A Bad Call at the Times


The New York Times—where I spent the first 26 rewarding years of my journalism life—bent one of its ethical rules recently. It was not a lapse of major proportions, but in the aftermath of the upheaval caused by the Jayson Blair serial-fabrication scandal and the intense scrutiny the Times now faces on a daily basis from the media community, it brought another layer of chagrin and disappointment to the paper’s newsroom. “What next?” said one career reporter, whose weariness seemed to represent the general reaction.

First, a rundown of the incident. During the winter, Columbia University appointed a faculty committee to investigate and file a report on a dispute that has badly roiled its campus: a heated and very public controversy over student charges of anti-Israel bias by some members of the Middle East studies faculty. The 24-page report was readied for release on April 1, but the university decided to give the Times, an old friend with which it has quietly swapped favors over the years, a one-day advantage over the competition. However, Columbia set one condition: The Times had to agree, in return for this exclusive access, not to seek comment from any “other interested parties,” such as the student body and, in particular, the Jewish students who had brought the allegations. Strangely, the reporter and her immediate editors accepted the conditions. The university also offered the same deal to the independent campus newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, which smartly turned it down and published a story with comments from the protesting students.

As long as I can remember, it has been an accepted rule of journalism that, absent some extreme circumstance, such as a threat to national security, a newsperson is never to acquiesce to a source’s request to do less than a full reporting job or to leave basic information out of a story. The Times‘ own official policy contains the following: “We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being reported. We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story. (We may, however, agree to a limited delay in further inquiries—until the close of stock trading, for example.)”

The Times‘ latest stumble was discovered and immediately exposed by The New York Sun, a fledgling daily with a decidedly rightist, pro-Israel stance that has been waging a campaign against the Times‘ coverage of the campus controversy. A few days later, on April 6, the Times published an Editor’s Note (reserved for significant errors), which read, in part: “Under the Times‘ policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information. In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public. . . . Last Wednesday night, after the article had been published on the Times‘ Web site, the reporter exchanged messages with one of the students who had lodged the original complaints. The student was expecting to read the report shortly. But because of the lateness of the hour, and concern about not having response from other interested parties, the reporter did not wait for a comment for later versions, including the printed one, after the student had read the report. Without a response from the complainants, the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form. The response was included in an article on Friday [the following day].”

That second-day article was full of reactions, all of them unsurprising. The student complainants called the report “insulting” because the five-member panel found only one instance of inappropriate professorial behavior in the classroom. But a couple of these students, after a meeting with Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, said they were encouraged that a measure of progress had been made. Some people at Columbia found other grounds for criticism, saying that the investigation by itself would have a chilling effect on academic freedom of expression. One source familiar with the preparation of the report complained privately that the Times‘ first-day headline and lead paragraph had oversimplified what he regarded as a nuanced and balanced document. The headline read: “Columbia Panel Clears Professors of Anti-Semitism.”

The decades-old Middle East dispute is one of those virulent tribal wars that throw up the most extreme emotional arguments; middle ground is rarely in sight. This bitter campus argument is no exception. Outside advocacy organizations on both sides have thrust themselves into the fray, making resolution even more difficult. In short, no official report on the matter would have satisfied the warring parties. The journalism ethics issue, while hardly a cause for a hanging, was nonetheless an eye-opening goof. The Times statement, in its April 6 mea culpa, that “editors and the writer did not recall the [paper’s] policy” was an astonishing one. After all the hammering the nation’s still-best newspaper has taken for its major screwups of the last few years, and after installing an ombudsman as a corrective and rewriting the paper’s entire ethics code, is it possible that anyone on the news staff doesn’t know you aren’t supposed to leave stuff out of a story because a source asked you to?

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:

“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.”