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“Journalistic lapses at the New York Times should, in effect, count triple”

Palko, writing about the latest Judith Miller Matt Apuzzo, Michael Schmidt, and Julia Preston story:

There is no publication in the country, perhaps even in the world, with a reputation like that of the New York Times. It is almost universally considered the standard for American newspapers. For that reason, I would argue that journalistic lapses at the New York Times should, in effect, count triple. First, there is the damage that always comes from bad journalism, second there is the additional impact of having unreliable news coming from what is considered a reliable source, and third there is the chilling effect on the standards of other publications. “If they can cut corners, why can’t we?”

Well put. When the Paper of Record repeatedly refuses to correct the errors of David Brooks, I’m annoyed, but op-eds aren’t real news. When the Wall Street Journal publishes the ignorant ravings of torture apologist John Yoo . . . well, they’re the Wall Street Journal, if they get the business news right, who cares about their editorial page. But when the Times starts blowing it on the news pages, I agree with Palko that we should be concerned.

Palko quotes Josh Marshall:

[The Times] aimed at such a general audience and seemed focused on writing the broad, definitive piece that articles were published with such a level of vagueness that there weren’t a lot of factual details to work with.

So it wasn’t that they were wrong or inaccurate necessarily – just vague and unspecific.

Except when they were totally wrong.

Interesting point, that the pressure to be definitive could create problems. Shades of PPNAS.

P.S. In the old days I would’ve posted this on the Monkey Cage but now that we’re at the Washington Post, it wouldn’t quite come across right.

P.P.S. More here from NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

18 Comments

  1. dmk38 says:

    I sometimes believe the NY Times is different.

    But it occurs to me that the usual occasion for me thinking that is the indignation & disappointment I feel when confronted with <a href="http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/1/3/a-tale-of-the-tales-told-about-two-expert-consensus-reports.html"evidence that it really just isn't.

  2. James C. Whanger says:

    Perhaps I am missing something.

    Josh Marshall wrote this:

    “I became even more curious yesterday when FBI Director James Comey stated definitively that the FBI had uncovered no information at all about her posting such statements publicly to social media.”

    The New York Times wrote this:

    And one key piece of reporting was this piece in The New York Times which reported: None of the background checks “uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

    One can reasonably interpret “talked openly” as *expressed without reservation* these ideas in private messages via social media apps. And further cannot rule this interpretation out from the FBI’s comment that there was no evidence that anything was posted “publicly” which can be interpreted as *not in a private message*.

    Josh Marshall rules this interpretation out, but does not provide an argument or additional evidence that would allow one to do so.

    Is it me? Or is Josh Marshall’s reporting on sloppy reporting sloppily reasoned?

    • Kyle C says:

      You are way too charitable to the Times. The nut graf was —

      “But their recent discovery exposed a significant — and perhaps inevitable — shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere talk more and disclose more about themselves online. Despite a tremendous electronic intelligence-gathering apparatus that captures phone calls and emails from around the world, it remains impossible to conduct an exhaustive investigation for each of the tens of millions of people who are cleared each year to come to this country to work, visit or live.”

      The implication of all this — not to mention the front-page headline, “U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Online Zealotry” — is perfectly clear. To wit, an “exhaustive investigation” would have led to the earlier “discovery” of what she was “disclos[ing] … about [herself] online,” and the failure to find the messages “exposed” a “shortcoming” — all of which implies that the messages were public (the ordinary meaning of “disclosing … online”) and were overlooked only because it was “impossible to conduct an exhaustive investigation.”

      One can now charitably parse the Times’s language, in hindsight, and ask, well, did it really mean that? Let’s assume the best case for the Times, it was ambiguous. That ambiguity alone is unforgivable in journalism of this importance.

      • James C. Whanger says:

        Except that they said, “it remains *impossible* to conduct an exhaustive investigation…” The FBI’s comment still does not rule this out, though I am certainly open to a clarification from Director Comey that makes it clear that they did indeed include private messages from within the social media applications. Statements by the Director of the FBI are generally very well and intentionally constructed to include and exclude things precisely. If Director Comey intended to include both publicly available writings as well as those privately held by the social media companies, I believe he would have made that explicit.

      • James C. Whanger says:

        I agree that at the very least the language in The Times piece was unclear. However, if we use that as a threshold for ‘unforgivable’ behavior, then we have an extremely large body of journalism to condemn.

      • James C. Whanger says:

        Not the least of which would be Josh Marshall’s and Palko’s writing on this story.

    • James C. Whanger says:

      It will drive me crazy if I don’t edit my comment:

      Perhaps I am missing something.

      Josh Marshall wrote this:

      “I became even more curious yesterday when FBI Director James Comey stated definitively that the FBI had uncovered no information at all about her posting such statements publicly to social media.”

      According to Josh Marshall, The New York Times wrote this:

      And one key piece of reporting was this piece in The New York Times which reported: None of the background checks “uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

      One can reasonably interpret “talked openly” as *expressed without reservation* these ideas in private messages via social media apps. And further cannot rule out this interpretation from the FBI’s comment that there was no evidence that anything was posted “publicly” which can be interpreted as *not in a private message*.

      Josh Marshall rules out this interpretation:

      “That seems pretty clear cut. Now it also appears to be false. And as Erik Wemple notes here, it’s a huge difference, much more than a simple difference between posting a private message and posting on your timeline. One set of facts is roughly the equivalent to finding out after the fact that Malik had discussed jihad with friends via email. The other makes the entire government counter-terrorism operation seem incompetent. Even unintentionally, it amounts to mainstream media disinformation.”

      However, I do not see the evidence that would allow one to do so.

      Is it me? Or is Josh Marshall’s reporting on sloppy reporting sloppily reasoned?

    • Mark Palko says:

      The New York Times now also rules out that interpretation

      http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/new-york-times-san-bernardino-correction-margaret-sullivan-public-editor/?_r=0

      ‘It was certainly damning – and it was wrong. On Wednesday, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, referred to such reporting as “a garble.” And, as it turns out from his statements and from further reporting, Ms. Malik had not posted “openly” on social media. She had written emails; she had written private messages, not visible to the public; and she had written on a dating site.

      ‘In other words, the story’s clear implication that those who vetted Ms. Malik’s visa had missed the boat – a clearly visible ocean liner – was based on a false premise.

      ‘On Thursday evening, an editors’ note was appended to the article; it appeared in Friday’s paper. Editors’ notes are sometimes used instead of corrections to provide more context and explanation. But there’s no question that this also functioned as a correction.’

      • James C. Whanger says:

        The NY Times is saying that Director Comey’s words are consistent with my interpretation above. He said ‘garbled’, not wrong, for a reason. He recognizes the plausible alternative interpretation of “openly”.

        • Mark Palko says:

          No, though Comey uses the word “garbled,” the NYT does not treat the alternative interpretation of “openly” as plausible. Starting with the title (“Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article”), Margaret Sullivan’s column consistently and explicitly agrees with Marshall:

          “What I’ll lay out here was a bad one. It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do.”

          And though she doesn’t mention Marshall by name, she does cite other writers such as Charles Pierce (who also appeared in my post):

          “She’s right. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, who wrote early and often on this all week, noted that the story “set fire to the news system. All sorts of follow-up reports surfaced. And straight into the political arena it went.” It wasn’t long, he added, before Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was using it to bash Democrats. And there’s been a lot of commentary: Esquire saw “source pollution” as the problem; Mother Jones wrote that two of the reporters should be “considered on probation” (not dismissed, as an earlier version of this post said); and Salon called it “an epic reporting fail” with dire national consequences.”

  3. BenK says:

    What of the NYTimes test, which is based on the observation that when specialists read a NYTimes article in their own area, it is often
    substantially inaccurate?

  4. JohnnyZoom says:

    I think one should be careful to distinguish actual news reporting from op-eds and the like. There are nationally syndicated op-eders who don’t understand the Law of Noncontradiction yet (presumably) are an attractive read and bring subscribers to the table. Freedom the press and all that.

    A problem with the NYT is however that they admit to slanting hard news stories in certain cases. Or as the author of the following piece has said elsewhere, to write certain news stories as if they were op-eds.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tmatt/2011/10/god-and-the-new-york-times-once-again/

    One can have widely divergent views of the NYT’s stated position here and still agree this is a sad development for journalism. It seems from my readings that other outlets have followed them down that path. But they were the first to my knowledge that came out to admit yes we no longer always cover news as news.

  5. Rahul says:

    I used to think of the WSJ as a business news paper too. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how good its non-business stories are too.

    Especially if you care reading about niche, eclectic areas, WSJ articles are great. If there was one paper that’s expanded my reading into all sorts of random sectors I didn’t know much about before, its due to the WSJ.

  6. D.O. says:

    James C. Whanger, I think the main complaint about NYT (journalists’) behavior in this instance is that they follow their source’s political agenda. Of course, it cannot be proven until the journalists or the sources themselves tell us, but it is probable. In general, it isn’t a good idea to pass on the politically motivated views of your sources as news even if you are careful enough to muddy the waters. As for the FBI director carefully worded statements, at least he is standing behind them personally.

    On a broader note, it is probably too much to ask journalists not to focus on a single fact about a single person. But what really is important is whether FBI wants or can monitor the semi-private online interactions of visa applicants in general. What about their Google searches? How about metadata for their phone calls? There are reasonable and unreasonable ways to screen visa applicants, but it is almost crazy to base them on the latest lapse. It is like making a statistical conclusion on a single data point.

    • James C. Whanger says:

      D.O.:

      I agree that the article was not written in such a way that made the meaning unambiguous. However, the follow-up articles pointing to this were not any more clearly written. Where the original article left too much to interpretation, these articles have drawn strong inferences without the evidence with which to do so. As does your inference that your interpretation is ‘probable’ where I do not see how you logically get there given the words in front of us and the quite plausible and quite different meanings possible for those same words.

      It seems unreasonable to expect a lack of ambiguity in journalism when academic, legislative, and legal writing is also rife with the use of words intended to obscure precise meaning. A professor I once knew referred to this as using ‘weasel words’ in an effort to stay out of academic debates that were not the focus of a given paper. There is probably a more charitable term for this, but it is an aspect of the English language that it is far more difficult to write precisely than ambiguously. And also that the assumption of shared meaning is a strong one and often unwarranted.

      If the FBI wrote our newspaper articles they would be far less ambiguous and we would know next to nothing about abuses of surveillance powers. Director Comey has made it clear that the FBI recognizes they do not have the power to surveil U.S. citizens without cause, though it is clear there are a lot of U.S. citizens who would like to renounce this Constitutional right, so long as it targets people they suspect to be ‘evil doers’.

      • D.O. says:

        I am not sure I am following your train of thought. Do you suggest that journalists in question do not understand the difference between “openly” as in “readily visible to anyone” and “openly” as “could be found if specific person becomes a target of intrusive investigation”? Do they think the distinction is not important? I think that if the object of the article is to criticize the FBI for lapses in their vetting procedures, it is of prime importance to understand what those procedures are. Right? Let me troll you a little bit — do you think that Saddam’s Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction because they surely had a lot of weaponry that could have killed a lot of people?

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