Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Byron Calame Should Have Written

Sunday, Times public editor Byron Calame published his review of the Times coverage of the lacrosse case. It avoided any comprehensive analysis of the coverage, faulted Duff Wilson’s August 25 story but offered no convincing explanation of why the story was so flawed, and provided a basic message of “no harm, no foul” in the Times’ mishandling of the case.

The article that a good public editor might have written appeared in today’s Chronicle, penned by Iza Wojciechowska. “In the year since the story first broke,” wrote Wojciechowska, “The Times has been criticized for printing news with a slant favoring Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong and for drawing out the amalgam of sex, race and class issues that contributed to the case’s prominent position in the national spotlight.”

Wojciechowska obtained damning analysis from three prominent media critics.

  • Daniel Okrent, the first Times public editor: “I think The Times’ coverage was heartbreaking. I understand why they jumped on the story when they did, but it showed everything that’s wrong with American journalism.
  • Jack Shafer, Slate editor at large and author of the Slate press box column: “Here was a story that fit a template that they recognized and thought was a productive one... a story about privilege, a story about town and gown, a story about how race is handled in America.” Now that their original analysis had proved wrong, “How do you elegantly say, ‘Whoops, we erred here?’ I still think The Times has not acknowledged the role it played in sensationalizing its story.... You don’t need to put on the hairshirt and run around and get everyone to accept an apology—I’m talking about correcting the record and getting the story better, righter, straighter.”
  • Stuart Taylor, senior writer at National Journal: The August 25 Times article “was the worst single piece of journalism I’ve ever seen in long form in a newspaper.” Yet its impact was substantial: “A lot of people think The New York Times is a bible of what really happened. I think an awful lot of people have been misled by The New York Times coverage and either didn’t pay attention to what critics were saying or shrugged it off—’Who am I going to believe, The New York Times or some no-name critic in the blogosphere?’”

Wojciechowska’s piece highlights a critical element wholly ignored by the Calame “public editor” review: the Times’ decision to highlight the story in the first place. Shafer observed, “Not that many rape stories make Page 1 of The New York Times. When The Times decides such a story rises to national prominence, the onus is on them to explain why this is a national news story. The Times sets the national news agenda.” Okrent agreed that faulty editorial decisions to give the story such early play and with such a clear-cut story line played a key role in nationalizing the story.

The Times has never ever explained why the initial reporter who covered the case, Joe Drape, was replaced by the transparently pro-Nifong Duff Wilson after Drape published a late March article casting strong doubt on Nifong’s claims—and, implicitly, the Times’ race/class/athletes-behaving-badly approach to the story.

Calame, on the other hand, has claimed that the Times “performed a service” by highlighting the story—a decision that played into Nifong’s hands by upping the public pressure on the lacrosse team.

Three other items from Wojciechowska’s impressive analysis.

1.) All observers she consulted agreed that once the Times (briefly) brought in David Barstow as the lead reporter on the case, in late December, coverage dramatically improved.

2.) In a major scoop, Wojciechowska obtained candid quotes from John Burness, who was almost as critical of the Times as Okrent, Taylor, and Shafer. Burness said, “I think the paper also had difficulty because they had trouble figuring out what the story was. For the first few weeks they had sports reporters, then education reporters, then investigative reporters.... It was just very frustrating because you would hope that if The Times got it right it would set a standard for others.” Regarding Times op-eds, Burness recalled, “There was one two-week period where we asked for about 10 corrections in The Times and probably got about five. We should have gotten 10."

3.) Wojciechowska also tracked down a previously obscure October 16 quote from Craig Whitney, Times assistant managing editor and standards editor, who defended the August 25 Wilson/Glater piece and added, “One test of it is how this record would look to a reader after the case is closed. I believe that taken as a whole it would look fair and balanced to an unbiased reader, no matter what the outcome.”

Judged by Whitney’s own standards, then, the Times badly failed, since the implications of the Attorney General’s April 11 remarks were unequivocal: the August 25 story, which claimed that a “body of evidence” supported Mike Nifong’s decision to take the case to trial, was—to put it bluntly—wrong.

---------

Okrent concluded, “If and when The Times does a big story on what went wrong in the Duke case, unless they’re a part of the story, unless they report on themselves, it will be an incomplete story.”

And given Calame’s unwillingness to offer a hard look at the Times coverage, it appears highly unlikely the Times would take Okrent’s advice. Perhaps, as a compromise, the “paper of record” should simply supply a link to Wojciechowska’s article, as an example of how a good media critic might have handled the Times’ flawed approach.

28 comments:

Michael said...

[“If I had a daughter,” Araton continued, “I would not have been thrilled to see her ‘stake her reputation’ on [the men’s players], given their behavioral track record.” Of course, one reason the women’s lacrosse players were]

I guess Araton is saying that he wouldn't have raised his daughter to have the character and wisdom of the women's lacrosse team and that she would be as clueless as Araton. His daughter would know better to apologize when she is wrong and hurts others.

When you're in a hole....

Anonymous said...

What we're seeing is NYT's longstanding reputation as a credible and reliable source of news being demolished by bloggers and college journalists. NYT must by now realize that denial is not a river in Egypt. Because of their arrogance, the editors and publishers of the once great Grey Lady prove their irrelevance in todays world. One can only hope they wake up before NYT totally tanks.

BigAl said...

Logically, the NYT didn't expect Nifong to get slapped with state bar ethics charges - after all, it would be a highly unlikely outcome in highly charged political New York. Expect upcoming Op-Ed articles screaming for Nifong's head. After all, weren't they "brainwashed" by him?

Anonymous said...

[“If I had a daughter,” Araton continued, “I would not have been thrilled to see her ‘stake her reputation’ on [the men’s players], given their behavioral track record.” Of course, one reason the women’s lacrosse players were]

I guess we should be thankful that Araton doesn't have a daughter. Anyone as venal and closed-minded as Araton should not be permitted to procreate.

Araton is beyond pathetic. Words fail.

MDKZmom said...

I know that I am off topic, but I have wanted to do this for a long time. I am not very good with words, but feel that I need to express my feelings. As a parent of one of the unidicted lacrosse players I want very much to thank you for all of your hard work concerning the Duke Lacrosse Hoax. I live out of town and one of the only means to information is the internet and the media. For a long time the media was very negative and you and a couple of other blog sites were the only positive information that I received and for this I want to thank you. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

One positive things about the times coverage: If the story hadn't been taken national, if it had stayed in NC only, Nifong would have gotten away with it. The only thing that saved these boys was the embarassment it caused to the state in the national media.

Anonymous said...

KC, is there any chance of a nationally-televised media round-table, say on Nightline for example, discussing media coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case and what went wrong?

Not only did the media generally fail to report objectively about this case but they ignored important aspects of other related cases. For example, the media generally failed to pick up on the Elmostafa arrest and trial, as well as the racial assault at Blinco's restaurant where the victim identified an assailant matching the description of one of the primary investigators in the Duke case.

I'm sure there are other examples. But I think it would be interesting to see the media grade themselves on camera in a round-table forum moderated by someone with the status of a Ted Koppel.

Anonymous said...

Surely Calame understands how stupid his Sunday column made him look. I mean, he can't possibly find his "analysis" persuasive given the sunami-wave of incontestable facts that are now part of the record.

Is Calame really that stupid, or, rather, does he simply need a job, can't compete in the open market, and, consequently, just shamefully shills for his boss, the NYT.

I don't know anything about Calame (except what he "analyzes"), but I'd hate to have to wake up every morning and wonder how my boss is going to punk me and make me look like a total idiot. What kind of job is that? Calame desperately needs to grow some brass ones, think for himself, and follow evidence and logic.

eric said...

The NY Times performance and Dan Rather have alot in common.

1. An attractive story that fits their bias.

2. Refusing to change the story when the facts are against them. Focusing on the greater issues.

3. The non apology apology.

bill anderson said...

The NY Times, once the paper of record, now is The Paper of Record of the Hoax Promoters. But, then, it is The Newspaper of Walter Duranty, Jayson Blair, and Judith Miller.

Gary Packwood said...

MDKZmom 9:56 said...
...I am not very good with words, but feel that I need to express my feelings. As a parent of one of the unidicted lacrosse players I want very much to thank you for all of your hard work concerning the Duke Lacrosse Hoax. I live out of town and one of the only means to information is the internet and the media. For a long time the media was very negative and you and a couple of other blog sites were the only positive information that I received and for this I want to thank you. Keep up the good work.
::
I think what you had to say is clear as a bell.
And, I think we need to listen carefully to parents as we plan these Blogs.
Right at the moment we are way up there in the atmosphere talking about New York Times writers and other highly educated writers for the benefit of intellectuals...who read this Blog.
That is OK of course, but we also need to listen to you and provide information and discussion targeted towards you and your family.
Ask your friends and other family members to join us here and offer us your thoughts.
::
GP

Anonymous said...

You are, I believe, beating on a horse that is, if not dead, at least dying.

All of the major newspapers appear to be dying, staffs declining, ad revenue and circulation down.

It's not just cable news channels and the internet, it's that they prostituted themselves to their idealogies...substituting the historic message of all the news that's fit to print with the latter day all the news that fits (our political agenda) we print.

And it truly doesn't matter, not that they do this, not that the public editor does as inadequate a job of critiquing the Times coverage as the Times did an inadequate job of the coverage itself, because there is an external reality...a reality driven in this case by the market.

And as the reputation of the NY Times continues in free fall, fewer and fewer people will pay any attention to it at all. In a decade or two, it will have Darwined itself out of meaningful existence, like the dodo it has become.

hman said...

From my perspective, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about (among several I know) is just how many enablers of this hoax knew for sure that it was indeed a hoax. See, this story went on for a long time. A lot of high grade information was easily obtained. Very little analytical thinking was required to see thru the BS. This story bears no resemblance to previous examples of the railroading of the innocent - done in obscurity without discovery laws.
For an entity like the NYTs the only question is when they knew they were enabling a hoax, not if. And the list of people who knew the real truth a long time ago but when on pretending it could be otherwise is pretty extensive.
I do not like what this picture says about modern American society.

Anonymous said...

KC
I still think you need to explain your support for Obama as he now seems to be in league with Tawana Sharpton, the originator of the race-frame hoax.

I realize this is off-topic but as the foremost analyst of the Lax hoax and likely winner of a Pulitzer Prize I think you should comment on this.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry that Ed Bradley could not be here for the conclusion of this case--as if there will ever be a real conclusion to such a trumped-up hoax--so that he could do a story and conduct interviews with all the parties for a finale.

That would have been a valuable event.

It saddens me on many levels when we read the comments made by those who are employed by national newspapers and who are supposed to be doing honest work for the public.

It's not naive, IMO, to be a little shocked by how gleefully they went after three young Duke guys who are supposedly affluent and who are academically and athletically talented.

There must be more than a little envy inside some of these onlookers and kibitzers in the press.

(As a side bar: The column written by a male NCCU student, and I assume, aspiring New Black Panther member, named Solomon Burnette--who, BTW, has a criminal record--which was printed in their school paper is very troubling and illustratates vividly just how much damage Nifong has done. That lowlife troll must be disbarred just for feeding the beast.)

Debrah

Anonymous said...

I am for Rudy G - All the candidates will be visiting Sharpton and Jackson - they do have a significant audience. That is politics and am always surprised that people don't know that. Compared to prior years and the control of John Daly and the like - you ain't seen nothing.

Anonymous said...

Make that "illustrates".

:>) Debrah

Anonymous said...

What position does Okrent currently hold at the New York Times?

miramar said...

I am more than used to the Chronicle besting the Herald Sun, but it is fascinating to see them skewer the NYT as well. There was a lot of confusion in March and April, and like it or not just about everyone was influenced by Nifong's words at first. After all, he was a veteran DA and at least initially, he didn't seem to have any reason to lie. The operative word here is "seem," of course.

By August, however, it was a totally different ballgame. Although the NYT is clouding the waters, just as the group of 88 is doing, deconstruction just doesn't work here. We can read just as well as they can. The NYT clearly had a pro-Nifong slant and actually made a big deal of some straight from memory notes that no one could possibly take seriously. Of course, they covevered their butts with some qualifiers, but the entire tone of the article said that Nifong had a solid case. Now that DA Cooper has said there was no case whatsoever, they could at least admit to that, but they NYT has made so many mistakes of late that if they start apologizing, they will never stop. It's easier for them to pretend that it was a minor error or that people didn't understand what they were saying. I think KC made a very strong point yesterday: If Duffus really read the discovery evidence before he filed his report, why did he have to ask the lawyers to see it "again" afterwards?

Insufficiently Sensitive said...

Per 10:54 - "And as the reputation of the NY Times continues in free fall, fewer and fewer people will pay any attention to it at all. In a decade or two, it will have Darwined itself out of meaningful existence, like the dodo it has become."

Wishful thinking, the above. The Duke LAX case is ironclad proof that the NYT still has formidable powers to frame the debate, set the agenda and lead the stampede.

We might wish it would lead said stampede off a cliff (some might think it has done so with its Duke articles). But that cliff has a cushioned bottom, and until the cushion is jerked away by a majority of other opinion-setting media, and not just a teensy fraction such as the Duke Chronicle, DIW, and a few others reaching an audience of dozens, the NYT will continue by momentum.

Economics, search for truth, objective reporting be damned - the NYT has been a crusader for political correctitude for decades, trimming and slanting 'news' stories to aim public opinion as it wishes. Even more so, now that Pinch runs the show, and it will continue until Daddy's family fortune is sucked dry - and even then it wouldn't defy probability to find George Soros jumping in to keep it afloat and the propaganda spewing.

Walter Duranty is beaming in approval.

byrdeye said...

Yup, this is why mainstream media is hardly even worth consuming anymore. Especially when it comes to societal and political issues. It's all propaganda and rhetoric.

I hardly watch TV anymore and don't subscribe to any papers. Why subsidize this bullcrap? Hit 'em where it hurts - their pocketbook. SAY NO TO BIG MEDIA!

AND SAY NO TO RACIAL/GENDER BIAS!

Anonymous said...

Carolyn says:

The NY Times scares me. It wasn't that they supported a corrupt DA who tried to put 3 innocent young men into jail for 30 years for a rape that never happened - it's that the Times isn't even ashamed of it. Outward shame is proof of inner decency.

Therefore, the Times has nothing within it to stop it from going after new victims. And what if those victims haven't got $1 million apiece to defend themselves?

If we're not scared, we should be.

Gary said...

At least for some of use who believe in being the old concept of liberal (for civil liberties, freedom, rationality), the decline of the Times is troubling since it was once a bastion of this ideal.

It seems I now have far more in common with the old style conservatives who themselves must be distressed by what that term has come to mean under Bush. The kind of PC, irrational hate and prejudice displayed by the Duke 88 and their like display vividly what conservatives were/are rightfully against, but I wish the Duke 88 et al would stop associating themselves with liberals and call themselves by what they really are: Orwellian newspeakers with totalitarian dreams enforced by a peculiarly stilted group think. Their writings are full of "social narratives" "constructs" etc but lacking in rationality or even the notion of facts (see "social constructs").

However, I for one am glad that this did blow up. It helped save the players (Nifong was bent on prosecuting for local, not national political reasons), it shined a light on the above newspeakers who scattered like roaches from it's glare, and it provided an almost storybook sketch/morality tale beyond what fiction could credibly imagine. I look forward to the book which will probably provide a legal and journalistic case study for years hence.

scott said...

OK, I think various editors (Keller, Whitney, Calame) have made it clear that, all in all, they stand by the reporting and editorializing that was done in the NYT since March 2006. They say, yeah, there were some minor goofs, but considered as a whole, we presented a fair and balanced report of the incident. They can think whatever they want, but that doesn't mean it's true.

With a poor performance such as this, which is typical of the NYT, not the exception, how much longer are some people still going to refer to the NYT as the "gold standard", the "paper of record", whatever? What a bunch of frauds.

These high priced putzes have been outwritten and outclassed every step of the way by a group of college students who don't make a dime from their work.

Keller, Whitney, Calame, Wilson, Roberts, Araton, and others at the NYT should be humiliated that they have been so outperformed by amateurs (defined here as one who performs without pay, not as a reference to the quality of the work turned in by some on the Duke Chronicle staff -- Shadee, this doens't concern you). They won't be because they still have too many people telling them they are the paper of record. Fewer now than last year, however, and next year there will be fewer than this year because the people who read newspapers and watch alphabet news at 6PM every night are dying by the thousands every day. Thankfully, young people won't take up those disgusting habits.

So, go ahead Keller, Calame, et. al., and proclaim that you did good work. Fool yourselves because you certainly aren't fooling us. We who have been following this story for over a year know good work when we see it and it didn't appear in the NYT.

Roger said...

The quality of the public editor indeed compliments that of Duff, Selena, and Punch. They deserve each other.

Anonymous said...

I am a 58 year old man that has read the NY Times for over 45 years. It was a Sunday ritual for my father and I to go to the only legitimate cigar store in town and pick up the Sunday NYT. I am saddened at what the Times has become, and that is an agenda driven elitist newspaper. While it was always liberal, it was fair.
Not any more. The Duke hoax was the last straw for me.

Georgia Girl said...

but, 12:57, in your opinion, what should the penalty be for a true rapist? Castration perhaps? You mention "30 years in prison". Why not save the government loads of dollars by just castrating the bastard?

Anonymous said...

On April 4 the accusor named Finnerty. On April 5 Finnerty's picture was on front page of NYT. Either the DA;s office released this-a crime as charges had not been filed; or the accuser released it only to NYT. ??Renumeration? SANE nurses'funding depends on the percentage of rape convictions; they are part of the prosecution.