When a journalist dies, how can you tell if they’ve had a career that’s upheld the proudest journalistic traditions of challenging the powerful and fearlessly exposing the truth?
The New York Times will attempt to piss on that career in the journalist’s obituary.
The Paper of Record did that with John Hess, himself a Times veteran and one of the paper’s most incisive critics. When he died (Extra!, 3-4/05), the Times (1/22/05) called him “cranky,” “curmudgeonly” and “grudging”–not to mention bungling his birthplace (The Bronx, not Salt Lake City) and alma mater (City College, not the University of Utah). John, who actually worked on the paper’s obituary desk, would have just said it proved his point.
Then in its obituary for Barbara Seaman, the groundbreaking critic of corporate media health coverage (Extra!, 3-4/08), the Times (3/1/08) offered this as its only sustained evaluation of her work–a quote from a Washington Post book review (10/5/03):
Seaman is a conspiracy theorist by temperament and training. In her presentation, every drug company is working against the interests of its patients, and every journalist who fails to question this or that bad study has probably been bought off.
Here’s a theory for you: Every journalist who quotes hyperbolic attacks on a colleague who can no longer defend herself is most likely suffering from a bad conscience.
An inquiry into the article by the Defense Department inspector general the next year found “insufficient” evidence of wrongdoing by the general, his military aides and civilian advisers.
The inspector general’s report also questioned the accuracy of some aspects of the article, which was repeatedly defended by Mr. Hastings and Rolling Stone.
First of all, the inspector general’s report found that “the evidence was insufficient to substantiate a violation of applicable DoD standards”–meaning that after talking to various people associated with the events described in the article, the IG maintained there wasn’t enough evidence to bring disciplinary action against anyone under the military’s rule. This is entirely different from saying that a journalist failed to provide sufficient evidence for an article’s charges, and of completely dubious relevance to a post-mortem evaluation of that journalist’s career.
The report did claim that “not all of the events at issue occurred as reported in the article”–but this was immediately followed by the basis for this judgment: “In some instances, we found no witness who acknowledged making or hearing the comments as reported.” In other words, the people who were quoted saying things that might get them kicked out of the service denied saying them, and the officers they were working or partying with backed them up. (The report notes in passing that the Army inspector general–as opposed to the Pentagon IG–had found that the “preponderance of the evidence indicated” that the derogatory remarks quoted by Hastings had in fact been said.)
The link in the Times obituary for Hastings goes back to the paper’s 2011 coverage (4/19/11) of the inspector general’s report, which was headlined “Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides.” That report was by Thom Shanker, with his colleague Elisabeth Bumiller “contribut[ing] reporting.” Bumiller famously said that at the New York Times, “you can’t just say the president is lying.” Or high-ranking military officers, either, apparently.
Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, understandably took exception to the Times‘ efforts to denigrate her husband’s career (Huffington Post, 6/19/13). She pointed out in a letter, among other things, that many of the derogatory remarks quoted in the article were made on tape–but that Hastings, like a self-respecting journalist, declined to turn over his tapes and notes to a government inquiry. Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald responded that “it’s not the Times that is questioning the article’s accuracy; it was the Defense Department. We’re simply reporting what it publicly said.”
If I live long enough to write the New York Times‘ obituary–which I might–I’m going to include this:
The Newspaper of Record recorded a century of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind, generally as a faithful voice of the Eastern establishment. It supported all its wars, hot and cold. It supported witchhunts during and after World War I and temporized with the one after World War II; it fudged the menace of Hitlerism and played down the Holocaust…. At the cutting edge of major events, it could be found against women’s suffrage, against unionism (always), against minimum wages and national health insurance…. Like the rest of the business establishment, it preferred corrupt politicians to liberal reformers.
Now, that’s not me saying that–that’s John Hess. But he was right.