Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Now, If I Was Editor, Would I Choose To Be Fair?

Here's the New York Times' Public Editor excusing his staff on the issue of how the NYT reported on the Goldstone retraction (and it is followed by what I would have done)

Tough Call on Goldstone Retraction

In my column on Sunday April 10, I described the complex, fast-moving environment in which The Times’s foreign desk reports developments online and in print. A further challenge to journalists on the desk is deciding how to prioritize the news, especially given the volume and urgency of news in the current climate. While one might argue that in the digital medium there is unlimited space for news, in print the situation is different. The recent case of the retraction of a key assertion by Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who led a panel investigating Israel’s invasion of Gaza two years ago, is a case in point.

The Times published its story on the retraction on page A10 of its late editions on Sunday April 3. Numerous readers emailed the public editor to complain that The Times had buried the story, especially in view of the fact that the initial report on the Goldstone panel’s findings two years earlier was placed on Page One.

The complaining readers’ view was simple enough: if you publish a damaging allegation on the front page, you should publish evidence to the contrary in the same place. The premise has special meaning in print, where contents live in place forever (or at least until dust truly goes to dust). Online, editors have endless opportunities to shuffle content, if they wish.

I queried Susan Chira, the foreign editor, about the decision to place the Goldstone retraction story on Page A10. The circumstances she described were anything but cut and dried. The primary complicating factor was a story by The Times’s Ethan Bronner, bureau chief in Jerusalem, saying that Israel was under new pressure to make a “far-reaching offer” to the Palestinians or face the prospect that the United Nations may vote to make the State of Palestine a UN member. Such a move would place Israel in the position of occupying lands belonging to a UN member state.

Top Times editors decided to place this story, which was written and edited before The Times became aware of the Goldstone retraction, prominently on page one for the next day’s paper, Sunday April 3. Ms. Chira told me she considered the piece to be a “conceptual scoop” that was exclusive to The Times. In other words, Mr. Bronner’s story, which was run as an analytical piece under the tag “Diplomatic Memo,” offered new insight into the long-running conflict, in The Times’s view.

In Ms. Chira’s account, The Times did not learn of the Goldstone development, which was published in the form of a piece Mr. Goldstone wrote for The Washington Post, until after the deadlines for the early editions of the April 3 Times. Mr. Goldstone’s piece was initially published by The Post online the night of April 1 (at 8:42 p.m., The Post’s Web site indicates) but did not appear in print until Sunday April 3. Ms. Chira said The Times wasn’t aware of it, at least not as of the early Saturday afternoon deadline for the next day’s Sunday Times.

When the Goldstone piece came to her attention, she said, The Times faced “the challenge of how to deal with Goldstone.” She believed that Mr. Bronner’s piece on the UN was major news. Because the UN story was already in the early edition, it really wasn’t an option to pull it back for the later editions and substitute in the Goldstone development. Placing both stories on the front page wasn’t an option either because, when you get down to it, the purpose of the front page is to deliver a mix of news to a diverse audience.

The solution that top Times editors, including Managing Editor Jill Abramson, arrived at was to keep Mr. Bronner’s UN story where it was for later editions and place a larger-than-usual refer headline – “Gaza War Report Gets a Retraction” – on the front page highly visible above the fold, referring readers to the Goldstone story on page A10 where it occupied the topmost position. In addition, she told me, Times web editors gave the Goldstone story extra time and exposure on NYTimes.com.

The Times’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates many complaints – from both sides – and this situation prompted more. Did The Times make the right decision here? My feeling is that you could argue that, strictly on fairness, The Times should have put the Goldstone development on the front page. But doing so, while striking a blow for fairness, would not have served the broad readership of The Times as well.

Mr. Bronner’s piece on the UN broke new ground in the story of the conflict and introduced a new view of the landscape for readers to consider. Frankly, I found it more interesting, and more useful to know as a reader who wonders where this conflict is headed, than the story reporting that Mr. Goldstone had, upon further consideration and with new evidence, changed his mind about the Israelis’ actions in Gaza late 2008-early 2009.

It’s never easy to choose between striking a blow for fairness (which would have favored the Goldstone story) and reader interest (score this one for the Bronner UN piece). Given that The Times attempted to use the refer headline to deliver prominence to Goldstone, I think the treatment of these two stories was reasonable, under the circumstances.

First of all, notice that 'fairness' and the NYTimes don't go together, it's an either/or choice:

My feeling is that you could argue that, strictly on fairness, The Times should have put the Goldstone development on the front page. But doing so, while striking a blow for fairness, would not have served the broad readership of The Times as well.

And I would have done something a bit different: I would have run a 2-3 boxed headline "Goldstone Bactracks on His Gaza 'War Crimes' Report - Story page ____".  Instead of the way they did it (see above), I would have changed their wording and position (in blue) and placed it up higher (where the blue arrow is):

Simple.  And fair.

(k/t = EG)



Anonymous said...

Does the NY Times believe that their readers are that stupid to not see through your phony excuse to not inform your readers of your retraction...you folks make me sick with your lies!

Debbie Schlussel said...

AMEN Selah, Yisrael. Great piece. DS

YMedad said...

To Debbie: (blushing)

To: Anon: i really can't comprehend your sentence structure and its meaning. can you try again?

DG said...

Interesting that it didn't occur to anyone to replace that photograph.

ybtzvi said...

Frankly, I think the NYT just didn't want to give credit where credit was due to the Washington Post, and **that's** why they buried the story. Why would they want to downplay their own reporter's story for a Washington Post scoop?

If anyone thinks such things don't affect newspaper judgment, you've never worked at a newspaper.