Sourcing

October 6, 2011

Another day, another letter to the NYT Public Editor. I refer to:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

from this Deal Book column:

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/10/03/on-wall-street-a-protest-matures

Andrew Ross Sorkin has his way with NYTimes policies on anonymous sourcing in this column.

First, he demonstrates his complete disregard for NY Times rules. He grants anonymity to an incoming call. A bank CEO calls him up, and is apparently completely secure that he is (quoting Tim Russert’s testimony in the Libby trial) “presumptively off the record.” Here’s the official NYTimes policy regarding interviewing sources and anonymity:

In routine interviewing – that is, most of the interviewing we do – anonymity must not be automatic or an assumed condition. In that kind of reporting, anonymity should not be offered to a source.

It’s hard to think of a way to more completely flout this policy. That he can be a prominent NYT columnist, on one of the most important beats in the country at this time, and considers the anonymity rules as something he need pay no attention to, is really something David Carr might want to report on, if he worked somewhere else.

Consider this:

we who have sought out a source who may face legal jeopardy or loss of livelihood for speaking with us.

It’s hard not to laugh out loud. “We who have sought out a source” couldn’t be more directly opposite to how sourcing works here. Glenn Greenwald doesn’t exaggerate when he calls the anonymous CEO Sorkin’s assignment editor. The Times policy makes anonymous sourcing an extraordinary event. Sorkin’s (presumably passing through two or more editors) column makes it an absolutely routine part of his daily intercourse with sources.

And you know what’s really newsworthy here? The identity of the source. What bank CEO calls up the New York Times and dispatches a major columnist off to write a story? Shouldn’t the Times get someone on that? Isn’t it in the public interest to know which money center bank (which is how I read “major”) has this kind of influence over Times reporting?

It’s not like the official policy doesn’t reflect this concern:

In any situation when we cite anonymous sources, at least some readers may suspect that the newspaper is being used to convey tainted information or special pleading. If the impetus for anonymity has originated with the source, further reporting is essential to satisfy the reporter and the reader that the paper has sought the whole story.

Can you please ask Sorkin’s editors how the story passed that bar? How else can you characterize the quoted conversation–other than “special pleading”? Isn’t the real story here the level of concern among “CEO(s) of major banks” about the demonstration? Wouldn’t the proper journalistic response be to call up the other CEOs and ask them about their level of concern? And get them on the record?

The hilarity continues:

Confidential sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us — or they must be the authorized representatives of an authority, known to us, who has such knowledge.
We do not grant anonymity to people who are engaged in speculation, unless the very act of speculating is newsworthy and can be clearly labeled for what it is.

In this case, the source is engaging in information-free speculation–is he in danger from those people? He needs to know, and sends Sorkin off to engage in his own speculation, based on what information he can gather on the source’s behalf.

At the very least, could you please ask Sorkin’s editors why this source is anonymous, and to ask Sorkin to stop embarrassing the paper by flouting its anonymity rules? I really do think there is a story here as well–just as there was a Jayson Blair story and a Judith Miller story. Maybe one of your more journalistic business reporters, like Gretchen Morgenson, could take a crack at it.


Suppression

October 3, 2011

I write letters.  To the public editor, regarding Michael Cooper’s he said/she said article today on Republican voter suppression:

Michael Cooper’s article on new state voting laws (filed in the “politics” sub-section of the US section of the website, and IIRC on the front page of my subscription edition of the TImes) is a pretty stunning example of really bad “he said, she said” journalism. Consider the fifth paragraph:

Republicans, who have passed almost all of the new election laws, say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and question why photo identification should be routinely required at airports but not at polling sites. Democrats counter that the new laws are a solution in search of a problem, since voter fraud is rare. They worry that the laws will discourage, or even block, eligible voters — especially poor voters, young voters and African-American voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

And also consider the lede:

Since Republicans won control of many statehouses last November, more than a dozen states have passed laws requiring voters to show photo identification at polls, cutting back early voting periods or imposing new restrictions on voter registration drives.

There isn’t a question of opinion or ideology here. These are questions of fact. Is it true that voter fraud can be prevented by requiring photo IDs at the time of voting, reducing the length of time balloting is open or making it harder for people to register? Is there any evidence, at all, that what the Republicans are saying to justify suppressing turnout is actually true? The rest of the article goes on to point out that the effect, the intended effect, of these measures is to suppress voter turnout among groups that tend to vote for Democrats. How can Michael Cooper, or his editors, write this up as “GOP says fraud” while “Dems say there is no fraud” and then leave it there?

The one actual quotation from someone who favors suppressing Democratic votes concedes there is no fraud taking place that is within 4 orders of magnitude of the planned suppression:

“The left always says that people who are in favor of this claim there is massive fraud,” said Mr. von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation. “No, I don’t say that. I don’t think anybody else says that there is massive fraud in American elections. But there are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you’ve got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections.”

In the first place, the suppression effort IS massive.  According to the article, it is meant to reduce turnout in the high hundreds of thousands to millions. If there is no massive fraud, then why does von Spakovsky support a massive effort to prevent citizens from exercising their right to franchise. Moreover, where is Michael Cooper here? Where are the questions: “What history? What recent events? How many instances of fraud, and of what magnitude? Can you document even a dozen cases of fraud caused by early voting, registration drives, or the absence of ID?”

The republicans are engaging in blatant attempts to suppress Democratic voters. This is newsworthy! It needs to be reported accurately, using actual facts, instead of presenting obviously disprovable lies as possibly valid.