The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion New York Times, PBS face stunning disclosures from targets of their investigations

Pedestrians wait for cabs across the street from the New York Times building in 2014. (Associated Press)

Vastly different stories, precisely the same fallout.

A guy named Bo Olson gave the New York Times a powerful quote for its August exposé on Amazon.com’s white-collar work culture: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” Olson told the newspaper in a tone-setting quote. Last week, Amazon hit back at the New York Times, in part by releasing an allegation that Olson had defrauded vendors, a disclosure intended to discredit him as a source.

A former student at the Success Academy charter school in Brooklyn was featured in a recent, extensive “PBS NewsHour” piece that took a hard look at the school’s suspension policies. Last week, the school attacked PBS for hackery, an effort that consisted in part of releasing the former student’s disciplinary history. It included these incidents:

Warning to journalists: If you don’t tell the full story, the target of your investigations may feel obliged to do so. And that can be embarrassing.

There’s no claim here that after-the-fact attacks are a new thing. In fact, they date back years and have many veteran practitioners. Think of Charles and David Koch, the libertarian industrialists who often draw critical looks from the media for their role in supporting conservative causes and politicians. The blog KochFacts.com fills up with media criticism when events warrant. MSNBC has been a frequent target. And anyone looking to cheap-shot the Democratic presidential front-runner these days can expect a docket to populate the Web site of the David Brock-founded Correct the Record, a “strategic research and rapid response team designed to defend Hillary Clinton from baseless attacks.”

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Such groups, of course, are a boon to the industry of media criticism.

What’s striking about the New York Times/Amazon and PBS/Success Academy situations, moreover, is the lengths to which the detractors went in debunking media organizations. In railing against the New York Times story, Amazon alleged that Olson had a “brief tenure” at the online retailer that “ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately.” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet subsequently indicated in his pushback to the pushback that Olson “said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that.”

We’ve asked Amazon why it released such information and whether it would have disclosed such details to the New York Times if it had asked specifically about Olson’s work history. (Disclosure: Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Baquet mentioned that he’d discussed just that matter with Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs. The company looked at its personnel records as part of an inquest to check whether the complaints surfaced in the New York Times piece “were made inside the company.” As for ripping Olson in a blog post on Medium, Baquet called it an “odd tactic. I don’t think it helped their case but to be honest, I think the reason it didn’t help their case is because our story was accurate in the end.”

Prior to publishing its investigative piece — under the bylines of Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld — the New York Times disclosed to the company the “general allegations” in the story, though it didn’t “go name by name by name,” says Baquet. In any case, the executive editor says he “can’t imagine” that Amazon executives would have released to the paper the same sort of information it released to the public after its executive culture ended up under the spitting flame of a Bernzomatic TS8000KC torch.

Whatever the back-and-forth, Baquet verily welcomes the use of new platforms like Medium to take a chunk out of the New York Times. “I have to say that it makes journalism better,” says Baquet. “I think that Amazon is within its rights to try to get a full airing of their point of view. . . . This is an improvement over the days when we write a story and give the subject of the story a paragraph to comment and they get upset because they didn’t get to say more.”

PBS’s face-off with the Success Academy hasn’t gained the Internet altitude of the Amazon set-to, but it has plenty of nasty altitude. The whole thing kicked off with a nearly 10-minute investigative segment on Oct. 12 by NewsHour special correspondent for education John Merrow. Via a great deal of legwork, Merrow compared the suspension policies of a regular old Brooklyn public school with those of a school in the Success Academy network, the largest group of charters in New York City.

A narrow focus, you say? Perhaps, but Merrow had alighted upon one of public education’s most consequential issues. As outlined in this New York Times Magazine profile of Success Academy Charter Schools Founder Eva Moskowitz, suspension policy is at the heart of a debate over fairness and inclusiveness in the allocation of tax dollars for public education. Charter schools take their budgets from the public till, but they operate independently of public school bureaucracies and their extensive strictures. Critics of Moskowitz’s network of 34 schools say her administrators foist suspensions on problem students to push them out of Success Academies and into other schools. The beneficiary of this approach, say those critics, is the test scores of Success Academies and their fellow charters.

To illustrate his piece, Merrow tracked down a child who’d left a Success Academy after sustaining a number of suspensions in a nearly three-year run at the school. That child and his mother were named in the NewsHour piece, which portrayed them in a sympathetic light. “I was suspended so many times, it was just like — it was just — it was like, why do I even come here every day if I just know that I’m going to get suspended?” the student told Merrow. The student’s mother said that in addition to the suspensions, she was called two or three times a week to pick him up early. The Erik Wemple Blog isn’t identifying the student by name, even though the original PBS story did. That’s because Success Academy has published his disciplinary record, though it didn’t name him in the disclosure, either. Anyone tracking the story, however, can pair the Success Academy data with the student cited in the Merrow piece.

Now here’s where Merrow and PBS got in trouble: The mother agreed to be interviewed for the PBS story but declined to release her child’s records for the news outlet’s inspection. Meaning that the broadcast relied solely on the child and the mother to describe the sorts of actions that triggered the suspensions. “Yes, [John Doe] has had meltdowns,” said the mother in the PBS broadcast. “Yes, he has anxiety. Yes, he’s cried. Yes, he’s had outbursts.” After the story came out, Success Academy cast those meltdowns in a more specific context, releasing the log of outbursts by the child that’s shown higher in this post.

And just as Amazon disclosed an e-mail from a New York Times reporter prior to publication of the work-culture piece, Success Academy released a chain of e-mails between Merrow and Moskowitz over the oft-suspended child’s case. It’s a damning set of correspondence if you’re PBS:

John,
Ann advises me that you intend to allow Jane Doe to speak on camera about our staff’s treatment of her son John Doe but then to refuse to allow us to tell our side of the story on camera because Ms. Doe is refusing to waive her son’s privacy rights.
That is obviously unfair. Ms. Doe should not be allowed to simultaneously use her privacy rights to prevent us from speaking while telling her side of the story. We object to your allowing this to happen. In addition, we would like to know what Ms. Doe is alleging because we have no idea what she is saying and therefore cannot respond to her factual allegations. This is the type of thing that leads to inaccurate news reporting.
Please advise me of your intentions in this regard as soon as possible.
Eva Moskowitz

Merrow responds:

Dear Eva,
Our story is about out of school suspensions of very young students, not about
Jane and her son. We would not air unsubstantiated accusations, and so her
decision not to allow the release of John’s records was not material….
Respectfully,
John

On it went:

John,
I don’t understand your response. If Jane and her son are not part of the story, then
why is she going to be on the air? I assume she’s talking about her experience with
her son. If she is going to be on the air making accusations about the treatment of
her son, we would like to know what they are and respond to them.
Eva

After Moskowitz didn’t hear back from Merrow, she pushed again:

John,
I haven’t heard back from you regarding Jane Doe.
I feel strongly that Success Academy should have the right to be able to respond on camera to Jane’s accusations. In all fairness, if she is able to go on air and make accusations about our treatment of her son, we must insist on knowing what those charges are and be able to respond properly to them. The old adage that there are two sides of every story could not be more apt.
Eva

Merrow:

Dear Eva,
Because Jane was unwilling to release her son’s records, we were of course unwilling to allow her to openly criticize the school. Her role in the piece is limited and should not be a cause for concern on your part.
Our piece also emphasizes—’celebrates’ might be a more appropriate verb–your network’s focus on science and the arts, its remarkable academic success and its widespread popularity.
Respectfully,
John

The lesson here is that reporters should never be trusted to pre-characterize the thrust and emphases of their stories. They see what they want to see. To any objective observer, Merrow’s story most certainly was about the experience of the mother and the oft-suspended child. Their inclusion placed memorable faces on the viewpoint of Moskowitz’s critics.

The NewsHour responded by issuing an on-air apology, something that the Washington Monthly called a rare sighting. On its Web site, the NewsHour issued a clarification that reads, in part: “Only one family was willing to talk on camera, but the mother was not willing to allow Success Academy to release her son’s school records. Ms. Moskowitz should have been given a chance to respond to this family’s comments. The NewsHour regrets that decision.” Somehow, the clarification managed to echo a point from Merrow’s e-mail correspondence, as it strove to somehow extract the central characters from the piece: “Mr. Merrow’s report was not about any particular child but about suspension policy. The reporting included conversations with nearly a dozen families about their young children’s suspensions from Success Academy, as well as other sources, including one within Success Academy.” That’s what you call Ex Post Facto Story Redefinition, or EPFSR.

PBS’s response merely ignited what has become an East Coast mediacational brawl. Success Academy has blasted PBS not only for how it failed to vet the input from the child and his mother but also for alleged methodological issues in calculating attrition rates. In addition to its original complaint, it has posted two additional letters ripping PBS for inadequately addressing holes in the story. The boy’s mother, meanwhile, is demanding that the school take down its correspondence related to the story, arguing that the disclosures about her son’s disciplinary record amount to a violation of federal law. “A FERPA complaint to the US Dept of Education Family Compliance Office will follow soon,” notes the letter. To round things out, Merrow has admitted that he erred in including the family in his story.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Success Academy spokeswoman Ann Powell rips the NewsHour for its reaction to the debunking. “I don’t think they’ve properly responded to Ms. Moskowitz’s letters,” says Powell. As to why the school divulged such extensive details on the past of the child, Powell said, “If we were going to set the record straight, we felt that was the only choice we had. I don’t think it would have gotten the attention that — I don’t think other journalists would have understood the severity of what Mr. Merrow had done without using those examples.”

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