A Bad Call at the Times

Columbia's early release of its big report comes back to bite the paper

One Times insider said he believed that the Columbia story may have been the education beat reporter's first encounter with such a request from a source. OK, anything is possible. But what about her immediate editors? Isn't it a part of their job to have full knowledge of the paper's code of standards and ethics? Actually, my reporting indicates that editors were the ones who caught the lapse—senior editors who called a halt when the unholy arrangement with Columbia was reported to them at the late-afternoon Page One meeting—and ordered the staff to seek broader reaction to the Columbia report. The Times did the right thing. It corrected its mistake and deserves credit for that. Finally, what about Columbia? What was its administration thinking when it insisted upon these limitations on reporting? This is a university that boasts it has the best journalism school in the country. How will it explain this ethics violation to that student body? Where is the university's mea culpa?

Here is Columbia's response; readers can decide whether it satisfies them.

In a lengthy interview, Susan Brown, director of Columbia's Office of Public Affairs, said, in part:

No call from the paper: Columbia protesters
photo: Cary Conover
No call from the paper: Columbia protesters

"We wanted the report [initially] to speak for itself without the interpretations or responses of others commenting on it . . . not through the lens of others. . . . It was not a condition, it was a request. We asked them [the Times] not to contact anyone who had not yet seen the report. We wanted to protect its confidentiality.

"As you said [when I told her the gist of the Voice article], this is a volcanic and polarizing issue. . . . We all learn from experiences that there are unintended consequences. The intentions were perfectly honorable. No one was thinking of the journalism issue [at the time]."

More than once in the interview, Brown said that, in hindsight, "we would have done it differently."

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