Thursday, April 16, 2009

My rare agreement with the NYT

I have a lot of beefs with traditional printed and electronic media, particularly the elite media who it often seems have unchecked power to slant the news to fit their own biases. (Once upon a time, we journalists followed the Jack Webb dictum: “just the facts, ma’am.”)

That said, with professional journalists, their biases are usually better disguised (and less intrusive) than with most of the new media — us bloggers and the like. And today I find myself in the unfamiliar position of agreeing with the gray lady herself, THE New York Times.

I remarked on Monday that I thought the Yahoo video interview of Tesla CEO Elon Musk demonstrated a need for “journalism lessons for the new-media host.” Apparently I was not the only one to notice the interviewer’s shortcomings.

I did not know that freelancer interviewer Sarah Lacy is a former Business Week reporter. It is certainly not something I would have guessed, until I read a profile of Lacy and her latest interview with Musk,written by John Koblin of the online paper New York Observer. Nor did I know that one tech veteran called her “the hottest reporter in the tech world — ever.”

After Lacy and Musk complained about the accuracy of a NYT column on Tesla, Koblin asked the NYT what they thought. Here’s what Koblin found:

“I think Sarah Lacy was too busy giggling to do Journalism 101 and call Randy or me for comment to make sure what Elon was saying was accurate,” said Tim O’Brien, the Sunday Business editor of The Times, in an interview. “Because it was not only inaccurate, it was flat-out wrong. We wrote a clarification of the headline. We didn’t retract the story at all; we stood firmly by the story, and I still stand by Randy’s column.”

“You can’t help but watch that interview and marvel at the squishy familiarity between Lacy and Musk,” he continued. “And I wonder whether or not some journalistic blinders had popped off.”
To his credit, Koblin has comments from both The Times and Lacy, although not Musk or columnist Randy Stross (not that this kerfuffle warranted the extra effort).

Koblin notes that (as reported by CNET) Lacy made herself the center of the story during an interview a year ago with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. As with this week, afterwards Lacy felt like she had done a “fine” job. At the same time, the media blog Crisisblogger argued that the 2008 kerfuffle was “created largely by bloggers and tweeters.”

The one nice thing about an interview is that the journalistic bias is up front — whether for favoring the interview subject (as in Lacy’s case) or the traditional 60 Minutes “ambush” interview. This only tells us so much: we can’t see if the two parties are business partners, college classmates or current (or former) lovers. In most cases, we also can’t see what was left on the cutting room floor, to make the subject look better, worse or at least more exciting.

Now, more than ever, it’s essential for the citizens of a democracy to be able to sift through the news — fact, fiction, opinion and distortion. This should be part of any high school civics class, as well as the citizenship classes for those new to the US and its cacophony of news sources.

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