J-prof unwittingly demonstrates the worst political blogging of 2007

December 11th, 2007 → 12:14 pm @

BU journalism professor Chris Daly has a blog post today in which he takes the Washington Post to task for assigning Perry Bacon, Jr. to write front-page political stories. “Who is Perry Bacon Jr.?” Daly asks. “I don’t really know, but in two minutes of Googling him, I learned that he graduated from Yale in 2002, so he is approximately 27 years old. Since when does the Post assign 27-year-olds to write Page 1 presidential campaign pieces?” Daly goes on to compare Bacon’s now-infamous story about the non-reality of the “Barack is a Muslim” rumor to a hypothetical piece saying that Bacon is not a child molester.

This appears to be a good example of the maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach.” Whether or not Perry Bacon should be writing page 1 political stories is a question I can’t answer; I do, however, know that his age has absolutely nothing to do with it. To give some points of comparison:

Age at which Bob Woodward was assigned to Watergate: 29.
Age at which Carl Bernstein was assigned to cover Watergate: 28.
Age at which Charlie Savage won a Pulitzer for his investigation into President Bush’s use of “signing statements” to bypass provisions of new laws: 32.
Age of Ryan Lizza, the campaign correspondent for The New Yorker: 32.
Age at which David Rohde won his Pulitzer Prize for his eyewitness reporting on the massacre of Bosnian Muslims: 28.*
I could go on and on; I just pulled these examples out of my ass. And comparing a story addressing the fact that, as Bacon’s story’s headline read, “Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him” to the hoary old example of making some deny some outrageous, and previously unraised, accusation is so silly it does nothing so much as make me thankful Daly isn’t actually doing work inside newsrooms.

(I may be particularly sensitive to these kind of stupid, ageist accusations; I was 31 when I started work on Hard News, my book about the New York Times, and there were more than a few people who whispered to critics that I had no right investigating such an august institution. Maybe the Washington Post tapped it as one of the year’s best books solely to justify their use of young whippersnappers to cover politics.)

*I’m guessing at Savage’s, Lizza’s, and Rohde’s ages – I know the years in which they were born, but not the dates, which means they could have been 31, 31, and 27, respectively.

Post Categories: Academia & Hard News & Media reporting & Political Reporting & Washington Post

It’s true: I’m sticking up for the Times. (Obviously, this isn’t about Murray.)

April 11th, 2007 → 11:07 am @

Those of you steeped in the minutiae of baseball should appreciate the extent to which an obsessive can drill down when dissecting his subject of choice. For folks who’s bete noire (or object of affection) is the media and the New York Times, there’s no amount of detail that could ever seem trivial. (Trust me: I know.) That’s why a columnist in Los Angeles is writing about the bad review the Times gave to a play written by one of its former staffers.

The reason I’m writing about a column about a bad review of an Off-Broadway play is because, well, the media habit can be a hard one to break. (I want credit for avoiding all “Brokeback Mountain” puns.) So without further ado, I’ll unpack this whole thing…and then point out who patently absurd it all is.

* Bernie Weinraub, the former staff in question, was, for years, married to a movie executive at the same time that he was covering Hollywood.

* As he acknowledged in a grimace-inducing story he wrote upon his retirement, Weinraub not only saw nothing wrong with this, he thought it small minded of those who would dare raise questions about the propriety of a reporter living with one of the top people in an industry he’s reporting on.

* When Weinraub’s play came out, the Times farmed the review out to a freelancer to avoid any conflict of interest.

* The freelancer didn’t like the play.

* Now Weinraub is complaining and Nicki Finke, who says right off the bat that she’s “one of Weinraub’s closest friends,” is giving those complaints some legitimacy. Weinraub seems to think the Times is unhappy because his play criticizes the the paper’s Holocaust coverage. (There are plenty of lifers at the paper…but there’s nobody there who was patrolling the newsroom in the forties.)

My reaction? Man, Bernie Weinraub is a whiner. (Given his history, there’s some irony that he’s the one calling the Times “unprofessional.”) There’s no way in hell the Times could have given the play to one of their own writers. And once they decided to assign it elsewhere — to David Ng, the Village Voice‘s theater critic — they couldn’t very well have demanded the outside reviewer soft-pedal his opinion; that would have been a clear sign of meddling.

As befits this whole mess, Finke’s column doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. “I am not suggesting any sort of conspiracy theory,” she writes, “[e]ven though I happen to know that Weinraub and [Times theater editor] Lyman, who took over the Hollywood correspondent beat from Bernie, never got along and didn’t like each other.” She goes on: “I am also not maligning the choice of Village Voice theater reviewer David Ng for the assignment nor impugning his integrity as a reviewer,” although she does feel obliged to point out that “this does appear to have been not just his first theater review for The Paper Of Record but his first piece on anything for the NYT since I could not find his byline there either in Nexis or the NYT‘s own online archives.” So what’s Finke’s beef? Unclear: “What I am doing is simply drawing attention to what I consider to be a gross unfairness.”

I’ve drawn the shit end of this particular stick in the past: in 2004, when the Times reviewed Hard News, my book about the paper’s full-scale meltdown, Slate‘s Timothy Noah has tapped to do the honors. He wasn’t impressed. It was virtually the only bad review I got: the Washington Post named Hard News one of the best books of the year; the Los Angeles Times compared it to a Greek tragedy, and EW gave it an A-. Unfortunately, the Post, LA Times, and EW don’t carry as much weight as the Sunday Book Review does. If anyone had cause to suspect the Times was deliberately sabotaging his work, it would have been me — Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher and CEO, told me to my face he wished the book hadn’t been written. But there wasn’t a conspiracy going on; there was just a writer who didn’t care for my book. That’s life. And it’s a lesson Weinraub could certainly stand to learn.

Post Categories: Bernie Weinraub & Hard News & New York Times & Nicki Finke

The Pulitzer Prizes, 2007 edition: Howell Raines pulls out the video of the ’02 awards.

March 9th, 2007 → 12:29 pm @

Here’s yet another example of why I’m glad I’m no longer covering the media: I don’t need to spend days furiously tracking down possible Pulitzer finalists. Editor and Publisher did the legwork this year, and there’ll undoubtedly be lots o’ chatter about this list in the month to come. (Back in 2000, I did a too-long but actually pretty fascinating article about the Pulitzers, which, it turns out, are about as trustworthy as the Golden Globes. Unfortunately, since said article was for the now-defunct Brill’s Content, and since Steve Brill hoped to monetize that content with the similarly defunct Contentville, that article isn’t available on Nexis or anywhere else online.)

One interesting thing about the list: the The New York Times has, according to this probably inaccurate and still incomplete list, a mere three finalists, only one more than the morale-leaking Los Angeles Times (and only one more than The Seattle Times). (Note: one of those finalists is supposedly columnist Joe Nocera — and I touted him months ago!) Does this mean the NYT is only 33 percent better than the LAT or the ST? Obviously not: the LAT was once a great paper. It’s not any more. And it’s getting less great by the day.

This does point to the ridiculousness of using awards — and in particular the Pulitzer — as a way to judge a newspaper’s overall quality. Just as the Times‘s 2002 haul meant a lot less than Howell Raines liked to think — a point I hammered home in my under-read (but well received!) ’04 book, Hard News — this year’s tally doesn’t say all that much about what’s actually going on in the industry this year. Some papers are excellent at launching prize-trolling projects (see: Philadelphia Inquirer in the ’70s), and kudos to them. But the Times is on a roll. It could shore up their political coverage, and its investigative reporting has had some notable screw-ups in the last four or so years, but its far and away the best general interest daily paper out there.

This list — again, with the healthy caveat that it might not be accurate — also likely demonstrates the ways in which the Pulitzer committee uses the prizes to send out pointed messages to the industry. Here the message to the Tribune Co., owner of the LAT, seems clear: stop screwing with our product. For some reason, I bet the Trib board isn’t gonna be listening.

Post Categories: Hard News & Howell Raines & Media reporting

The Times-Andersen files: You need to at least consider the possibility that they’re making some kind of postmodern comment on the porousness of the self.

March 6th, 2007 → 11:17 am @

Last week I was talking with some media reporters, reminiscing about the days when I had to pay attention to which mid-level editors were moving to which magazines. Conversation turned, as it often does when I’m talking to non-civilians whom I don’t really know, to the Times and my little-read (but well received!) book, Hard News, and I said how incredibly happy I was that I no longer had to read the paper as a critic but could just enjoy it as my breakfast table companion. And in that capacity, I think it’s pretty fucking great — the front page is livelier and more engaging than it’s been in years; the arts and business sections are both erudite and interesting even to those not obsessed with the minutia of those industries; etc.

All of which is true. But man, can they be sloppy. Either that or they’re absolutely obsessed with misspelling Kurt Andersen’s name, which they seemingly do every single time they write about the man. The latest example is yesterday’s review of Heyday, Andersen’s new book (which, biased or not, I think is pretty amazing). They seem to get his name write in the text of the piece, but, at least online, misspell it twice as “Anderson” — in the caption and the info box.

If this is meant as a sly shout-out to me from those Times copy editors who secretly love my work, well, I’m touched! But for some odd reason, I doubt that. And in that case, as Gob would say…c’mon!

Post Categories: Hard News & Kurt Andersen & Media reporting & New York Times & Oblique references to Arrested Development

Howell Raines: There’s a wicked wind still blowing…

June 11th, 2006 → 9:41 pm @

“I’m a political reporter,” Howell Raines writes in his new memoir, The One That Got Away. “I can read an audience.” Only half of this is true: Raines was a political reporter, and, at times, a very good one. But in the final years of his career, he showed he was horrible at reading an audience. In the days after September 11, Raines, who’d been the executive editor of The New York Times for less than a week when the Twin Towers collapsed, took pride in the fact that his staff, as he once pungently put it, had been “rode hard and put up wet.” After hundreds of Times journalists performed truly heroic feats of journalism, Raines took all the credit for himself. And when Jayson Blair was outed as a plagiarist and fabricator, Raines misinterpreted anger directed at him as the griping of a complacent newsroom.

This passage in The One That Got Away is of particular interest to me because it’s where he takes a swipe at my own reporting and reputation. Referring to what he calls “a Bermuda triangle of angry druggies,” Raines writes, “[T]he guy hammering me in Newsweek had been treated for heroin addiction. … I had passed on a chance to hire this guy earlier in his career because I believed he was too easily spun by his sources. If I had known about the heroin, I might have hired him, too.”

This sentence is a beautiful example of Raines’s M.O.: start with some basic facts and twist them in a way that’s both inaccurate and demeaning. It was an approach executed with aplomb in Raines’s semi-hysterical settling of scores in his Atlantic Monthly article of May 2004, when he started with some undeniable premises—that the Times‘s cultural coverage needed to be updated, for instance—before misstating facts in order to create a new reality in which Raines’s predecessor at the paper had led a lazy and incompetent staff and he had been the savior cast off by bitter ingrates.

In the section I quoted above, Raines refers to me dismissively as a junkie, implies that my critical coverage of him had stemmed from the fact that he hadn’t hired me, writes that he would have hired me out of pity had he only known about my past, and disparages my reporting. I was, at one point, a heroin addict; that’s no secret. And I had sent in some clips to the Times in the fall of 2001, after Inside.com and Brill’s Content shut down. But if Raines had ever even seen those clips, he would have known about my personal story: I included an essay I’d written about my treatment and recovery because, as I said in my cover letter, I wanted to give prospective employers “the broadest sense of my abilities” and not have them caught off guard. In fact, Raines had not “passed on a chance” to hire me; as I later confirmed, my clips—which I sent to Adam Moss, then the editor of the Times‘s Sunday magazine, Dave Smith, then the Times‘s media editor, and Trip Gabriel, the editor of the Times‘s Style section, had never made their way up the ladder. (Neither Raines nor anyone else at the Times contacted me at the time about a possible job.) And to the extent that I had a reputation in 2001, it was for being hard on my sources, something Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker discovered when, in my final story for Brill’s, I wrote how Whitaker had bungled (and possibly prevaricated about) the handling of a story detailing Bob Kerrey’s role in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians. Whitaker, to his credit, hired me soon after. What is undeniably true is that I had hammered Raines both before and after I sent clips in to the Times—for the very things that would lead to his downfall. I’d written critically about Raines since before he had taken over the paper, when, as the media reporter for Inside, I had written about the anxiety in the newsroom related to his appointment. After Inside closed, I reported on Raines’s roiling of the Times‘s national staff for New York. Then there was my coverage of Raines in Newsweek and in my book, Hard News.

By the end of his career as a journalist, Raines had come under fire in many quarters for letting his personal agendas get in the way of the real story. Three years after he was fired for this and for his mishandling of the best newsroom in the country, it’s clear not much has changed.

Post Categories: Bob Dylan & Hard News & Howell Raines & New York Times & Oblique Refrences to Killed Newsweek Headlines & Street Legal Lyrics