The New York Times ran a story this month that I had been planning to blog about. The title was "A Jewish Group Makes Waves, Locally and Abroad," and it was about Jewish Voice for Peace, a pretty well-known liberal Jewish advocacy group (whose PR rep is coincidentally named Bacon). But then I saw this news brief from JTA explaining that the NYT had to apologize for the way that story was reported. And that warranted a different kind of blog post. Here's what the editor's note, added Friday to the Times' story, said:
An article last Friday described the group Jewish Voice for Peace, whose support for antigovernment protests in Egypt has led to tensions among some Jews in the Bay Area. After the article was published, editors learned that one of the two writers, Daniel Ming, had been active in pro-Palestinian rallies. Such involvement in a public cause related to The Times's news coverage is at odds with the paper's journalistic standards; if editors had known of Mr. Ming's activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article.
Whoops. Now why is this a problem? Well, for two primary reasons.
First, as the note said, the paper's journalist standards prohibit reporters from participating in political advocacy. This is a pretty common rule -- common from college papers on up -- and it makes sense for the exact reasons that Keith Olbermann's suspension didn't. Newspaper reporters are called to be unbiased in their reporting. Subjective influences are a given, but the call is to be as objective as possible and to avoid behavior appropriate for citizens, even behavior expected of citizens, if it would call into question your ability to report the news accurately and fairly.
Some have take this to an extreme. Len Downie famously refrained from voting for some three decades. I think that's a bit unnecessary, kind of like saying that religion reporters should have no religion of their own. (Hmmm ... Washington Post connection?) But I think we can agree that daily newspaper reporters shouldn't be out there leading political protests.
A second related reason is that The New York Times would have a real PR problem on its hands if it didn't publicly apologize for allowing Ming to write this story. Why? Because, believe it or not, there is a perception in many American Jewish circles that The New York Times is antagonistic towards Israel in its coverage of Israeli political and military affairs. Here's a small sampling from Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in Amerca, Yid With Lid and American Thinker.
This news story and the editor's note also raise an interesting question about editorial control for the The New York Times in its new venture with partnering news organizations that provide local news. The Times has a few of these partnership -- I know of at least two, the Chicago News Cooperative and The Bay Citizen. NYTimes.com bills the latter as "A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times."
Partnerships for local news have been billed by some experts as a future for journalism, and other papers have forged their own. but they do decentralize editorial control and likely raises challenges when seeking uniformity for journalistic standards and policies. I wonder if this incident will leave a sour taste in the minds of editors at the Times. Then again, this could have happened just as easily on the NYT city desk.