There are many ways to assert that the New York Times’s opinion operation is lazy and ineffective and in need of a shakeup. One way would be to examine its work and to cite its problems, its predictability. Another would be to compare its output and impact against the comparable operations of other media outlets. Yet another would be to corral a bunch of cowards who’ll speak in colorful and unnamed ways about Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal. That’s the approach chosen by the New York Observer’s Ken Kurson.
Problems with the story:
Excerpt No. 1: “Mr. Rosenthal is accused of both tyranny and pettiness, by the majority of the Times staffers interviewed for this story.”
Problem No. 1: And? How many great newspaper editors have been guilty of tyranny and pettiness? One person’s pettiness and tyranny are another person’s exacting editorial standards.
Excerpt No. 2: “’He runs the show and is lazy as all get-out,’” says a current Times writer.”
Problem No. 2: To quote the just-released BuzzFeed style guide, “Avoid using anonymous sources for negative quotes.”
Excerpt No. 3: “You know, the editorials are never on the most emailed list; they’re never on the most read list. People just are not paying attention, and they don’t care. It’s a waste of money.”
Problem No. 3: Facts. This quote comes from a “Times staffer.” And it straddles the line between hyperbole and factual assertion in a piece where the author is accusing someone else of laziness. For the record, New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy e-mails the Erik Wemple Blog, “[G]enerally, feature stories and breaking news stories are more likely to appear on most e-mailed lists, I think that’s probably the case at most papers. but editorials (think our Snowden editorial) do show up on occasion.”
Excerpt No. 4: “Another sign of a loss of influence may have been revealed this past fall. A member of then Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inner circle who remained in City Hall until the end of Mr. Bloomberg’s term told The Observer that the entire administration was ‘shocked’ by the Times’ inability to drag its endorsed candidates over the goal line, referring to Christine Quinn in the mayoral primary and Dan Garodnick in the City Council speaker race. ‘When was the last time The New York Times lost both? Those are both essentially Democratic primaries, and the Times couldn’t carry any water.’ The Times also endorsed Dan Squadron for advocate; he was defeated by Letitia James.”
Problem No. 4: The news here is that the New York Times can’t swing a city politics race simply by publishing an editorial or two. How many newspapers retain — if indeed they ever possessed — such authority? Remember: The New York Times editorial board endorsed Scott Stringer over Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary for New York City Comptroller. Stringer won.
Excerpt No. 5: “As for the charges that Mr. Rosenthal is a despot, one writer provided a funny example that others interviewed for this story immediately recognized. ‘Rosenthal himself is like a petty tyrant, like anytime anyone on the news pages uses the word ‘should’ in their copy, you know, he sends nasty emails around kind of CCing the world. The word ‘should’ belongs to him and his people.’”
Problems No. 5, 6 and 7: According to the Washington Post standards, “We should not publish ad hominem quotations from unnamed sources. Sources who want to take a shot at someone in our columns should do so in their own names.” Also: What this source appears to be describing here is an effort by Rosenthal to police the appearance of opinion in the news columns of the New York Times. Sure, that could well be a function of a petty and tyrannical temperament. It could also be a constructive dynamic for a newspaper. Just ask the guys at NewsBusters. Finally: Where’s a sample of such an e-mail?
Excerpt No. 6: “One current Times staffer told The Observer, ‘Tom Friedman is an embarrassment. I mean there are multiple blogs and Tumblrs and Twitter feeds that exist solely to make fun of his sort of blowhardy [expletive].’ ”
Problem No. 8: Eh, no real problem here.
Excerpt No. 7: “Joe LaPointe, who spent 20 years covering sports for the Times before taking a buyout in 2010, views the page and its maestro more positively. ‘The editorial page certainly has changed. It used to be bland, wishy-washy. Now it’s strident. It has more energy and bite. Rosenthal’s voice rings very loud, and I read it closer than I ever had.’ ”
Problem No. 9: Hey, can’t we get these positive comments from an anonymous source?
Excerpt No. 8: “The [opinion people] continue to own the top right of the home page, even in the redesign, which is a really, really important place for eyeballs. That probably translates into a lot of readers, but it’s only because they have that guaranteed placement, which they do not deserve, so it’s just a source of real annoyance. At a time when resources are diminished and people fight over them, it’s also a source of aggravation.”
Problem No. 10: Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere. Staffers are sniping at the editorial side of the operation because they covet its perch on the portal.
Excerpt No. 9: “Given the near universality of the view within the Times that the opinion pages have grown tired and irrelevant, it’s a wonder that nothing has been done to address the problem, especially as the paper has trimmed and restructured in every department.”
Problems No. 11 and 12: The New York Times has a newsroom staff exceeding 1,000. How many of them did the Observer interview in pursuit of its assertion of “universality”? Answer: “more than two-dozen current and former Times staffers.” Also: “Irrelevant” can describe just about every legacy media operation in the country. Big newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post, network news operations (ABC, NBC, CBS), and big players in radio — they’re all irrelevant now compared to their pre-information-explosion incarnations. An editorial page must represent an institution; it must be consistent and respectful, cordial — and those imperatives generally preclude the ingredients of Internet virality. Hence, “irrelevance.” And as for the much-slung allegation of “irrelevance”: It’s the word of choice to slander the work of journalists you don’t like.
Excerpt No. 10: “One source claims that Mr. [Arthur] Sulzberger is ‘afraid’ of Mr. Rosenthal…”
Problem No. 13: Does Mr. Rosenthal wear scary costumes? Not only doesn’t the Observer nail down this allegation; it would be nearly impossible to nail down this allegation.
Excerpt No. 11: “ ‘Bullying’ and ‘petty’ are Andy’s middle name. He’s very smart, he’s very funny. But any place he’s gone where he’s had a position of authority, he’s bullying and petty.”
Problem No. 15: Didn’t we get this message via at least two other, previous unnamed sources?
Excerpt No. 12: “There is suddenly evidence that the festering dissatisfaction with the edit page has broken into what one reporter dubbed ‘semi-open revolt.’ One reporter says that he literally will not allow Mr. Rosenthal to join their lunch table in the cafeteria.”
Problems No. 16 and 17: “Semi-open revolt” in the context of a newsroom means a lot of snarky e-mailing. And as for the allegation of cafeteria lunch-barring, has Rosenthal ever sought to join this particular table?