It's not like they said anything about Adam Nagourney's son
The New York Times letters page today runs the following note regarding my last New Yorker article.
An article in the Oct. 18 issue of The New Yorker reported on a class for gifted high school students at Duke University last summer that enjoyed unusual success in getting letters to the editor published in The Times. This page is always happy to print good letters from students.
Reading back over some of the submissions from the Duke class, we're impressed by their clarity, pith and lively language.
Unfortunately, we've also discovered that the students who did get their work published were permitted to submit additional letters under false names. One writer added fictitious information about her family. For the record, a letter on July 27 about network coverage of the Democratic convention and one on Aug. 1 about work and leisure in Europe were written under pseudonyms, Allan Coffer and Franklin Henderson, respectively. The writer of another letter on Aug. 1 about Europe referred to a nonexistent ''daughter.''
Basic facts like the name of the author are critical to assuring our readers that the writer stands behind his or her letter. We regret the errors.
If Tom Feyer had said something more like this when I contacted him, the story probably wouldn't have spun out of control. It's generous to the students, makes a firm but not over-excited expression of Times policy, and omits the more dubious concerns about dateline fraud.
But my favorite line in the note is, "we've also discovered that the students who did get their work published were permitted to submit additional letters under false names." Yes, they discovered this by, you know, reading the original article. Solid investigation work, guys.
Speaking of Nagourneygate, isn't Dan Okrent being just a little disingenuous in his explanation of his actions today?
My policy: I consider all messages sent to me, or forwarded to me by Times staff members, to be public unless the writer has stipulated otherwise.
Every message sent to my office gets an instant response asking if the writer wishes his or her name to be withheld. No signed comments are published without confirmation of authorship, either by telephone or e-mail.
That sure makes it sound like Steven Schwenk gave Okrent permission to publish his email and name. But in fact, Schwenk "pleaded with [Okrent's] assistant and Mr. Nagourney not to." What Okrent apparently means is that Nagourney gave him permission to print the email.
Okrent also write
I published the name of the man who wrote to Nagourney for the same reason that newspapers publish the names of people who commit other grievous acts. The man who vandalizes a church, say, doesn't want his name in the paper either. But I don't think his wishes should protect him from public responsibility for what he has done.
Of course, vandalizing a church is a crime. Writing a hostile but non-threatening email to a reporter is not. Vandalism is also a public act. Letter writing is not. Technically, as Schwenk now knows, no reporter is obliged to honor a request to go off the record unless the reporter first agrees to it, and if Nagourney and Okrent genuinely considered Schwenk's email newsworthy, they had every right to run it. Clearly, however, they simply wanted to punish an asshole, and they used the full might of the Times to do so. That the public editor acted in concert with the paper, rather than the reader, raises questions about who Okrent believes he is working for.