The Times’ ombudsman arrives early

I take it as a mildly hopeful sign that the Times’ new public editor, aka ombudsman, decided to start early so he could address the, cough, questionable news judgment shown by the paper a week ago when it played on page 37 the foiling of an alleged terror plot to blow up the fuel lines under JFK Airport and New Jersey. The story was played large on every other paper I saw; it merited only a paragraph promo on page 1 of the Times.

At the time, I saw four possible explanations:
A) An agenda — trying top play down terror’s war on us (quibble if you will about the war on terror, the war on us is real).
B) An admission that the Times is not a local newspaper. There could be no doubt that everyone in this area would be talking about this story and wanting to know more. If the Times uses that rationale to put fluffy cultural change stories on page 1, surely this story would measure up in conversational curiosity.
C) Horrendous news judgment.
D) All of the above.

I was going for D.

Clark Hoyt, the new public editor — who already shows a better ability to write than his immediate predecessor — talked with all the players at the paper and laid out who did what. And then he said:

My own view is that The Times story was very well reported and written. It quickly made clear that the accused men were a long way from action and that despite the apocalyptic comments of the U.S. attorney, their ability to carry out an attack on the airport was very much open to question.

But instead of being a reason to put the story inside, I think this was a compelling reason to keep it on Page 1. This reporting put the story in an appropriate perspective, far calmer than the day’s television coverage. Giving the story subdued play on the front page — toward the bottom, with a single-column headline — would have told readers that The Times knew what they were concerned about, that there was something real here, but that it wasn’t anywhere near happening and there was no need for alarm.

Yes. We can debate the gravity of the threat — but not if the Times doesn’t give us the facts for that debate, which they surely knew was going to go on. Isn’t that journalism’s role: contributing facts to the public debate? So as far as I’m concerned, the Times fell down on its duty. It displayed atrocious news judgment and the only reason I can see for doing so was an innate, if unspoken — and even, to the Timesman, unrecognized — agenda, a wish to downplay the story.

Hoyt did extract second thoughts from Times Managing Editor John Geddes:

Looking back at last week’s decision, Geddes told me: “If I had it to do over again, might I have started it out front? Yes.”

Why, I asked.

“I made the purest call in terms of how I view the front page of the newspaper,” he said. “But as I look at the rest of the front page that day, could I have started a small story on the front without diminution of the page? Absolutely. We second-guess ourselves all the time.”

As we second-guess you.

Hoyt also points to Suzanne Daley, Times national editor, discussing the decision online:

In truth, the decision was widely debated even within this newsroom. At the front page meeting on Monday morning, we took an informal poll and a few editors thought the story should have been more prominently played. Some argued it should have been fronted, regardless of the lameness of the plot, simply because it was what everyone was talking about.

I think Hoyt’s examination would be been even stronger had he linked to more criticism from without. The New York Post editorialized quite forcefully on the subject:

The paper’s goal seems to be getting America to lower its guard – which can only lead to disaster.

The suspects were “Short on Cash / And a Long Way From Realizing Goals,” one Times headline insisted yesterday. Regarding two of the men arrested, a second headline asserted that “Neither Seemed an Extremist.”

Indeed, on Sunday the paper barely covered the arrests of three suspects behind the plot: Its main story appeared 37 pages back. A second piece undermined the significance of that story: “Plot Was Unlikely To Work, Experts Say, Citing Safeguards and Pipeline Structure.”

OK, so these guys had no weapons or mountains of money on hand.

But they had deep, passionate intent – to do grave damage to this country.

And they represented a brand of terrorist that might be even more deadly than al Qaeda’s thugs: the kind that builds hatred toward America and takes it upon himself to vent that hatred in some deadly freelance plot. . . .

For the Times, though, the only terror plot worth worrying about is . . . a successful one.

It ought to be ashamed of itself.

I like it that Hoyt came in to work early and addressed an incident that begged examination. But I hope that he’s not so quick to dismiss motives and biases in his analysis. I’m not ready to go as far as the Post and Fox News, declaring a deliberate conspiracy to marginalize terror’s war on us, but neither am I willing to dismiss that criticism. This is a decision that can’t be made about the paper on the first day at work, I’d say. I hope Hoyt keeps digging.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com Max Kalehoff

    So there’s a debate here largely about what page the story ran on in the physical paper. Does anybody know how it was treated in the online edition, which far more people read?

  • http://www.attentionmax.com Max Kalehoff

    So there’s a debate here largely about what page the story ran on in the physical paper. Does anybody know how it was treated in the online edition, which far more people read anyway?

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  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    Jeff:
    I think your personal experiences with 9/11 have made you more sensitive to issues of domestic attacks. As a result you tend to think stories deserve more importance than others in the news business do.

    If you examine the criticism of the handling of the several most visible cases where the government has claimed to have foiled a plot you will find that they all share some things in common. First the threat was never very immediate. These groups have no training or expertise, no access to explosives or advanced weapons and their only ties to “terrorist” organizations is usually through an FBI informant. Many would consider this entrapment, not thwarting a plot.

    When it comes time to prosecute these cases the charges filed never match the claims made at the time of the arrest. Even the infamous shoe bomber case has fallen apart.

    So what has happened is that many people are starting to see these cases as “wag the dog”. If, on the other hand, you wish to generalize your complaint to one where the general issue of what gets featured as the most important stories of the day is questioned, I think you have a case.

    I’m always surprised (amused?) to see the lead story on the BBC appear on page 11 in the Times, or the lead story on the TV news appear as four lines on the last page of the local section. Obviously different news organizations are using different criteria.

    Does the Times, as the paper of “record”, have more of an obligation to prioritize stories better or are they just trying to sell papers with a catchy headline, like everyone else?

  • tjVenuto

    …’robertdfeinman’ & ‘Max Kalehoff’ comments above are quite correct.

    News-story selection and placement in a newspaper is always subjective and heavily prone to bias by editors. However, everything cannot be on the front-page. Everyone wants their pet issues amplified on the front-page.

    The alleged massive ‘JFK-Plot’ is a textbook example of government propaganda. I too am surprised that the Times mustered the courage not to give it top billing– they’ve been very cooperative with such government manipulation in recent years.

    Their new ombudsman is already jousting at windmills.

    Those infatuated with 9/11 emotions can’t get enough “news-coverage” of that event … nor idle speculation of similar events. Facts and probabilities are non-relevant to that needed emotional stimulus; any hint of terrorism potential, no matter how factually insignificant, must be given ‘front-page’ glorification… especially in NYC.

    Objectivity and a clear sense of world history… ain’t all that useless to journalists.