The Colossal Insensitivity of the New York Times

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who revealed to the world that his roommate was gay, has now been sentenced to thirty days of jail and was also subjected to world-wide publicity for his bad behavior. “I do not believe that he hated Tyler Clementi,” said the sentencing judge, “but I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity.”

Colossal insensitivity deserves punishment, everyone seems to agree.  But what happens when the New York Times — is there a more prestigious paper in the whole world ? — what happens when this paragon of journalistic virtue engages in a spot of colossal insensitivity of its own ?

On page A15 of last Saturday’s paper, the Times published a story (nonsensically labelled a “crime scene” column) entitled “With Dementia, Stepping Outside for Fresh Air Can Mean Going Astray.”  It is an account of three elderly men who, the story says, experienced episodes of getting lost in the subway or street due to their alleged “dementia.”  Two of these men are identified both by name and photograph.  But in the case of the third, the paper quotes the wife anonymously:  “She asked that their [sic] names [sic] be withheld — ‘There’s a stigma with these situations,’ she said.”

The first person is described as an 82-year-old sociology professor with a Jewish name, the second an 80-year old person with an Hispanic name but apparently without an occupational background  worth mentioning.  The third of these alleged wayward demented, the one whose name is not mentioned because of the stigma problem, is also said to be or to have been a professor.

And, oh yes, the 82-year-old sociologist is said to be the husband of a woman sixteen years his junior.  It is on the authority of this woman, as we shall see, that the NYT felt justified in outing the sociologist as “demented.”

Well, I must say that I identified with these old men, especially the sociologist.  At first I thought that I recognized his name, but this turned out to be in error.  (Was I demented here ?).  In any case, I felt moved to somehow get involved.  After consulting with a journalist friend on the matter of journalistic ethics, I wrote to the Times.  Here is the ensuing correspondence:

1)  My message to the “public editor” of the paper, whose job, I understand, is that of an independent ombudsman to handle complaints from the public:


The paper today carries a story on dementia:It starts with “… an 83-year-old retired sociology professor ….” As it happens, I am an 86-year-old retired sociology professor, and I must say that if I were lost in the subway I would not want to be labelled as suffering from dementia in the pages of the NYT. 

Here are some questions that arise: 

1) who made the diagnosis of dementia ?
2) who gave informed consent for the diagnosis to appear in the paper ?
3)  whose business is the diagnosis of an individual who in no way can be called a public figure ?

2) To which the PE replied as follows:

Professor Cohn, I suggest contacting Mr. Wilson directly…
I hope this helps.
Joseph Burgess
Joseph Burgess | Office of the Public Editor | NYT
Note:  The public editor’s opinions are his own and do not represent those
of The New York Times.

3) And here is the reply I received from Mr. Michael Wilson, author of the column:

Professor Cohn,
Thanks for your note and your thoughtful questions. Mr. …. was diagnosed by his doctor, I believe; his wife allowed me to interview her and told me everything that you read about him, with her consent that it appear in the paper. True, he is not a public figure, but the story was about people who suffer from this condition in this city, and what the police do when someone disappears. To the extent that such an article might help someone in the future, Mr. …’s wife must have believed her husband would not mind her sharing with me. I hope I’ve answered your concerns, and I thank you again.
Michael Wilson 

4)  To which I replied, with perhaps somewhat less courtesy than I should have mustered:

I do not believe that the wife here has the moral right to consent to a violation of Professor X’s privacy.  Who gave her this right ?  Did a judge declare her husband incompetent ?  Did she act in his best interests when she agreed to have his identity revealed, as would be required if authority had been granted to her to speak on his behalf ?  Have you considered the harm and embarrassment that your actions may cause Professor X ?  How is the potential good of your story — helping others in the future — enhanced by divulging his name to the world at large ?  If you had written “One victim of dementia —  whom I shall call professor X –”  how would that have interfered with any legitimate public interest in the matter ?
As I will argue on a blog that I am planning (“I Beg to Disagree”), your article has all the characteristics of malicious gossip: 1. you cannot be sure of the accuracy of the diagnosis, because ethical physicians may not disclose details to you, and, at any rate, “dementia” is a matter of degree, at best.  2. It is harmful to an elderly person — who may  or may not have had some “senior moments” — to be labelled as “demented” to his circle of friends and colleagues.  For example, this professor may still be active in formal and informal scholarly networks, and to be labelled “demented” may result in both financial and emotional harm.
And, oh yes, I sincerely hope that you will live long enough to have senior moments of your own, and I also hope that, when that time comes, some young reporter on the NYT, even if encouraged to do so by your wife at the time, will not write a juicy little piece on how that old Wilson guy, a retired journalist no less, lost his way in the subway due his deplorable dementia.

Looking over this correspondence now, I think that it is telling that Mr. Wilson has the courtesy of addressing me as “professor,” presumably because I do not appear to be “demented.”  But there is no such courtesy in talking about “Mr.” X, the allegedly demented retired professor.

There is a sizable sociological literature on the process of stigmatizing individuals.  By absolutely sheer coincidence, one of the pioneers of this work was a sociologist who was a close namesake  of the sociologist mentioned in this NYT column. (I had at first confused the two.)   Journalists do write about sociologists, retired and otherwise, but they do not seem to read their work.

And also, just wondering:  all that sensitivity that we are to show to racial, religious, and sexual minorities   … should any of this apply to the elderly ?  To some extent, perhaps ?