Memo: To Barney Calame, NYT Ombudsman
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Weak Spots at the Times
Congratulations on your appointment as the new "ombudsman" or public editor at the Times, following the good job Dan Okrent did in his 18-month stint. Although we have not spoken for decades, since we both worked for the Wall Street Journal in the 1970s, your reputation as a journalist of great integrity was well established then and only grew during the years you worked as a Journal editor. It speaks well of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times publisher, and Bill Keller, its executive editor, that they would locate you in retirement to succeed Okrent. You of course noted that in Dan's parting column he mentioned me as one of the readers who peppered him with various cautions about the paper's reporting, but also told him that the Times remains one of the great pleasures of my life. As the first cut of history, newspaper accounts of "the news" are inevitably flawed, but the Times remains the most important newspaper in the world because its culture aims to minimize those flaws.
It will take you a while to get your footing, Barney, but in this your second week on the job, I decided I'd help out by identifying some weak spots at the paper that were there when Dan Okrent showed up and which he could do nothing about. I hope you will agree with me that if you could make a dent in those areas, the Times would be elevated in its influence on domestic and global policymaking. Here are five such spots:
Global Warming It's no secret I think mankind and the carbon dioxide we produce is not responsible for the slight warming of the planet that basically occurred at the end of the 19th century. In its editorials, the Times takes the opposite view. That's okay, but my problem is with the news coverage. The paper's climate reporter, Philip Revkin, made up his mind years ago that he agreed with the editorial page and his reporting reflects that egregious bias. This morning, for example, he reports that the Bush White House has been editing the position papers on global warming written by bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency, as if this was an impeachable offence. The editors played the story above the fold on Page One.
High up, Revkin identified the most serious "editing" by Phil Cooney, chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality: "The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase 'significant and fundamental' before the word 'uncertainties,' tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust."
Think about it a minute and you might see that Cooney's editing brought the EPA in line with President Bush's policy on global warming, but all across the country the dispatch showed up in newspapers and the electronic media as if some dire deed had been committed. Revkin can never be reformed, I'm afraid, and should be reassigned to the police beat.
Robin Hood Economics I've made similar complaints about the Times eagerness to back up its tax-the-rich editorial positions with front-page reports that "prove" conclusively that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, as the result of Republican tax policies. Here the newspaper's reporter, David Cay Johnston, on Sunday advised readers (above the fold on Page One), that not only are the rich getting richer, but also the super rich are getting richer than the merely rich. I complained to David two years ago when he wrote a similar piece, pointing out that there are no reliable ways of determining the net worth of individuals and that you can't use "income" numbers supplied by Internal Revenue to make assertions about "wealth." You can't call up anyone in Washington, even the IRS, and find out how much I am worth or you are worth. Forbes tries to estimate the net worth each year of the "Forbes 400," and we see in recent days that Alberto Vilar of Amerindo, who according to Forbes has a net worth of $900 million, only has $10,000 in the bank, with his lawyer saying his net is $100 million. See what I mean, Barney? A small businessman or a farmer can have an average income of $40,000 over his lifetime and be considered "middle class" by the IRS stats, but when he sells his farm or business for $1 million, he is suddenly wealthy.
Monetary Ignorance In all the years I have been reading and enjoying the Times it has never had a reporter or editorial writer who knew much about monetary policy. Yes, there's always someone to cover the Federal Reserve and whether it will raise or lower interest rates, but I'm not kidding when I say the Times flat out shrinks from exploring discussions of domestic or international monetary policies. Whatever Alan Greenspan wants to do is okay. I was excited two months ago to get a call from a Times Sunday Magazine writer, Stephen Metcalf, who said he wanted to do a piece on gold as a factor in monetary policy. He came out to Morristown and spent almost three hours with me, more on e-mails back and forth. I thought surely this would be breaking new ground. Alas, the piece appeared June 5, "Believing (and Believing and Believing) in Bullion" and it was literally a joke. If you talk to three dozen people and two dozen laugh at gold that becomes the line of least resistance. I told Metcalf he should be ashamed of himself for going that route. He assured me my views were thoroughly represented in an early draft, cut for lack of space.
Mass Graves in Iraq Did you see the front-pager yesterday about how the trial against Saddam Hussein is being prepared, with a focus on the mass graves found all over Iraq being attributed to genocide? If you are still in touch with Dan Okrent, he will tell you that he promised me more than a year ago that he would make some phone calls to authoritative sources to check out these stories – which I believe to be false. Before he left as public editor, he apologized that he could never get around to it. From my vantage point, the Times has decided as an institution that Saddam committed genocide and the case is closed, so editors and reporters do not have to question the assumptions. Please note that Human Rights Watch, which first argued that Saddam had used poison gas to kill as many as 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, subsequently argued that he had transported the Kurds to outside Kurdistan and had them machine-gunned to death and dumped into mass graves. Now Human Rights Watch is saying they were gassed in what is referred to as the "Anfal" campaign, although one grave turns up men, women and children with bullet wounds in their heads. The story yesterday notes that the grave uncovered was being examined by American forensic experts, which would be necessary to show when they died and at whose hands. There is no mention of the Finnish forensic experts who were sent to make these studies but went home when American forces told them they would not be allowed to disturb the bodies found. Huh? Reporters have to be more skeptical, especially when authoritative sources in the U.S. government have been saying for years that the Anfal genocide did not happen, that it was "a non-event."
Louis Farrakhan After the Million Man March in October 1995, I decided I had to spend the time to find out for myself whether Min. Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam was a bad guy or a good guy or half-and-half. I finally met him in December of 1996 and have long ago decided that he is not only a good guy, but also a holy man, with not a drop of anti-Semitism or bigotry or hatred in him. We have become good friends. No other reporter in the national press corps has spent minutes to my hours in coming to this conclusion, based on at least 100 hours of one-on-one discussions with Farrakhan in person and by telephone. I spent considerable time arranging for him to come to NYC and meet with the Times editorial board, to go over these issues, but at the last minute the meeting was called off by the Times with clear indications I should not hold my breath for a re-scheduling. Meanwhile, I challenged another editor to show me where Farrakhan had said "Judaism is a gutter religion," as the Times had been reporting. Weeks later, the editor e-mailed me that there would be no retraction, even though they could not find the exact quote, because "we know he said it." This is not the work of a great newspaper, and of course the anti-Islamic climate contributed to American support for the war in Iraq, which we now know was based on spurious grounds.
These five should be a good start, don't you think. I don't expect you to throw everything else aside to get to them, but at least wanted to alert you to the most serious flaws I've observed recently at the world's greatest newspaper. I don't pick on the lesser papers for making similar mistakes because when I have done so, they shrug and tell me they follow the lead of the Times on such matters.