Journalism

Today in faux journalism: don’t look now, but did Fox just punk Breitbart?

The New York Times, Breitbart, FOX News and more: clown cars on parade.

fauxnewsUpdate 11/13/2016 11:26 AM MST: the letter has been found. Ms. Ember tweeted this morning, at 6:57 AM (probably unrelated to my post):

The letter was not an apology.

The link is indeed to nytimes.com. It’s now text, not graphical. Quote searches actually do turn it up in Google searches with NYT getting top billing.

At that level, this is a non-story. Maybe it was always a non-story. If that’s the only interesting part, then you may wish to enjoy your time browsing other content because this will take about 1600 words to disappoint you.

If, instead, you’re looking for a cautionary tale on the hazards of social media sharing, horse race reporting, poor sourcing in online news articles, and perverse misreadings of the same letter, then by all means read and share. It’s perfectly okay to tell your friends, “don’t be that guy,” while pointing in my direction. I’ll wear my scarlet letter with pride if it helps to stop smart people from doing dumb things just because the Internet is a free-for-all where, as with the polls, intelligence is no bar to participation.

As to whether the letter is an apology, that’s the job of the reader to decide. It doesn’t sound like one to me, especially coupled with the content of Sulzberger’s staff memo introduced herein. It’s a boast, a double-down, a strut, and a promise of more of the same.

Recently I urged readers to “buy a damned newspaper.” Today I add a caveat: “except that one.” Get all the free content you can out of them, but unless you’re a centrist who has been well served by the Old Gray Mare, one really has to wonder if keeping them in filthy lucre is really worth the political fallout of buying top-flight crossword puzzles and book reviews that are but props for pastel yellow journalism. Pastel? To the extent yellow journalism is characterized by crude exaggeration, that’s not NYT’s schtick. It’s what they underplay as part of their bias that makes them a menace to society.

—–

There is something fishy going on in the news at the moment. Surprise, surprise! Allow me to recount my Facebook adventure for your edification and amusement.

First, I noticed a Blaze article in my feed (yeah, I read all manner of stuff, but then I weigh it and note omissions…sometimes…because I’m fallible): New York Times publisher vows to ‘rededicate’ paper to ‘honest’ reporting after Trump’s big win.

They quote a letter, verbatim and in its entirety, from NYT Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr, but without linking to it. Here’s the first graf of the article by Chris Enloe:

New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. vowed to “rededicate” his newspaper to “report America and the world honestly” after the paper was completely wrong with their election predictions — when they said Democrat Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide over businessman Donald Trump.

After reading this intro (and the article) and the letter, my gut got the better of me. Of course I’ve known the NYT to be biased for ages. The last eight years and the eight before that come to mind. But to cast the letter this way, it’s a pretty damning indictment. Here’s the NYT not quite faux-apologizing, else why would it need to “rededicate” itself to honesty? Well, my own ax to grind and the evident spin in that graf led me to be sloppy in reading that letter. In hindsight, the letter isn’t apologetic at all. Not even a little bit as I read it now.

But there’s more to it than that. It was from The Blaze, and I wasn’t feeling like sharing it because they didn’t link to the letter, just quoted it. I wanted the real deal. Fortunately, the author left a hat-tip at the bottom pointing me to Fox. Okay.

Fox headline: New York Times publisher vows to ‘rededicate’ paper to reporting honestly

The author, unnamed, doesn’t quite cast it as an apology, but I believe the theme is clear, especially given the added commentary, as with The Blaze, from others on NYT’s performance. Why else “rededicate,” after all? They had been remiss. It was time for a rejuvenation, a return to older/better values. Here, the letter is presented graphically as a clickable link. At least The Blaze went to the trouble of transcribing it for text. There’s also reference to a note from Sulzberger to staffers, but without a link.

So that’s the link I shared, with my knee not quite jerked all the way up to my chin. I shared it with this commentary:

If it’s possible to be terminally embarrassed, the author should be. How does he even get to keep his job after such a hamfisted admission of journalistic malfeasance? Oh, he runs the joint. And it’s a family dynasty thing over a hundred years old.

Trust them at your peril, apparently.

“Yes, I quoted myself,” I said. Lame.

But wait, what’s this? It hit me belatedly. That’s something on someone’s Twitter account. Shouldn’t I have shared what it links to instead? Yes. Hold on. Top right where it says “View in browser,” well, that’s just part of the graphic. You can’t click that. Sydney Ember, aka @melbournecoal, has done us the courtesy of giving us the graphic. What about a link to the source? And who is this, anyway? “media reporter for the new york times.” apparently, because we don’t need no stylebook on Twitter. We’re goin’ all e e cummings, except for that final period. How weak. But, hey, the account has been there since 2009 and the email addy is for the NYT, so legit? She’s actually a reporter at the NYT. I still want to see that letter where I think it would matter, though, not just as a pic on a tweet.

So I Googled Sulzberger letter and after clicking around, found this instead, a memo to the staff from Sulzberger, the one referenced by Fox. This is definitely not the same as the letter. But interestingly, the letter posted by Sydney Ember incorporates much of the memo’s language. How odd.

It might also be interesting to note that the memo not only does not sound even remotely apologetic, Sulzberger appears to take great pride in how well the NYT has done, elides its gross omissions during the Obama and Bush years, and damned well tells the staff to double down on race for the headline reportage. I guess this means we can continue to expect that same quality for the duration. Huzzah.

On target or not, I did share the memo. My own comment:

This is how fast things get weird, and why we shouldn’t leap before looking. So I’ll be the butt of the joke and show why.

“Yes, I just quoted myself again,” I said. You can quote me on that.

Meanwhile, I now must to go down this rabbit hole to see where it leads. I want that damned letter.

Here began another Facebook post as I illustrated my journey. At least here, I get to pepper it with links. I’m not even going to bother playing the “I quoted myself” game this time. It’s too long.

When I Googled the Sulzberger letter (and remember, Google results are a moving target and doled out differently to everyone, apparently), I got these results.

Remember, it’s the publisher of NYT writing to the readers on Friday, according to the first actual link after Twitter, Fox. Otherwise, all we know is that the tweet was on Friday, though it says nothing about the date of the letter. Surely that letter is at the Times somewhere!

Poynter has a memo from email to the newsroom, but that’s a different thing than a letter to the readers as we know, then also links this letter…at the same person’s Twitter account.

New York Post has the Twitter letter.

Epoch Times (alt-news): Twitter letter.

Breitbart (alt-news) is way more subtle. They reference the memo without linking and without providing full text. Then they also reference the letter, and link to where they got it, Fox. Fox only links the Twitter letter, as we know, so they’re just kicking the can to Fox like The Blaze did.

Mediaite (alt-news): Twitter letter.

Newsmax (complete misnomer): Only references the Twitter letter without even linking it.

Heat Street (who?): Twitter letter.

BizPac Review (who?): Twitter letter.

Finally, New York Times, their mailbag. Search on Sulzberger. One mention, linking to the mailroom memo. Been there, done that.

Now, there is a key phrase in the Twitter letter, “we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism.” Search the memo, which isn’t the same as the Twitter letter, and there’s no mention of that so-called rededication. The word doesn’t appear. So if it’s a quote from anything, it must be that Twitter letter.
So why not Google that phrase? You will find lots of links to sites, even DailyKos on the left, quoting and linking that letter.

The DailyKos piece is different. And more interesting for that. The author, one kimtcga, makes a strong point. This isn’t even an apology. It’s a complete refusal to admit anything they’ve done wrong. Except here, the letter to the readers is an email to subscribers. The author is good enough to include a link. At first glance, that link looks iffy as all get out. It’s at something called newyorktimesinfo.com. As it turns out, it seems legit. It’s the site you land on when you click most of the the email-related options at the bottom of the page. It’s got an email link for help@nytimes. Note: an hour later, I’ve yet to receive a response, even an autoresponse, from that email address.

Mind you, when I click that link, nothing happens. Probably because I don’t use an email client. When I Google that address, I certainly get the NYT help page as the first hit, but there’s no email option on that page, just a webform if that’s the kind of communication you want to send. Possibly because of my own shortcoming in computing, I’m thus still not satisfied and I try newyorktimesinfo.com directly. DNS could not be found. So I search Google for just newyorktimesinfo. Someone tweets @NYTsupport to inquire if it’s legit. They get a response that it is. McAfee SiteAdvisor says it’s safe. ScamAdviser.com (who?) says it’s safe. Best? Who.Is confirms that it’s a NYT property.

After all that, were it not for finally locating that letter as an email to subscribers and tracking it all the way back to the New York Times, I honestly would have concluded that Sydney Ember had marvelously punked Fox, who in turn punked nearly everyone. Why? Because that would be so easy to believe because punking the news has been done so many times before. And because sloppy journalism has given us so very little in which to have faith. Especially now, when the head honcho at the NYT has really done nothing more than gloat, rather than apologize, and given the staff encouragement to keep up the same old dog and pony show in his staff memo. Note to TruthFeed (not TruthDig, and clearly another junk site), you’re the only site I’ve yet seen that actually calls it an apology, and right there in your headlines. You dingbats.

There is one last really weird twist to this, however. What about this nytimesinfo.com page? I don’t know how well 2compete’s metrics stand up, but according to them, the site is only worth about six grand, gets only 805 daily visits, only 966 page views daily, only generates about three bucks in daily earnings. This is a NYT property. What’s up with that? It’s the website people land on when they click the subscriber email they got with the Sulzberger Strut.

Isn’t that a paltry number of visits for a paper with over a million print-and-digital subscribers? And might I be forgiven if I now fail to ad hominem the New York Post and consider the possibility this might not be the first time the Times has had an email-related fubar?

Maybe there’s something to that “letter to the readers,” after all. But if Sulzberger meant it to go to the readers, did he really only mean it to go to the readers who get an email that links to a site that only gets 800 visits a day out of it’s million+ subscribers? And if he meant for the readers to get it, wouldn’t one expect it to be somewhere reasonably easily found at the Old Gray Website? I’m still not settled then that this letter is the real deal.

So, in answer to my own question, did Fox punk Breitbart? I want to say yes, but now I can’t with any certainty. Why? Because of the miserable quality of reporting at all those sources I linked above and worse, because somehow, the NYT has punked us all again. If the letter actually happens to be real, that just means the punking will be the only thing as advertised.

By all means, if someone can authoritatively authenticate this letter, I would be thrilled, because I could get to sleep at night at least knowing it’s a real thing. But really I’d be far more thrilled to have reason to always doubt, because at this stage it might be a matter of disproving a negative and that still leaves all those other lousy journalists looking sloppy as hell while blaming NYT for bad quality. I love the smell of irony in the morning.

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