October 24, 2004

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.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


The thing that's so gross about the letter-writing assignment is that the teacher effectively made it all about the students... get a letter printed, any way you can, even if you have to lie to do it, and you'll be rewarded.
I'd say that's a major problem in journalism today-- people in the press are more interested in breaking a story under their byline (or presenting a story that supports their political views) than in the work that goes into it. Hence Rathergate and the long litany of NYT screw-ups.

Huh? These weren't journalism students, so it's hard to see how the assignment has anything to do with byline lust (especially since the most egregious thing the kids did was to NOT use their own bylines). As I've said before, I'm not going to defend everything the students did, but they didn't lie to get their letters in the paper -- they lied to avoid having their letters deleted without even being read. Maybe the Times doesn't like it that the prof essentially used the paper's letters page as a way of grading his kids assignment -- which was to write thoughtful, persuasive letters, not to do whatever it takes to get published -- but that in and of itself hardly seems like an ethical violation (as opposed to the using fake names part).

Actually, I think the most important point here is that, from comparing the "how to" flap with Okrent's revanchist strategy, it is evident that the NYT performs greater due diligence on personal grudges by reporters than it does on verifying letters that they actually print in the paper.

Uh, all their classmates would know they got published, and, most importantly, their teacher. Therein lies the byline lust. They didn't need to be journalism students for this to be kind of gross. You're right, it probably did get the students to think "thoughtfully and persuasively" but then, why would it be necessary to lie if the whole exercise weren't more about getting published--even under an alias--than anything else?

"they lied to avoid having their letters deleted without even being read"--so they posed as someone else, from somewhere else, because they think their letters should get read, darnit...and published too! This would be OK if the page was "Submit Your Anonymous Essays Here, Folks" rather than Letters to the Editor.

I think you've consistently been a little too protective of the letter-writing students in this, Daniel - they *did* do more than alter their "bylines" if they were recounting, as alleged, made-up facts / anecdotes.

On the other hand, Okrent's vigilantism and lame-ass excuses for it are so utterly reprehensible that I want the Times to get gamed even worse just as punishment for employing this a-hole.

Out of 15 students who got published, only one wrote an inherently deceptive letter -- posing as her own mother -- and two were published twice by using fake names. Bad, bad students. The others get a pass in my book.

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