The Times and the anti-terrorism demonstrations
: Apparently, Dan Okrent, public editor of the NY Times, got a bunch of email complaining that The Times gave scant — the scantest — coverage to the Dec. 10 anti-terrorism demonstrations in Iraq (just a brief ninth paragraph in a roundup story). I can tell that Okrent got a lot of mail because he had to create a form letter (understandably) that was sent to this blogger and this uberblogger. Okrent’s response:
I’ve been in touch with the Times’s Baghdad bureau and the paper’s foreign desk, who attribute the failure to cover the story in detail (a three-column picture did appear in the paper) to two things: The organizers of the demonstration failed to alert the Times in advance. And, more crucially, the responsible parties at the Times dropped the ball. As you might imagine, life can be difficult and work terribly complicated for journalists in a war zone. Still, the story should have received more thorough coverage.
I am sending a copy of this explanation to newsroom management.
Loveya, Dan, but I don’t buy it. And though I think your response is direct and candid, I also don’t buy that this is necessarily an ombudsman issue. It is an executive-editor issue of bad news judgment.
And then again, this is really an issue of the future vs. the past of journalism.
Let’s say that The Times and its reporters screwed up and simply didn’t cover the event or cover it adequately.
Well, then, there is a new way to get the news: Zeyad the blogger.
Why can’t The Times quote an Iraqi citizen who witnessed the demonstrations and told the world about them — and documented them with photographs — on the Internet? It was good enough for The Weekly Standard. Why not for The Times?
Because he’s not a journalist? Well, The Journalists in this case screwed it up and came back without the real story.
And this is, on its face, a good story: In a nation just invaded and defeated by American and coalition forces, a nation still troubled by terrorism and violence, citizens of all stripes risked taking to the streets to support a future of peace and cooperation. That is news. Period. Whoever did not know about that story screwed up.
I don’t buy that it was up to the organizers to tell The Times about the demonstration. We should never depend on PR for our news!
And, hell, I knew about the demonstrations from the comfort of my couch in New Jersey — all I had to do was be curious enough to read the very, very few Iraqi weblogs that exist to know about this date; and it is, after all, a reporter’s job to be curious. Click, boys, click!
So The Times’ reporters should have assigned themselves.
Failing that, The Times editors should have read those few weblogs, too, and assigned those reporters.
If The Times reporters did report on the event and The Times editors didn’t put it in the paper, then they screwed up.
But failing all that, The Times should have quoted from Zeyad’s weblog and even published his photos (which he made available to anyone). They had a new way to report this news. They didn’t use it.
Is this a public editor issue? I’m not sure it is. I do not think it’s an issue of principles or precedent or bias. It’s simply an issue of competence.
The Times muffed the story. Plain and simple.
Or maybe it is a public editor issue — if it’s about the public editor educating the other editors about new ways to report the news they don’t otherwise manage to report.
But I don’t fully blame The Times and its reporters. They’re busy. They’re living and working in a terribly dangerous place. They’re going to miss a story here and there. They are hardly the only ones who missed this story. That’s not my complaint.
My complaint is that, having missed and muffed the story — stuff happens — they didn’t take the very easy path of correcting this by reading and quoting Zeyad, a witness to the events.
Not journalistic, you argue still?
Well, what Zeyad gave us is one helluva lot more journalistic than the ninth-graph brushoff The Times’ professional reporters and editors gave us!
Who did a better job of reporting the news from Baghdad that day?
A 24-year-old Iraqi dentist did.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say again that I now have a personal interest in all this story because (I will say proudly) I inspired Zeyad to blog and I sent him the camera that let him document that event. That’s my drum to beat.
And I have never made a better investment in journalism in my entire career.
It took no effort to send Zeyad that camera and allow him to go to the great effort and risk to report this event for us.
It would have taken even less effort for The Times — having missed the story — to catch up by taking advantage of what Zeyad has given us. All they had to do was click and read.
Not doing that is the real error. Not doing that is the real risk to the future of journalism.
There is a new way for us to gather much of our information and our news in the future. If The Times and Big Media do not learn how to do that, they will lose and so will their readers.
We are in the information business. On that day, on that story, The Times did not provide the information; Zeyad the weblogger did.
Here’s Roger Simon on the story.