Sunday, November 24, 2013

24-Nov-13: Attention NY Times editors: What, if anything, is the public entitled to expect from a Public Editor?

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While Iran and its thwarted/encouraged nuclear weaponization program is on everyone's minds this morning, the recent scandalous hypocrisy of the editors at the New York Times has produced a small flurry of activity that we want to draw to the attention of readers.

The short version of what's happened is that a New York Times news report over the bylines of Isabel Kershner, Jodi Rudoren and Said Ghazali appeared in its November 13, 2013 edition, telling about the cold-blooded murder of an Israeli teenager by a Palestinian Arab teenager. The article itself is here.

A powerful, prominent and emotionally-rich photograph accompanies the story. It happens to be of the killer’s mother.

In the black-is-white world of certain liberal newspapers, an editorial decision to look right past the tragic death of a sleeping 18 year old who became the victim of a frenzied attack by a younger boy wielding a knife is no longer unusual. But as the Public Editor of the New York Times wrote (see "Public Editor's Journal: Photo of Palestinian Mother Was the Wrong Choice", on November 19), choosing the killer's mother to be the subject of what she termed an emotional and sympathetic portrait is just bad journalism. Or in the words of Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor at the NYT:
"The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, told me that reporters and editors do their utmost to present news on this topic accurately and fairly. “We are, have been and need to be very attuned to the message that images, as well as words, send to readers on one of the most delicate subjects The New York Times covers,” Mr. Kahn said. “We don’t always get it right.” The prominent use of this photograph was a case of getting it wrong."
Clear case of "getting it wrong", says NYT Public Editor
To our admittedly-unsophisticated way of looking at things, when the Public Editor of a news channel with the tradition and gravitas of the NY Times says this was a "case of getting it wrong", that's not some casual throw-away opinion. It's an indictment, an apology and an indication that something ought to change. 

(A slightly fuller version of our critical comments is at "22-Nov-13: More than most readers want to know about behind-the-scenes editorial decisions at NY Times". Please click on it if for no better reason than that it includes a portrait of our beautiful daughter, yet another victim of murder by Palestinian Arab terrorists.)

But none of those things has happened. The story, with its indecently-empathetic photo of the murdering youth's mother is still up (here) on the site. Readers going to that page have no way to know that the Public Editor says it represents "a case of getting it wrong". Margaret Sullivan's critique is not linked to the offending report. Nor is there any indication that anyone at the Times sees anything wrong with what was done, even after the Public Editor was called in.

Here's the Twitter exchange from this morning that we want you to know about:

We want to add that we have tweeted several times to Ms Sullivan, and to the NY Times bureau chief in Jerusalem Jody Rudoren in the past 72 hours. They have not responded. This, as we noted on Friday, is what NYT management did when we expressed our distress about similarly appalling, manifestly ideological editorial decisions taken in the past in connection with the paper's reporting on the murderer of our fifteen year-old daughter, Malki.

Wikipedia's entry on "Public Editor" starts with these words:
The job of the public editor is to supervise the implementation of proper journalism ethics at a newspaper, and to identify and examine critical errors or omissions, and to act as a liaison to the public. They do this primarily through a regular feature on a newspaper's editorial page. Because public editors are generally employees of the very newspaper they're criticizing, it may appear as though there is a possibility for bias. However, a newspaper with a high standard of ethics would not fire a public editor for a criticism of the paper; the act would contradict the purpose of the position and would itself be a very likely cause for public concern.
In ignoring the public outcry over the manipulative use of  a murderer's mother's portrait, and in pretending that the Public Editor had not pronounced on the matter, the editors and management of the Paper of Record fail in the implementation of proper journalism ethics. True, they have not fired her. But if there's a more egregious instance of a Public Editor simply being ignored, we don't know of it.

If you agree, please comment below or pass along to your friends the link to this piece.

And if you know people from the academic journalism world, consider passing this along with a request that the ethical issues be subjected to a more professional and serious examination than the mandarins of Eighth Avenue appear willing to give.

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