includes but one example as to how the crack mother trope is prevalent throughout Perry’s oeuvre:

In the last five years, he has featured a crack-addicted black mother who leaves her children in two of his films and on his very popular sitcom, “House of Payne.” (In one of the films, the character is referred to but never seen.)

I’m going to guess that the editor who made the correction didn’t likewise go back and correct Blow’s arithmetic, which would mean that Perry has featured a crack-addicted black mother who leaves her family in exactly one film in five years. In that time, Perry has directed, written, produced, and (generally starred in) ten separate feature films, counting “Precious.” On television in that time, Perry has produced just under 50 episodes of his other very popular sitcom “Meet the Browns.” “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne,” was recently renewed by TBS for an additional season, giving it an unprecedented 126 episode run within two years. This figure is equivalent to a new episode every 2.896 days. In all that air time, Perry has apparently produced only two black crack mothers? Is there really nothing else to write about?

Tyler Perry is an outright scourge when it comes to the perpetuation of racial stereotypes; that his cultural products find a home with the same audience he is typing makes his message all the more powerful and, to most eyes, pernicious. But Blow’s argument uses Perry in all the wrong ways. He sets the director up as a straw man, and Perry’s the one left laughing when Blow swings and can’t quite knock him down.

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How to Preach to Altar Boys – The Lessons of Barack Obama’s NYT Op-Ed

In the same way that my childhood self longed for the advent of flying cars, it is my fondest hope that someday, in the far-flung future, someone will print a dangerously ironic t-shirt commemorating the fact that it was our most digitally-conscious president, he of the netroots zeitgeist and social network wizardry, who chose to communicate with the public through what was supposed to be a dying medium. For all the ink once spilled on President Barack Obama’s plan to implement his own version of fireside chats by way of YouTube addresses, yesterday, in an attempt to galvanize support for his health care plan, the president turned not to Twitter, but instead penned a much-read editorial in the New York Times. Certainly this seems reasonable enough, and if the written transcript of his victory speech is but one indication, his words come off nearly as forcefully in print as they do by way of his famed oratory. Yet as the president currently attempts to make his case by touring the (particularly unfriendly) Western states in a series of (largely antipathetic) town halls, the choice of venue for this latest supplication comes as something of a surprise, if only because Times readers are infinitely more likely than readers of, say, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to simply agree with Obama in the first place. There’s that old adage about preaching to the choir, but this particular moment goes well beyond that, if only because even the casual newspaper reader is likely to be more well-schooled in the nuances of the policy struggle than the brevity of an editorial piece would allow; this isn’t just a matter of appealing to the converted, but appealing to people who have as much a grasp of the arcane ritual surrounding the services as does the minister himself. That being the case, unless, in what would be a truly profound display of net savvy, the Obama team is simply waiting to see how long it takes for news aggregators to strip away the Times‘s byline entirely, and thereby gauge how long it takes for an original story to hit the cultural bloodstream, it’s hard to imagine that the point of this piece is truly to persuade, the implicit function of any editorial, no matter the venue. Breaking it apart piece by piece, the unanticipated surprises of this story give us a chance to examine what role an op-ed can possibly serve a sitting president. Can a presidential op-ed really be more than just a stump speech with cheaper newsprint?

In a word? Maybe. An exhaustive study of previous presidential op-ed pieces wouldn’t really leave one with much to work with. It’s almost impossible to imagine any president before the digital age bothering to disseminate points of policy by way of a medium with a finitely circumscribed circulation, and George W. Bush certainly wasn’t busy jockeying for page space with Frank Rich. The only real model for Obama’s current strategy is, well, Obama himself. Back during the campaign, Obama offered an op-ed to the Times detailing his strategy for the war in Iraq. At the time, the article was praised for offering a specific vision of specific policies at a time when the presumptive candidate had long been decried as weak in articulating any decisive policy, and yet it was John McCain, not Obama, whose essay was refused by the Times for not laying any new groundwork, for reacting rather than responding (an allegation which, by the way, is pretty much true; there are approximately three sentences in the course of twelve paragraphs where McCains uses “I”as the subject of a sentence  rather than “Senator Obama”).

At first blush, by comparison, Obama’s latest piece does seem to read like something of a stump speech. We see phrases like “I don’t have to explain.” There’s a parting reference to our children, although fortunately sans mention of “our children’s children.” The second paragraph mentions one of the “46 million Americans without health insurance” by name, thereby attempting to give shape to the general through familiarization with the specific, and yet, merely by drawing attention to the staggering size of that figure makes it seem as though Ms. Lori Hithcock’s story was chosen at random (and really, of all hepatitis sufferers to mention, you pick someone with the sexually-transmitted one?). As far as political rhetoric goes, this sort of thing is as predictable as verse-chorus-verse. Yet the real breakthrough here really is in enhanced specificity in the final paragraphs, in a line by line, point by point dissection of what the president’s health care agenda is aimed at accomplishing. As I’d said before, this sort of frankness shouldn’t be news to readers of the Times…except that it is. Obama’s opening shot describing how “media attention has been focused [only] on the loudest voices” seems to be a passing snipe at Fox News and the like, who’ve been giving airtime to people who yell at Arlen Specter and bring guns to public places as though they were in fact policy specialists, but the notion that the media’s priorities are slightly skewed could even be applied to the Times itself. Many of the featured articles on health care policy (here, here, here, or here, for starters) are focused not on what current legislative provisions are actually intended, but only which ones probably won’t make the cut. The media’s depiction of bill drafting is a hallmark exercise in negative capability. Even the splash page for the Times‘s Caucus blog plays up the same unresolved tensions. The fact that the currently “most e-mailed” Times op-ed piece is not the president’s own but – I am not making this up -“Op-Ed Contributor: Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think,” suggests that the public has largely grown weary of the discourse.

Given that no domestic policy is more pressing at present than health care mediation, this sort of policy fatigue obviously cannot stand. And that’s what Obama’s op-ed, with remarkable swiftness, manages to accomplish. By simply spelling out his priorities, free from the entangling interjections of several score of Congresspeople, Obama is able to provide his own benchmark for what the eventual legislation should or should not accomplish, his own narrow version of the Monroe Doctrine. Certainly there’s a risk to this approach – if the bill is deflated by the time it is passed, then it is Obama’s op-ed that will provide the template for its failure – but the upshot to presenting a unified policy front is that it actually might allow the administration to mitigate blame. In the same day that the op-ed ran, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s own Health and Human Services Secretary, implied that the now thoroughly battered “public option” might need to be dropped from the final bill. But with all of his cards on the table, any late amendments to the eventual bill can’t be laid at Obama’s door. In this sense, Obama’s health care opinion piece is actually more radical than his discourse on Iraq. In deference to the relative success of the surge, much of Obama’s space in the earlier article is eaten up parsing the tweaks that can be made to existing foreign policy, and yet his parting statement, “It’s time to end this war,” remains pretty much unfulfilled. Taking on health care head-on, hep-C and all, allows Obama to take a stand and then to wash his hands of any potential fallout.

In the past several weeks, the Times has done its own part to bring the health care debate back to the issues at hand, printing a primer on the different arguments involved, yet in an effort to remain fair and balanced, the piece winds up more akin to McCain’s rejected “not this, but that” approach than to a genuine summary of what the relevant legislation actually looks like. Generally when we imagine public policy, we envision it with the same back-and-forth vacillation as political dialogue or academic debate. But for a sitting president, he who holds T.R.’s famed “bully pulpit,” the virtue of an op-ed piece lies in unequivocal articulation. It’s presidents, not candidates, who get to drive the Straight-Talk Express.


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