Sunday, June 08, 2008

Times Public Editor says Op-Ed page must respect facts (but what about AY?)

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt last Sunday pointed out that the Times's op-ed page should pay attention to verifiable facts--a deficit, as I've pointed out, that applies to coverage of Atlantic Yards. His essay, headlined Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?, concerned a contributor's coverage of Islam and Barack Obama, but the lesson has broader application.

Hoyt wrote:
The Times Op-Ed page, quite properly, is home to a lot of provocative opinions. But all are supposed to be grounded on the bedrock of fact. Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false picture.

Did [contributor Edward] Luttwak cross the line from fair argument to falsehood? Did Times editors fail to adequately check his facts before publishing his article? Did The Times owe readers a contrasting point of view?

I interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field. All of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.


Who's right?

Op-Ed page editor David Shipley told Hoyt that editors at the Times vetted Luttwak's article but didn't consult other experts because that's not the practices of the paper. (I can understand that a newspaper doesn't have the time to practice peer review.)

Hoyt, after interviewing experts who disagreed with Luttwak, concluded:
Shipley, the Op-Ed editor, said he regretted not urging Luttwak to soften his language about possible assassination, given how sensitive the subject is. But he said he did not think the Op-Ed page was under any obligation to present an alternative view, beyond some letters to the editor.

I do not agree. With a subject this charged, readers would have been far better served with more than a single, extreme point of view. When writers purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they are arguably wrong, I think The Times cannot label it opinion and let it go at that.


With AY, more than arguably wrong

Indeed, with an Atlantic Yards op-ed, a Times contributor was more than arguably wrong. Former Brooklyn Borough Historian (!) John Manbeck, in an 11/13/05 op-ed headlined The Project That Ate Brooklyn, wrote:
At the core of the Atlantic Yards plan is an arena for the New Jersey Nets on the very site that was denied the Brooklyn Dodgers 50 years ago.

It was not the "very site" but across the street. A Times Op-Ed editor agreed to "append a correction to the archive" but not publish a correction, a solution that, as I explained, is insufficient.

In that same Op-Ed, Manbeck described Forest City Ratner Companies' plan to build a sports arena surrounded by 17 imposing high-rise buildings on the Atlantic Avenue railyards.

Of course, the railyards would represent less than 40% of the project site, and the Times corrected similar errors in its news pages. Shipley wrote to me with a rather evasive explanation:
I'm afraid I disagree with you regarding the railyards -- for Mr. Manbeck to say that the project was on the railyards does not exclude the possibility that it could overflow them.

I asked how that could square with other corrections the Times wrote. He responded:
Real estate and Op-Ed are different departments. They do their corrections and we do ours. The phrase in question, as I explained earlier, seems to me to be a question of interpretation: for Mr. Manbeck to state that the project was on the railyards does not exclude the possibility that it could overflow them.


That true, but that's like saying that someone who is five feet tall could also be six feet tall.

Stilted defense, and the Times's obligation

Note that the Public Editor at that time, Byron Calame, wouldn't criticize the Op-Ed page, offering a stilted and incorrect defense of the description, suggesting that the phrase might be read to apply only to the sports arena. Even that would be incorrect, since the arena footprint is much wider than the one-block-wide railyards.

Calame wrote that "even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions." Hoyt seems to think the same thing. He probably won't address these 2005 errors, given that the Public Editors generally consider their mandate to cover articles published during their tenure.

But he should know that, despite the Times's obligation to be exacting in its coverage of a project planned by its parent company's business partner, Forest City Ratner, it has steadily fallen short.

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