former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

Mario Cuomo: May He Rest in Peace

In Blog on January 2, 2015 at 8:46 pm

I was one of the journalists who covered Mario Cuomo when he was governor of New York in the 1980s and 1990s.  The three-term governor, considered one of the liberal lights of the Democratic party, died on January 1, hours after his son, Andrew, was sworn in for his second term as governor.

I was more fortunate than most because I was bureau chief for a chain of business weeklies.  I did not have to treat the governor’s news conferences as events for which I had to file a daily story.  I could use his comments as background for in-depth pieces I would write about state policy, or include in my weekly column.  So I had the luxury of viewing them almost as performance art — events that sometimes provided insights into the most complicated and tortured politician I’d ever encountered.

To understand what it was like to cover Mario Cuomo, you had to understand what it was like to work as a reporter in New York’s capital, Albany.  The city is about two hours away from Manhattan, the place a good number of the state’s elected representatives called home. New York City, after all, is where more than a third of the state’s voters live and work.

Albany itself is an old city with cold, snowy winters, a downtown long on lovely brick buildings but short on interesting restaurants or cultural venues.  If a city can have a personality, I would call Albany a cranky place; a town where civility wasn’t very pronounced and people tended to be suspicious of one another.

Perhaps they resented the sprawling state government complex, its acres of modern agency buildings flanked around a turn-of-the-20th-century state capitol that looked like a cross between a medieval castle and an institute for the mentally ill.  Mount the steep steps of the capitol building, and go through the revolving doors, and suddenly you were in Manhattan again.  The women were sleeker and far better dressed than those in the suburbs of Albany.  The pace inside those doors was quick, the politics were cutthroat.

Reporters had to be approved for membership in the Legislative Correspondents Association in order to get access to the capitol press room.  At the time I worked there, it looked like something that could have been created by Ben Hecht, the author of The Front Page.  Reporters were jammed together, representing a variety of news outlets from all over New York.    Computers were precariously connected to wall sockets that threatened to explode from overloaded circuits.  The New York Times and Newsday had more private enclaves within the space.  The Albany papers had their own space across the hall.

And there was a hierarchy.  One reporter said that the Newsday reporters spoke only to reporters from the Times, and the Times reporters spoke only to God. What brought all of us together, however, was our singular frustration with Cuomo.  Cuomo rarely gave direct answers to questions.  Indeed, he’d usually respond to a question by posing his own question.

The Socratic Method can be a way of eliciting truth, but in Cuomo’s hands, it was a weapon.  He did not have kind feelings for the Albany press corps.  He seemed to view the media as an enemy to be foiled.  Other politicians – Bill Clinton for one – courted reporters and knew how to enlist the media as an ally. I do believe that in his heart of hearts Cuomo thought that most journalists were out to get him.

Not that he was oblivious to the symbiosis that naturally exists between a governor and his state house correspondents.  Annually, the reporters would perform a satirical show for the governor and Albany insiders, similar to the Washington journalists’ Gridiron show, but in my view, way funnier.

The dress rehearsal always got bigger laughs than the performance the following night.  That’s because the governor attended the performance, as did his predecessors.  And with each line, his staff would look over to see if Cuomo was laughing – in order to determine if it was safe for them to laugh, too.

I don’t recall how funny he thought it was, but one of my all-time favorites was the routine satirizing a typical encounter between Cuomo and a reporter.  The setting was a high school class, and Cuomo was a student. The teacher asks Cuomo a simple question: “Did you do your homework?”    Associated Press reporter Bob Bellafiore brilliantly captured Cuomo, who responds with a series of questions of his own.  Was the teacher asking where his homework was? Was he asking whether he had done his homework?  Was he asking whether the homework was physically in the classroom?

You had to be there to get the humor, but in truth, it was not that far from a typical Cuomo response to a question.  You could not pin the man down.  Reporters started bringing two tape recorders to press conferences, one to record his latest answers and another to play back his previous responses when he would deny having uttered them.  The Governor would never explain.  Nor would he ever admit to error.

I don’t think he behaved this way out of pride.  Quite the opposite.  I think he carried with him the sense that somehow he’d never be fully accepted.  He was acutely sensitive to prejudice against Italian-Americans, something he felt blocked his aspirations early on in his legal career.  Like Richard Nixon, he never felt like an insider. Those jokes he told about his mother, who always seemed unimpressed about the success he achieved, were self-deprecation tinged with a bit of hurt.  And being an outsider, he was wary of any coverage that might be critical. So he always remained on the offensive.

Even the Governor’s annual baseball game with the press corps was played for keeps.  Cuomo was notorious for larding his team with the beefiest State Troopers he could find.  He always wanted to win.

It was this nagging self-doubt that haunted him, I believe.  This sense that he would never be good enough.  The irony of course is that reporters wanted so much to believe in him.  The man’s oratory could soar, and he was faithful to a strong ethical code.  He was not your typical pol.  He opposed the death penalty when most New Yorkers supported it.  He reminded America that the gauzy visions of Ronald Regan did not help the nation’s poor and oppressed.

People regret that Cuomo never ran for president, that he could have been elected.  But I doubt that.  The national press corps would have become disillusioned with the great orator from the 1984 Democratic convention, after encountering the prickly antagonist that the Albany press corps knew.

And Cuomo rose to power when Italian-American politicians often were assumed to have connections to organized crime. Indeed, throughout Mario Cuomo’s career, there were whispers about such ties.  There was absolutely no evidence to back them up, but Cuomo knew that they’d surface in a campaign, anyway. I think the same fears may also have prompted him to pull back from a Supreme Court nomination during the Clinton Administration.  Confirmation battles can be fierce and unforgiving. Indeed, his aversion to even the word, “Mafia” was so strong, he boycotted the “Godfather” films until 2013.  (Now, of course, with the Court dominated by an Alito and a Scalia, these fears of Mafia connections seem ludicrous.)

I don’t think Cuomo shied away from running because he had something to hide.  I just think he found the specter of battling these rumors day after day for months on end unpleasant, something to be avoided.  He did not want to have to justify himself and his honor, after achieving a measure of success and respect he’d fought so hard to gain.

Perhaps I see in Mario Cuomo a little of my own father, also the son of Italian immigrants.  My father never achieved the heights that Cuomo achieved.  But they both grew up at a time when prejudice against Italian-Americans was common.  My father always was dogged by the fear that he was not good enough, always afraid to take risks.  He came so close to achieving so much more.

Cuomo always liked to talk about the difference between the poetry of the campaign and the prose of governance.   Cuomo’s prose of governing did not soar. But he was a good and decent man.  If he had the insecurity of a Nixon, he never let it get the better of him, never permitted it to violate his conscience or his core beliefs.

I hope that in his final decades, Mario Cuomo took pleasure in what he was able to achieve.  If there is a heaven, perhaps the Governor will be able to engage Socrates himself in the exchanges that so frustrated the reporters covering him.


Information deficit disorder jeopardizes our democracy

In Blog on December 20, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Before I took up a career as a public interest lobbyist, I was a journalist.  And in my heart of hearts, I continue to think like a journalist.  Indeed, I have been so emotionally wedded to the profession that I wrote a book, Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis to deal with my own feelings about leaving.  But journalists continue to break my heart, and not because I long to be a reporter again.  It is because my second career reminds me how important – and increasingly how rare – good journalism is.

Daily, I walk the halls of Congress and hope to persuade Members to oppose proposals that will harm the public good, and to advance proposals that will benefit it.

I don’t expect reporters to agree with me.  But what is so discouraging is that mainstream media reporters increasingly are not interested in covering what Congress does, or fails to do, until the eleventh hour before a crucial vote or perhaps after the final days of a congressional session when something important is left undone.

Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote a story about the media’s lack of interest in a strongly bipartisan bill that came within inches of getting approved by Congress before Members left for good at the end of December.

The bill would have strengthened the federal Freedom of Information law, making it easier for all citizens, including journalists, to gain access to information shedding light on the workings of their government.

The point of the CJR story, and a blog by New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan, was that the media should have energetically reported on the stalemate for legislation that stood to benefit journalism directly.  After all, a free press thrives when government operates transparently.

That’s true.  But the problem is much bigger.  The dirty little secret in Washington is that by and large the press corps does a terrible job covering 90 percent of what happens in Congress and how it affects average Americans.

I can’t tell you how many meetings public interest lobbyists convene to figure out just what angle of a complicated policy matter might draw the interest, no matter how fleeting, of a distracted press corps.

We know we can’t present anything too complicated, that the details must be written in text that is easily accessible, and brief.

We understand that many reporters want “stories” not memos.

We know they want “sexy” not “wonky” and have to convince editors who have even less patience.

But it gets old, this constant struggle to entertain.  And it wears you down, when big fights over things you care about fail to capture the media’s attention, and thus never really become a part of the public debate.

There are definitely some exceptions.  Reuters reporter Sharon Begley has bravely gone where few journalists have — delving into the wonky world of cost-benefit analysis.  She has written about “the lost pleasure principle”— and how it could weaken pending federal efforts to address the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes and to inform the public about the nutritional value of their restaurant meals.

Washington Post reporters Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold have done a splendid job tracking the new methods deep-pocketed special interests are using to influence public policy.

But consistent careful coverage of federal policymaking is by far the exception, rather than the rule. Media outlets can rise to the occasion, especially when a government failure creates dramatic story lines – patients crippled by defective hip implants, mounting deaths because of tainted products from compounding pharmacies, or environmental disasters.

But they too often lose interest, and don’t follow up to see if our elected officials do enough to address the problem that caused the crisis in the first place.

Reporters change beats.  Newspapers change owners.  There is little sustained attention to federal agencies, or Congressional committees.  Sometimes, as when Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes to the floor to attack a spending bill because it will jeopardize our financial system, the media takes notice.  But Warren had been warning for months about efforts to weaken government regulation of banks. It was only in the final hours of the final days of the 113th Congress that most reporters noticed.  And then, of course, it was too late for the public to weigh in.

Let me be clear.  It is not the media’s job to arouse either outrage or approval.  But if Americans are in the dark about what Congress does or fails to do, they can’t assess the performance of their elected representatives or knowledgably express their views.

Journalism is in transition now, and mainstream media newsrooms have lost thousands of jobs.  Newspapers throughout the country shut down their Washington bureaus, depriving us of seasoned reporters who were covering their local members of Congress.  One can only hope that publishers, editors, and owners of broadcast media outlets will come to realize that journalists cannot shirk the duty they have to the American public – to inform citizens so they can govern themselves.

Abramson’s tenure at The Times: Baquet’s Comments Speak Volumes

In Blog on May 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

I have no inside knowledge of the workings of The New York Times. My husband was in the same high school class as ousted executive editor Jill Abramson at- the toney Fieldston School in Riverdale, a wealthy section of New York City. But he didn’t know her well.  And neither of us is chummy with folks at the newspaper who will give us the inside dope on what really happened, and whether Abramson was treated fairly or not. Lord knows, there’s been a lot of media ink spilled speculating about the reasons – including Abramson’s concerns that she was being paid less than her predecessors, and allegations that she was about to bring another editor on board equal in rank to her deputy, Dean Baquet, without making that clear to him.  But no account really has captured the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed Abramson out the door.

What we do know is that throughout her tenure, Abramson’s people skills have been assessed and critiqued.  While I don’t have the inside skinny on this firing, I do know what it’s like to work in a newsroom, and how crucial management style can be to newsroom productivity and morale.  I thought many of the feelings I had about my former profession were unique to me, but when I wrote Out of the News, I discovered even journalism’s heavy hitters experienced the same lack of confidence about their work that I often felt.

For all their outward boldness, journalists, by and large, are very insecure.  That insecurity stems from a couple of factors.  The act of reporting and writing never gets easy.   In almost every other job, you achieve mastery with repetition.  An open-heart surgeon who does 200 surgeries a year is going to be much better than a surgeon who does ten. But that doesn’t hold true for journalism.  Yes, time and practice gives reporters a certain level of competency.  But every story offers a new challenge.  To write well, to avoid clichés and formulas, to be accurate and fair and understandable is difficult and the difficulty really doesn’t ease up when you get into the big leagues.

And reporters don’t measure success by a “satisfied” public or an achieved result.   How do you know when you write a good story?  In part, you know when you receive an award, but awards happen long after your work has been published.  Certainly, journalists can measure their effectiveness by the number of page views, or tweets their work inspires.

But those numbers are more about popularity than quality, and often have more to do with the subject matter than the reporter’s talent.   Beyonce’s domestic travails are going to beat out the problems in the Ukraine every time.

And while occasionally news stories will have a lot of impact, typically they don’t.  Lawyers can measure their success by the “wins” in court, or the size of the settlements their clients receive.  Health care workers can be judged by the lives they save or health they improve.

The public determines whether your lasagna or shoes or software are worth buying.  Public acclaim keeps the lights on in theaters and stadiums alike, sustaining actors, dancers, and athletes.

But journalism is different.

Reporters generally are not happy when the subjects of their work are extremely pleased, particularly if the subjects are politicians or executives or celebrities.  Praise makes them worry that they’ve been too easy on the people they’ve written about, or failed to present them honestly, or were deceived by their “spin.”

Reporters primarily look to their editors to assess their work.  But this craving for attention and praise from the folks in charge can be quite destabilizing when reporters feel they can’t “read” what the people in charge want, and when they get the sense that they aren’t measuring up.

I have no idea whether Abramson was a destabilizing editor, one who was quick to fault work, and slow to praise, who seemed to want more but wasn’t clear in what, exactly, the “more” was.

However, I was intrigued by a Politico story written more than a year ago. The story reportedly was based on conversations with about a dozen, mostly unnamed, former and current Times news staffers, who raised concerns about the management style of The Times’ first female executive editor. Reporter Dylan Byers made clear that staff acknowledged that Abramson was an extremely competent and talented professional.  But the story also cited complaints about Abramson not being exactly warm and fuzzy in the newsroom, and described one incident when she strongly rebuked a staffer in public.

One other detail stuck out in my memory.  Abramson, according to Byers’ sources, had met with her deputy Baquet and critiqued the paper for not being “buzzy” enough.  The meeting ended with Baquet storming out of the office, and slamming his hand against the wall in frustration.  “Buzzy” doesn’t give you a lot to work with.

When reporters don’t know how to please editors, they can get into terrible funks, overthinking pieces, unable to do their best work.  I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms. Heck, I’ve seen it happen to me.

Baquet last week was named to replace his boss.  His comments to the assembled Times staff are about the most telling remarks I’ve read that suggest some of the key factors that might have led to Abramson’s firing.

“Let’s take risks, let’s not beat each other up when we fail, let’s work together,” Baquet told his staff.  “Let’s not get paralyzed by guessing what Dean or anybody else wants.  Give it a shot.”

That doesn’t mean that Abramson was not the victim of sexism.  Editors typically don’t lose their jobs for their management style.  A “prominent reporter” who spoke to Ben McGrath of The New Yorker contended that “tough and abrasive” editors at The Times have been pretty common over the years:

“Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. … Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Was Abramson was held to a different standard because she’s a woman?  Probably.  Sexism may have made it easier for The Times to cite management style as a major factor in her dismissal, but if it means that all editors in the future – male and female — have to think about how they treat their staffs, that’s not a bad thing.

I don’t know if Abramson deserved to be shown the door.  But if his comments are any indication, Baquet – the paper’s first African-American executive editor — deserved to replace her.

Reporting It Right, The First Time

In Blog on May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded us of the perils of real-time reporting.  Live tweeting, streaming news coverage and instant punditry all seemed to conspire together to confound and confuse.

In this age of nearly instant communication, there were instant and inaccurate reports, about the number of dead, the progress of the investigation, and the suspects.  The New York Post did everything but declare two teens in the crowd to be the perpetrators, circling their faces in red, on a cover photo titled “Bag Men.”   Other media outlets breathlessly told us that a Saudi man might be sought in the case, also wrong. We were even told that a suspect was arrested when no arrest had been made.

Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi isn’t bothered by fast-breaking news containing mistakes.  He wrote that in a media environment where events happen, and are reported, in real time, errors are inevitable, and don’t matter as much as they used to.   Farhi cites Mark Jurkowitz, associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who observed that technology greatly speeds up the correction of initial misinformation, and thus errors matter less.

That seems like a rather weak defense.  If news outlets want to be taken seriously, the major value they bring to the table is that they report verified facts, not unverified assertions or speculation.  If CNN isn’t better than the Twitterverse, why does it exist?  If the chances of my receiving credible fact-based information aren’t improved if I pick up a newspaper rather than search for reports in the blogosphere, why should I bother with any mainstream news outlet?  Indeed, Farhi ends his column with another observation from Jurkowitz, who notes that mistakes damage the credibility of the news media as a whole, even when the public fails to distinguish media outlets that report the facts from those that are more lax.

The New York Times’ David Carr got it right when he noted that accuracy is something that the American public ought to expect, and get, from its news media.  If journalists merely regurgitate what they hear, anyone can do their job.

And despite our obsession with knowing everything in real time, we also look to mainstream media outlets for validation of what we learned, and – to some extent – the kind of power and beauty that words can impart to terrible events.  The day after the bombings, I picked up The New York Times, and came close to tears when I read the first sentence of its main story.  Listen to its cadence, the somber measured tone of the words, the restraint.

Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage.

Journalism is not just about reporting what happened.  A journalist bears witness to terrible events, and in the bearing witness, brings some order into chaos.

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As Both a Scientist and a Mom, Yvonne Brill Deserved a Better Obit

In Blog on April 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

There’s been a lot of fuss, and deservedly so, about The New York Times’ obituary of eminent rocket scientist and inventor Yvonne Brill.  The problem was instead of leading with a description of her significant scientific achievements, the obit writer began by letting readers know she made “a mean beef stroganoff” and was “the world’s best mom.”

In fairness, the obit writer got to the important stuff about her scientific career in the second paragraph, and The Times’ headline also helped communicate that this was a woman of significant accomplishment.

The Times quickly saw the error of its ways, and revised its opening paragraph.

And to tell you the truth, I am less upset about the sexism in the obit than the sheer lack of quality in the writing.  No one deserves a trite obit, particularly if your career has been both impressive, and in some ways, heroic.

Journalism is about letting subjects  – even deceased ones — speak for themselves.  I am not going to cast any feminist darts at the author of the piece (as that has already been covered in many other publications).  I can well imagine how it may have happened.  On deadline, you are asked to write an obit.  You contact the son, who talks a lot about his mother as he knows her.  You’ve got a lot of background info, and some good quotes.  You pull more off the internet.  You’re trying to write something a bit arresting.  The trouble is, you haven’t talked to enough people, and you haven’t let the subject speak to you, though the material is right in front of you.

If the real Yvonne Brill treasured her stroganoff over her rocket propulsion patent, so be it.  But anyone who continued to push for more recognition for women scientists while battling breast cancer, likely cared deeply about her work, something that she devoted her life to while still raising a family.

Only after giving us information that made the obit muddled and trivial – such as how she met her husband and that neither of them cared for square dancing, did the obit give us a telling detail about what she did the last week of her life, a detail which, if I had been writing this obit is what I would have led with.

This is what I would have written:

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CNN and The New York Times: How Committed To Good Journalism?

In Blog on January 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I don’t know which is sadder – the fact that CNN decided to outsource much of its investigative reporting last May, or that the event largely escaped notice until The Daily Show publicized it last week. CNN is such a shadow of itself, I’m not sure how big an audience there is for its investigative reports, or what real impact they have on the world. Nevertheless, anytime investigative reporters lose full-time jobs, that’s not good news.


Being outdone by a fictional news show isn’t great either.

And while The New York Times isn’t laying off any environmental reporters, the fact that the paper announced this month that it would disband its environment desk also raised concerns about the paper’s continuing commitment to covering the environment. As I wrote in my blog for the Union of Concerned Scientists, I can’t say I find The Times’ explanation for axing the specialized desk of reporters and editors very convincing.

Tough New Public Editor Challenges Top Brass at The Times

In Blog on October 29, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Margaret Sullivan and I were both cub reporters in Buffalo.  And even then she was considered a strong, good reporter who couldn’t be bullied.  It’s clear that she hasn’t lost that toughness.

Sullivan, who rose to be editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, this year joined The New York Times as its public editor. Perhaps because she knows what it’s like to be in the executive suite, Sullivan seems to have had no qualms about giving her new bosses some advice about a prickly personnel issue.

As the newspaper’s public editor, Sullivan’s mission, according to The Times, is to “write about The Times’ journalism and the people who produce it,” and to serve as a “liaison to the paper’s readers.”  To ensure that the public editor is independent, unlike every other journalist on the planet, Sullivan has been promised a four-year tenure.  So at least in theory, she can poke a stick at the big bosses in public, and not get the sack.  But there are thousands of other ways that you can feel the wrath of upper management even when your tenure is secure.  It will be interesting if, at the end of two years on the job, she exercises her option to re-up for another two years.

Only four months into her new job, Sulllivan now is writing frank comments about a very messy controversy brewing at The Times, which concerns the man the Gray Lady had selected to be its new president and chief executive officer.

Mark Thompson, The Times’ CEO in waiting, is in the vortex of an emerging scandal in his home country.  He had been a high-ranking executive at the BBC when BBC investigative reporters were about ready to do a story alleging that a beloved BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile, who died last fall, had been a sexual predator during the 1970s and 1980s.  (What better gig for a predator than a familiar TV face who visited lots of children’s hospitals?)  But the BBC killed the investigative piece, and, even worse, aired a couple of smarmy Christmas tributes to Savile.

Saville, according to news accounts, had been the target of police investigations in the past, but they all had been dropped.  The BBC journalists had their story squelched, but a competitor network subsequently broadcast its own story about the scandal. After the story broke, more than 200 victims came forward to allege abuse.

Thompson has told a British parliamentary committee looking into the Savile matter that he didn’t kill the story and that he hadn’t known about the Savile investigation.

Thompson’s initial denial that he hadn’t heard anything about the flap was then followed by a clarification that yes, he had been approached at a party by a BBC journalist who mentioned the program.  He told The Times that he then asked BBC news executives about the report, and was told it had been canceled for “journalistic” reasons.

The Times has been reporting on the story, often citing aggressive follow-ups by British journalists.  Just today, for example, The Times noted that the killing of the BBC’s story had been reported in the media several times, making Thompson’s lack of interest in the story and why it was spiked, a bit more difficult to swallow.

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