Tag Archives: New York Times

NYT – Talk of the Newsroom

The New York Times has an interesting series going now. Each week a different editor answers questions about the news operation at the Times, and some of those answers (and questions) can be enlightening and insightful about the production of news at the nation’s premier newspaper. This week (July 14, 2006) Michelle McNally, the assistant managing editor for photography, is on duty, and the following is part of the exchange she has had with readers:


Advice for Young Photographers

Q. Do you have any advice for young people who are about to start a career in photography?

— Matt Mills, Santa Fe, N.M.

A. The most important work a young photographer can do is existential. You must figure out what kind of photographer you want to be, what do you want to say and how are you going to do it better than others have done before you.

Recognize that the career of a photojournalist is a difficult one personally, so you must love what you are doing. Be certain of your mission, but be prepared to constantly grow. Work hard, very hard. Be forever curious, persistent and gracious. When people let you into their lives, realize that it is a gift.

Don’t let technical issues come between you and a great picture; make it second nature. Recognize the role of aesthetics in storytelling. And shoot, shoot and shoot some more.


Other editors who have participated so far include Bill Keller, the executive editor, and John Landman, deputy managing editor for digital journalism. His exchange begins with this explanation about how digital journalism developed at the Times:

Things are changing so fast that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll start with The Times. For us, these changes appeared on the horizon in the mid-1990’s when we started our Web edition. Immediately it became clear that we had a terrific Web site around 11 o’clock every night when the next day’s paper was posted. But it became a little less good with each passing hour as other Web sites put up breaking news from news agencies and other sources and news hungry readers made new demands.

So we had to find a way to move faster. That meant in some cases that reporters would file partial stories that we could post on the Web, then keep reporting for their newspaper articles. At first some of our people were reluctant to do this, thinking they would scoop themselves and thereby give readers less reason to absorb the more complete stories in the newspaper. That view has disappeared as reporters and editors realize that a) there are a lot of Web readers and news sources out there creating a lot of Web competition, and b) a well-timed Web story can flush out sources that produce a better story in the paper. But it did require a significant mental adjustment.

We (and others in our business) also created a new class of journalist, a “continuous news” reporter whose job it is to push the reporting forward aggressively for the Web. So sometimes one reporter writes several versions of a story. In other cases, two reporters work on different versions. Editors now have to decide which approach works better in a particular case.

New journalistic forms like blogs and podcasts, and old ones that are new for newspapers, like video, also impose new demands. We now have a video unit in our newsroom, and many of our still photographers have learned to shoot video. In a handful of cases, reporters themselves carry video cameras in some pretty challenging environments, like Iraq and the Shanghai city dump. That’s a brand new thing for newspaper reporters, changing the pace and sometimes approach to reporting a story.

(Posted July 14, 2006)

The odd odyssey of Judith Miller, part 2

Judith Miller and her newspaper, the New York Times, are finally telling us at least some of what they know about the brouhaha that landed Miller in jail for 85 days this summer and the issue of a reporter’s privilege into the current mix of controversies that now surround the Bush administration.

The Times has written a long story about Miller and the reporting that led to her grand jury testimony that it was Vice President Dick Chaney’s top aide, Lewis Libby, who probably told her about Valarie Plame, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a major critic of the administration’s war in Iraq. Miller has written a long piece about what she told the grand jury investigating the leaking of Plame’s name — which would, in some circumstances, be illegal because she was a covert agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

In these two articles, the Times and Miller attempt to answer a number of questions. Among them:

Why did Miller choose to go to jail when her source had released her from her pledge of confidentiality?

Miller said she did not believe the release was voluntary. When Libby’s lawyer told Miller’s lawyer about the release, he also described the testimony Libby had given and inquired about what Miller might testify to. Ultimately, Miller’s lawyer interpreted this conversation as Libby saying that he did not wish Miller to talk about certain things they had discussed. Consequently, she decided to go to jail.

The interpretation that Miller’s lawyer gave to this conversation is vehemently denied by Libby’s lawyer. He says he and his client never put any restrictions on Miller’s testimony and never meant to imply that they wanted any restrictions.

Why did Miller choose to end her jail time and testify?

The conversation between the lawyers (by this time Miller had a new lawyer) was renewed after Miller had spent more than two months in jail. She had gone in believing that she would be released by at least the end of October when the grand jury’s term expired. But she learned that a new grand jury might be formed to continue the investigation, and that would mean even more time in jail.

She told her new attorney to reach out to Libby’s lawyer again. The new lawyer did so and found Libby and his lawyer still insisting that his release of Miller from her pledge was voluntary. After receiving a letter to this effect and aftera conference call that included Miller, Libby and the lawyers, Miller said she “accepted his permission” to testify and got out of jail.

Was it all just a misunderstanding among lawyers?

That’s what it seems to boil down to — that is, if one gives Miller the benefit of the doubt. There are many who are still raising questions (such as blogger Mickey Klaus on Slate.com). Miller has had many critics in this controvery, and before any of this occurred, she was the target of some stinging rebukes for her straight-line reporting of the Bush administration’s arguments that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq and that the U.S. should invade that country to eradicate them. Some critics have claimed that her jail time was simply a grandstanding move whereby she was trying to recoup her reputation.

This is a fascinating story, and the journalistic world seems to be dividing into Friends of Judith Miller and Not-Friends of Judith Miller. One of the most interesting aspects is the role that the New York Times and its editors played in all of this. (See a previous posting about this controversy.) To their credit, they backed Miller with publicly-declared support and money for legal expenses. But at the crucial points in the story, they seemed to be bystanders at best. Miller made the decisions; they simply went along.

And one of those decisions — one that breaks a new bit of legal ground to my mind — was that a reporter should judge the quality of a release from a pledge of confidentiality. Miller said she could not accept Libby’s release because she felt that it was coerced.

But what if it had been? So what? Matthew Cooper, the Time magazine reporter who faced the same situation as Miller did this summer, did not raise that issue when Libby released him from his pledge of confidentiality.

Miller’s parsing out of the release (voluntary, not voluntary) places too much of a burden on the reporter. Her stand not to reveal her source was probably the correct one (despite some critics who say it wasn’t). But her decision to make a judgment about whether or not the release from her confidentiality pledge was voluntary was not a wise one. It cost her nearly three months in jail, and the timing and manner of her release has done nothing to quiet her critics.

And, more importantly, her stand has not advanced the cause of a legal privilege for journalists.

Jim Stovall (Posted Oct. 16, 2005)


Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher has written an excellent summary of the pieces in the New York Times and also identifies some of the questions they raise. In a separate piece, he calls for the Times to fire Miller. (Links no longer work.)

The odd odyssey of Judith Miller

Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, got out of jail last week after spending 85 days of incarceration for contempt. She refused to give special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald the name of a source to whom she had promised confidentiality.

The source was Lewis Libby, an assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney. Before Miller had gone to jail in July, Libby had released Miller from her pledge of confidentiality, but Miller had not accepted that release as voluntary. She had argued that the special prosecutor had coerced the release, and her position was that she should not condone such coercion because it might hinder other sources from giving her information in the future.

Sometime in the last few weeks, something happened that changed her mind. We’re not sure what just yet. She and the New York Times have promised a full accounting – something neither had chosen to do when the controversy was occurring. The Times stood squarely behind Miller’s decision to go to jail and to come out of jail. But the newspaper did not do any independent reporting of the situation, probably because of the corporate decision that the editors had made to support Miller.

Meanwhile, Miller has been the subject of much praise and much criticism for her actions. She has been praised for standing up for the principle of a reporter’s right to protect sources. Even though that principle has not been recognized on a federal level either by law or by court precedent, it is a necessary tool for reporters. They must be able to protect their sources, and they should not be hounded by prosecutors or judges for doing their jobs.

But critics have questioned Miller’s actions and motives. Many believe that Miller’s stance in this case was unnecessary and even unwise. (Matthew Cooper of Time magazine was faced with almost the same circumstances as Miller in July, and he avoided going to jail by accepted the release of his source.) Miller’s stance on principle amounted to protecting someone who might have broken the law, and a number of critics say that this was not the case on which to make a good argument for a federal shield law.

The criticism of Miller has also been more personal. Before America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Miller had written a number of stories for the Times that seemed to support the Bush administration’s arguments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. These stories, critics say, did not show sufficient skepticism at the time, and as events would prove, they turned out to be wrong. Iraq did not have such weapons, and the major reason for the invasion did not exist.

Consequently, Miller’s choice to go to jail is seen by some as a way of recovering her reputation within the journalistic community. The fact that she chose to leave jail last week because “something changed” has been further evidence for her critics that her motives were not entirely pure.

There are certainly questions that Miller and the Times need to answer, and we hope those answers will come soon.

One of the major questions is the role of the editors of the Times in all of this. They stood squarely behind Miller – something they have done, of course – but they seemed to have little input on the decisions that Miller made to offer confidentiality to her sources and to accept incarceration.  David Ignatius raises that point in his column in the Washington Post:

The big lesson of the Miller affair, for me, is that editors are crucial in mediating the relationships between reporters and sources. Almost by definition, those relationships become incestuous — with journalists and their sources chasing the same facts and often seeking to right the same wrongs. It’s the job of editors to intervene in this process — and demand to know, on behalf of readers, whether a story is really true. In Miller’s case, she filed stories about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on what her sources had told her, but the crucial judgment lay in the hands of her editors.

This process of editorial intervention is even more important when it comes to making promises to sources about confidentiality. Reporters shouldn’t be able to decide unilaterally to whom they will attach their newspaper’s reputation. Editors should agree to absolute confidentiality only in the rarest cases. In my years as an editor, I often asked reporters to go back and tell an anonymous source that if we got sued based on what he had told us, we wanted the right to subpoena that source and his records, to defend ourselves. If the source refused, sometimes we would walk away; other times, based on the importance of the information to the public, we would extend the absolute protection he requested. Some version of that Miranda warning to sources seems essential to me.

He’s right. We’ll see what Miller and the Times have to say.

Jim Stovall (Posted Oct. 5, 2005)


One of the leading critics of Miller has been Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate.com. His column on Miller’s release, “The Biggest Loser,” makes the point that editors at the Times did not seem to be very involved in Miller’s decisions. Jay Rosen in his blog PressThink has a good analysis on this subject in “Judy Miller and Her Times.”

Telling the truth

Daniel Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, has written an excellent piece based on the decision by Times editors to run a picture of a grieving mother among a number of dead babies killed by the Dec. 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

The photo is graphic and difficult to look at. It is like many such photos that have burned themselves into our psyches.

The surpassing power of pictures enables them to become the permanent markers of enormous events. The marines planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the South Vietnamese general shooting his captive at point-blank range, the young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s passing coffin: each is the universal symbol for a historical moment. You don’t need to see them to see them.

But Okrent goes beyond the decision to run the photo to talk about pictures themselves.

Under the provocative headline “No Picture Tells the Truth. The Best Do Better Than That,” Okrent discusses the fact that no picture captures the entire event of which it is part. A picture can tell part of the truth, but not the whole truth. Editors know that. Readers and viewers should recognize it, too.

(Posted Jan. 10, 2005)
Update: Okrent’s column of Sunday, Jan. 16, is made up of letters from readers, many of which have reacted to his column and to the picture the Times published.

(Posted Jan. 17, 2005)

Early voting: Every day is Election Day

The New York Times has a roundup of early voting around the country and how it has changed the pace of elections:

Nearly 15 million people have voted so far, according to Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University who keeps tabs on early voting. He said that the pace of early voting this year suggested that 35 percent or more of all votes could be cast before Election Day, surpassing the previous record in 2008, when 30 percent voted early. “Both registered Democrats and registered Republicans are voting at clips that are outpacing their 2008 levels,” he said.

Every day, now, is Election Day.

Voting fraud: This election year’s wrinkle in the voting debate

This year’s election offers up a somewhat new wrinkle — though certainly not an original one — in America’s continuing debate over voting. It’s voting fraud.

Voting fraud, and charges thereof, are as old as the Republic, but this year the controversy seems to be centered around the possibility of people who might be “bused in” to vote for President Barack Obama. That has some conservation groups on high alert, as outline in Stephanie Saul’s New York Times story: Looking, Very Closely, for Voter Fraud: Conservative Groups Focus on Registration in Swing States . It says in part:

It might as well be Harry Potter’s invisible Knight Bus, because no one can prove it exists.

The bus has been repeatedly cited by True the Vote, a national group focused on voter fraud. Catherine Engelbrecht, the group’s leader, told a gathering in July about buses carrying dozens of voters showing up at polling places during the recent Wisconsin recall election.

“Magically, all of them needed to register and vote at the same time,” Ms. Engelbrecht said. “Do you think maybe they registered falsely under false pretenses? Probably so.”

Weeks later, another True the Vote representative told a meeting of conservative women about a bus seen at a San Diego polling place in 2010 offloading people “who did not appear to be from this country.”

Officials in both San Diego and Wisconsin said they had no evidence that the buses were real.

The True the Vote folks give themselves away with the quote that they people they suspect “did not appear to be from this country.”

In other words, they don’t look like us. Consequently, they aren’t like us. More importantly, they are likely not to vote the way we vote. And that, of course, is the real problem.

We Americans have never wanted to enfranchise people who might not believe or vote exactly as we do.