Feb 12 2008

A Double Standard on Reporters Who Express Opinions?

Letter to NY Times' public editor Clark Hoyt

On February 12, FAIR sent a letter to the New York Times‘ public editor Clark Hoyt regarding a recent editors’ note that suggested that the newspaper has double standards for reporters who publicly express opinions. The letter is below. We encourage others who have concerns to also contact Hoyt at: public@nytimes.com.


Dear Clark Hoyt,

The New York Times recently published an unusual editor’s note about the February 4 front-page article, “Time Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S.”

The note concerned Andy Worthington, one of the two journalists identified in the article’s byline:

Mr. Worthington has written a book, The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison
, in which he takes the position that
Guantánamo is part of what he describes as a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the September 11 attacks. He has also expressed strong criticism of
Guantánamo in articles published elsewhere.
The editors were not aware of Mr. Worthington’s outspoken position on
Guantánamo. They should have described his contribution to the reporting instead of listing him as co-author, and noted that he had a point of view.

There is no indication that Worthington’s reporting was flawed in any way. What the paper is saying is that Worthington’s critical view of
Guantánamo disqualifies him from having a byline on a Times article on the subject, and must be noted whenever he contributes to such a story.

Is this rule applied to all Times reporters covering any subject? It would seem not. The Times‘ response to its chief military correspondent Michael Gordon expressing a point of view on national TV on the very topic he covers as a reporter provides an instructive comparison.

On the Charlie Rose show (1/8/07), the host asked Gordon if he believed “victory is within our grasp.” Gordon responded by endorsing the White House’s call for a “troop surge”:

“So I think, you know, as a purely personal view, I think it’s worth it [sic] one last effort for sure to try to get this right, because my personal view is we’ve never really tried to win. We’ve simply been managing our way to defeat. And I think that if it’s done right, I think that there is the chance to accomplish something.”

The Times‘ public editor at the time, Byron Calame, wrote (1/28/07) that he “raised reader concerns about Mr. Gordon’s voicing of personal opinions with top editors.” The Washington bureau chief assured Calame that Gordon’s remarks were merely “a poorly worded shorthand for some analytical points about the military and political situation in Baghdad that Michael has made in the newspaper in a more nuanced and un-opinionated way. Gordon continued to write about the “surge” for the Times, with no mention made of the fact that he had publicly voiced support for the military strategy.

Of course, Gordon is a Times staffer, while Worthington is a freelancer. But it’s unclear why you would want more stringent rules for opinions expressed by occasional freelancers as opposed to staffers who write regularly for your publication.

Another perhaps more relevant difference between the two cases is that Gordon’s opinion was strongly supportive of the White House, while Worthington had been critical. Was this a factor in the Times‘ decision-making? Was the editor’s note prompted by Bush administration complaints?

The Times‘ response regarding the
Guantánamo article stands in sharp contrast to its inaction regarding a complaint brought by FAIR about another recent Times article, a front-page piece by Sheryl Gay Stolberg (1/28/08) that claimed that George W. Bush “has spent years presiding over an economic climate of growth that would be the envy of most presidents.” This assertion has no basis in fact (see FAIR’s Action Alert, 1/28/08), yet the Times had no response to FAIR’s request for a correction. When the paper moves swiftly to distance itself from an article with no apparent factual problems, one can’t help but wonder about the paper’s journalistic priorities.

We look forward to your response.

Isabel Macdonald

Communications Director