Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Buried by The Times": a darker story of inadequate coverage

I've been quite critical of the New York Times's inadequate and unskeptical coverage, in both the news and editorial pages, of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project. I can't sort out the reasons for the Times's performance; it likely includes a mix of lack of continuity, balkanization, Afghanistanism, and a reliance on the form of objectivity above the goal of fairness.

A defender of the paper might say that coverage has been better (and the level of attention has improved in recent months), just as the Times's willingness to print a few critical letters might indicate a variety of voices. However, as I've noted, the Times hasn't met the challenge set by Lynne Sagalyn in her critique of the newspaper's coverage of Times Square redevelopment: a commitment to digging coupled with prominent placement of stories.

A historical shame

I recently read a book that takes on a vastly more important aspect of the Times's responsibility to its public, and has a particular resonance today, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper, by Northeastern University journalism professor Laurel Leff, published last year, paints a depressing and distressing picture of how the Times buried the story. The Times consistently failed to put news on the front page, to identify the victims as Jews, and to editorialize when appropriate.

Leff writes on p. 2:
They reported it. In fact, from September 1939 through May 1945, the Times published 1,186 stories about what was happening to the Jews of Europe, or an average of 17 stories per month. But the story never received the continuous attention or prominent play that a story about the unprecedented attempt to wipe out an entire people deserved.

Most but not all publications did a poor job as well, but the Times was the country's leading newspaper. Leff's conclusion: the decisions stemmed from publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger's personal reluctance to view the Jews as a people rather than solely a religion, his anti-Zionism, and a concern that the Times would be seen as a 'Jewish' newspaper.

Leff couldn't find an explicit policy, she writes on p. 190:
That does not mean it did not exist. Such a memo might not have been included in the Times' less-than-comprehensive files, or the policy may have been communicated verbally, and thus no record ever existed. But the more likely explanation is that no record exists because there was no need for an explicit policy. "There is a tendency, even on the best newspapers, for the economic, political, and social views of the owners to seep down through the entire organization," [former Times senior editor] Neil MacNeil wrote in 1940 about a publisher's influence in general, although he had to have had his boss, Arthur Sulzberger, in mind. "Reporters viewing the event and editors passing judgment on it are inclined, be it ever so slightly, to see it from the publisher's angle. They doubtless want the approval of their superiors, for interesting assignments, promotion, and higher salaries usually await such approval. Few will bite the hand that feeds them. Almost without knowing it the news favors the owner's viewpoint. The story in which the publisher is interested becomes a 'good story,' and vice versa."

Applicable today?

That's a 66-year-old statement, so it's hard to apply it today, and Times officials reiterate the newsroom operates independently of the business side. There's no proof that the parent company's partnership with Forest City Ratner in building the Times Tower shapes coverage of the Atlantic Yards project.

More questions might be raised regarding the Times's reticence in covering the Times Tower issue. As for the editorials, that's murkier; the publisher does intervene at times.

Paul Moses, a former New York Newsday City Editor and author of Village Voice articles on the Times Tower, suggested that parent company's real estate transaction might hamper objectivity. Interviewed 8/16/02 on the radio show CounterSpin, which is a product of the group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Moses warned of the effect of the apparent conflict:
How do papers balance this role of reporting on local news and being local businesses? I think sometimes the result can be kind of weak local coverage.
…I do have a lot of respect for the reporters and the editors at the Times, but it has to weigh on their minds that, “Ooh yeah, can we criticize the subsidies in this deal when our newspaper is getting even bigger subsidies from government?”…And then the editorial page, again I have great respect for the editor of the editorial page,
but it reports to the publisher who’s the chairman of the Times Company, who’s doing this deal with the state and city. So I think they’re factors that people should know about in evaluating the coverage that they’re reading…
I think it [the track record regarding subsidies for the New York Times Company] makes it harder for the Times to report on these kinds of arrangements between government and business.


A peevish review

The Times reviewed Leff's book, rather peevishly, in the 5/15/05 Book Review, under the headline Horror Story. Robert Leiter, literary editor of The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia weekly, deemed the book impressive "on the level of sheer reporting," but argued that Leff treats "Sulzberger's anti-Zionism like some evil aberration." Citing the unprecedented nature of the death camps, Leiter wondered, "How could Sulzberger or any other newspaper executive have comprehended the extent of what was happening in Europe?" His conclusion: the Holocaust was buried "by the times in which the participants lived and not solely by The New York Times."

Leff responded in a letter in the 6/26/05 issue of the Book Review, asking how the reviewer would explain the numerous articles, editorials, and "contemporaneous comments I quote, from Sulzberger and others, acknowledging what was happening to the Jews in Europe?"

Her criticism of "Leiter's calculated effort to let the newspaper off the hook" raises the question of whether the reviewer was influenced by the newspaper that assigned him the review. I read Buried By the Times, and I think that Leiter gave Leff too little credit. Would a review applauding Leff's conclusions have hurt the freelance reviewer's relationship with Times editors? I don't know, nor can anyone prove that Leiter, consciously or not, skewed his review.

Still, his posture toward what he called Leff's "high-minded crusade" contrasts with a more generous appraisal by former Times executive editor Max Frankel, in Turning Away From the Holocaust, published 11/14/01 in the 150th Anniversary special section of the Times. Frankel, responding to a journal article rather than Leff's yet-unpublished book, called her "the most diligent independent student of The Times's Holocaust coverage" and quoted three powerful paragraphs of her work.

Indeed, the Times book review even drew comment from the New York Observer, which in a 5/23/05 editorial headlined "The New York Times and the Holocaust," observed that "the review is defensive in tone and works hard to discredit Ms. Leff's point of view." It should be noted that nearly all the reviews of Leff's book were positive, but the Washington Post also ran a critical review that made some stronger points than did the Times review.

Doing better today?

Leff's book raises contemporary questions about coverage of world events like the genocide in Darfur. There's no comparison between the Holocaust and a controversial Brooklyn real estate project, but Leff's criticisms parallel some raised about coverage of the Atlantic Yards project; yes, the Times has written articles and editorials, but it has not pursued the subject with the energy and care that one might expect from the country's (and city's) leading newspaper.

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