Unethical Quote Of The Week: New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. [UPDATED and CORRECTED]

“Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

—-New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, announcing that the Times was eliminating its “public editor” and its public editor position.

The decision was bad enough, the disingenuous excuse was almost worse. Yes, by all means, the Times doesn’t need an independent, internal expert on journalism ethics to blow the whistle when the Times ignores its duties of competence, independence and objectivity and breaches its own ethics code: the overwhelmingly left-wing readers the Times panders too daily will keep it on the straight and narrow! Besides. why does the Times need an ethics cop now? After all, the public’s trust in the news media, of which the Times is supposed to be the role model, has never been higher!

Well, no, actually, the public’s trust in journalism has never been lower, and the New York Time’s blatant bias during the 2016 campaign and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election is one of the main reasons. Tell me: if an organization finds its public trust diminishing drastically, which act shows a sincere interest in addressing that distrust and reversing it…

A. Hiring an independent journalism ombudsperson who investigates instances of dubious journalism ethics and reports to the public in the paper, no matter what the results, entering criticism and recommending changes as needed, or

B. Eliminating the above position entirely?

The New York Times chose B. What this indicates is that the Times doesn’t care about the public trust, just its readers’ trust. It knows most of its current readership wants an aggressive progressive advocacy rag, not bold, objective and independent journalism. When a new less-progressive-than-usual op ed writer dared to suggest that critics of climate change orthodoxy be listened to respectfully, Times readers tried to get him fired. Continue reading

The Washington Post Gives Up On Independent Ombudsmen: 1) Too Bad, Because It Needs One Desperately and 2) No Wonder, Since Its Last One Was A Bozo

Agreed: He's an improvement over the last ombudsman. But the Washington Post readers deserve better.

Agreed: He’s an improvement over the last ombudsman. But the Washington Post readers deserve better.

The Washington Post, which in 1970 became the first newspaper to employ a full-time “independent ombudsman” to explore reader complaints and exercise ethical oversight, has given up on the concept, pronouncing it a device “created decades ago for a different era.” You know–that era when people trusted the news media, and occasionally were given good cause to do so. Now the Post will rely on a “reader representative” named from the newspaper’s staff.

So much for “independence.”

Giving up on ombudsmen after having Patrick B. Pexton filling the role for the last two years is a little like giving up eating after Thanksgiving at my late Aunt Anna’s house. Her green, slimy, Wonder Bread turkey stuffing had to be tasted (but, oh God, never swallowed!) to be believed. Similarly, Pexton was an utter disgrace as an ombudsman, making excuses for unethical Post excursions into partisan hackery, and apparently completely unaware that his own biases mirrored those of his paper, which supposedly placed him in his job to offer perspective, not cover. And just as I seriously considered never again taking the risk of putting food in my mouth after that memorable holiday dinner in 1966, I can understand the Post thinking, as Pexton’s two year contract mercifully expired last week, thinking, “If we can’t do better than this clown, why have the position at all?” Continue reading

Picking Through The Wreckage of An Ethics Tesla Wreck

The wreck participants. Not pictured: the Tesla.

The wreck participants. Not pictured: the Tesla.

There was questionable ethical conduct galore in the recently-stilled ethics wreck sparked by a New York Times review of the new Tesla electric car, the Model S. Times reporter John Broder test drove the car from Washington, D.C., to Boston, using the  charging stations Tesla has opened along the way.  Broder’s Tesla ran out of juice, and the article concluded with a sad photo of the highly-anticipated Model S  on a tow truck. In short, it was not a positive review.

In response to the review, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk called it a “fake” on Twitter, then wrote a rebuttal using the data logs of the vehicle Broder tested. Broder wrote a rebuttal to the rebuttal, and eventually the Times “public editor” (others would call her its ombudsman), Margaret Sullivan, was drawn into the battle, performing an investigation and concluding that…

“…I am convinced that [Broder]  took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it. Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending. In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation…People will go on contesting these points – and insisting that they know what they prove — and that’s understandable. In the matter of the Tesla Model S and its now infamous test drive, there is still plenty to argue about and few conclusions that are unassailable.”

Perhaps realizing that his vigorous defense of his car had triggered the Streisand Effect, Musk took to Twitter again, this time saying that the ombudsmadam’s article was “thoughtful” and that his faith in the Times was hereby restored. This put a nicely disingenuous spin on the whole episode.

Here is the final ethics tally: Continue reading

The Worst Ombudsman Ever Strikes Again!

"Wait! Wait! It wasn't that good a story! Why did you have to pay so much attention to it? Now Our friends are all mad and everything!"

Patrick B. Pexton, whom Ethics Alarms dubbed The Worst Ombudsman Ever last Fall, has cemented his title with yet another example of bias and incompetence. By rights, he should be in a spirited battle for WOE with New York Times “public editor” (a.k.a ombudsman ) Clark Hoyt, who, among other derelictions of duty, has refused to criticize Times columnist Charles M. Blow for blatant anti-Morman bigotry. At least Hoyt writes about journalistic ethics, which is his (and Pexton’s) job to do, though not always well. The ombudsman’s proper role in any organization is to serve the public interest by answering and resolving complaints against the organization, calling foul when the organization does wrong, and making standards clear when it does not. In a new organization, the ombudsman is the guardian of journalistic ethics, and all that implies, from fairness to objectivity to competence. Pexton seems to see his function as an advocate for the Post when it is under attack, and for the Obama Administration when the opportunity presents itself. That does not serve the public interest.

Thus it is that Pexton has written a bizarre and gratuitous  defense of a Post story that went viral on the internet, arguing that it wasn’t the Post’s fault that so many people paid attention to it, that the story was no big deal, really, and that “only our reactive, partisan, hyperventilating media culture” made it one. Isn’t that strange? A newspaper’s story gets quoted and circulated, and its ombudsman feels that he has to apologize for it? What was the matter with the story? Was it wrong? That would justify Pexton’s professional <Cough!> attentions. Well, no, it wasn’t wrong. Was it unfair? Er, not really, no. What then? Continue reading

Patrick B. Pexton: Worst Ombudsman Ever

Interestingly, you can find Patrick B. Pexton's picture in the dictionary under both "bad ombudsman" and "bad hair."

Well, at least we know that the Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton (who apparently escaped from a Charles Dickens novel) is a dud. That’s one good thing that came out of his column about his employer’s unethical coverage of the “Niggerhead” rock, otherwise known as “Let’s smear that scary Republican, Rick Perry, so he’ll never come close to being President.” Other than that useful but unfortunate fact, however, Pexton’s piece represents the most incompetent and ethically clueless analysis by a media ombudsman that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of them.

Pexton, who is supposed to present an objective and critical response to ethical issues in Post reporting and editing, instead adopts the stance of its partisan defender. Wrong. That’s not his job. His job is to keep his paper honest and to reinforce stringent journalistic ethical standards. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Washington Post Flunks Integrity, Conflicts, and Trustworthiness”

I do want to hold the line on featuring Comments of the Day that I think exemplify awful ethical reasoning, as opposed to those that are provocative and enlightening, to a minimum. This one, however, is too rich to ignore. It is the defense of an apparent journalist for the ethics-busting behavior of the Washington Post in the recent Jose Antonio Vargas incident using a dizzying array of alibis and rationalizations, including “they’re better than most,” “people don’t care,” “you have to cheat to stay in business,” “they are better than the alternative,” and others. It also resorts to the time-honored “who are you to judge?” and “you couldn’t do a better job.”

If this is typical of how journalists view their profession’s ethical obligations—and I think it is—the comment explains a lot. You can read my lin-by-line response after the original post. Here is the Comment of the Day, by okonheim: Continue reading

The Washington Post Flunks Integrity, Conflicts, and Trustworthiness

Newspaper...Heal Thyself!

The incidents of blatantly untrustworthy conduct by supposedly prestigious news organizations have become so numerous that they are almost no longer newsworthy themselves. Journalists failing their core ethical standards when maintaining them would be inconvenient? That’s not news. That’s the status quo.

Patrick B. Pexton, the Washington Posts’s ombudsman, had to write about the strange case of Jose Antonio Vargas, the celebrated journalist, once employed by the Post, who admitted last week that he was an illegal alien.  In particular, he had to write about 1) why a Post editor, Peter Perl, continued to employ Vargas and hid his immigration status for eight years after learning that he was in the country illegally and 2) why Vargas’s 4000 word piece about his deception (and the Post’s complicity in it) was killed by another Post editor, resulting in its being picked up and published by the New York Times. So the in-house ethics watchdog wrote about it, and concluded—nothing.  Continue reading