Category Archives: New York Times

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 ?

National Public Radio, the New York Times, and the Jews

National Public Radio is not rabidly anti-Semitic. In this respect it is not like, say, Mr. David Duke or the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But NPR has its own version of a gentleman’s polite anti-Semitism, something we ordinarily associate with upper-class clubs of England. And the New York Times isn’t anti-Semitic at all, it’s just not interested in the question.

Last week, in a sting operation, two of NPR’s top executives — Ron Schiller and Betsy Liley — were caught on tape in an expensive restaurant huddling with people they thought were rich Muslims about to give them $5 million. Many embarrassing things were said by Ms. Liley and especially by Mr. Schiller, and much of it was reported by mainline media. But Mr. Schiller’s anti-Semitic utterances were suppressed by most. A notable exception was ABC-TV, which came through in an honorable way. But not the NY Times ! It seems that where anti-Semitism is concerned, the Times likes to averts its eyes. Not fit to print in the NYT version of journalistic ethics.

Mr. Schiller has now been forced to resign from NPR as a result of these revelations. He violated the first law of gentlemanly anti-Semitism: do it, but don’t get caught. As for Ms. Liley, she is on some sort of administrative leave, but, at least for now, she’s still on board at NPR.

In the video that follows, note the genteel, self-satisfied, self-righteous, self-styled “liberal” mannerisms of Mr. S. And note his body language as he opines on this and that. No, no, no — he will not accuse Jews of dominating all the media, only the print media. As for Ms. Liley, she really comes to life when she exclaims “I like that” in response to the ostensible Islamist’s praise of NPR as “National Palestine Radio.”

Egypt’s "Street" still hates the Jews

Israelmatzav: Anti-Semitism in the anti-Mubarak crowd

Here is a major scandal that involves The New York Times and other American main-line media: there has been an apparently deliberate suppression of the anti-Semitic incidents in their great, beloved, democratic revolution of Egypt. Al Jazeera reported that “many of the gangs who attack reporters shout ‘Yehudi !’ ” (Feb. 13), but this is something the Times didn’t find fit to print. The New York Post had an altogether credible account of the sexual gang assault on CBS’s (non-Jewish) correspondent Lara Logan (Feb. 16), viz. that it was accompanied by shouts of “Jew, Jew.” But our so very high-minded “quality” newspapers would have none of that. We also know of other anti-Semitic incidents, reported elsewhere, but not in the New York Times.

Now, to its great credit, the Jewish Week of February 25 publishes an impressively researched article by its associate editor Jonathan Mark, The Lara Logan Cover-Up ?, in which he gives details about the shameful Egypt-prettyfication campaign by the Times and other papers.

UPDATE May 1, 2011: Tonight’s 60 Minutes has an interview with Lara Logan in which she confirms, though in a muted way, the anti-Semitic aspect of the incident. Will that be enough for the NY Times to break its conspiracy of silence ?

The New York Times tells the Swiss: You Are Disgraceful

Fifty-seven and a half percent of Swiss voters have approved an initiative that bans the building of minarets on Swiss territory. I personally do not see much merit in the proposal, and, had I been a Swiss voter, would probably have voted No. Now whatever the rights or wrongs of the proposal, it was a democratically-arrived decision, a peaceful action, subject, like all such decisions, to discussion and possible reversal in the future.

But to judge by the hysterical and incendiary editorial of the New York Times, this decision by Swiss voters was the moral equivalent of an Islamist suicide attack:

Disgraceful. That is the only way to describe the success of a right-wing initiative to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland, where 57 percent of voters cast ballots for a bigoted and mean-spirited measure….. the worst response to extremism and intolerance is extremism and intolerance.

No, this initiative does not constitute “extremism and intolerance” in the same way that, say, a suicide attack is “extremism and intolerance.” The murder of innocent people is irreversible, while a democratic vote, in principle, is not.

The educated classes, in Switzerland and especially elsewhere, had condemned this initiative. Like the Sarah Palin phenomenon in the United States, the vote constituted a revolt by the Swiss electorate, more in the rural districts than in the cities, against the learned advice of their enlightened betters. The vote was also a response to perceived threats from Islamic immigrants to traditional lifestyles. The Swiss-based journalist Daniel Ammann, without in any way endorsing the initiative, does what the finger-wagging New York Times editorialists cannot get themselves to do; he provides some cultural context to the vote:

A majority of Swiss voters obviously feels that there are problems with Muslim integration into civil society at the moment. This vague sentiment was fueled by a number of incidents over the last years: The former Imam of a mosque in Geneva, Hani Ramadan, a Swiss citizen by the way, publicly justified the stoning of adulterers or the punitive amputation of the hand of a thief. Muslim parents prevented their daughters from attending swimming classes, gymnastics or summer camps in public schools because they didn’t want their girls to be together with boys. Media reports about forced marriages, female genital mutilations and “honor killings” of Muslim women – all confirmed by authorities or in court — came as a shocking surprise. A university professor even went as far as to suggest in an official publication of a federal commission to introduce elements of the Sharia, the Muslim legal system, into Switzerland.

To repeat, neither Ammann nor I would have voted for this initiative. But, at the very least, let’s try to go beyond condemnation to understanding.

Even in retraction, the NY Times shows bad faith

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., Publisher, NY Times

It is now seventy-six years ago to the day that Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. And the New York Times, as if to mark the event, has been caught red-handed in publishing outright falsehoods against Israel. Now the paper offers a vaguely worded “Editor’s Note” in which it says that, well, maybe we were wrong, maybe we were right, but since the “original source has not been found,” the alleged quotation from an Israeli general “should not have appeared.”

As readers of this blog know (see postings below), the offensive material appeared on January 8 in an Op-Ed piece by Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. Today’s “Editor’s Note” does not mention Khalidi, who, after all, was the one who made the original false allegation against the Israeli general. Let me try to guess why the NYT is so solicitous about the professor’s reputation: so as to run more Op-Ed pieces by him in the future ?

This Editor’s Note is completely disingenuous from beginning to end. It says that an “original source has not been found” when, in fact, there is a publicly available original source for General Moshe Ya’alon’s views, and that these views are the very opposite of what Khalidi and the NY Times claimed them to be. (See my posting below). I nominate the Times, and Khalidi, for the Anti-Pulitzer Prize for Disreputable Journalism.

CAMERA has published a useful history of the Khalidi hoax.

See also Michelle Sieff’s informative account of this whole affair.