Monday, September 26, 2005

Facts Are No Longer Obstacles to Reporting at NYT

Not that they were to begin with, but this article is simply mind-boggling. A NYT TV critic, Alessandra Stanley, accused Geraldo Rivera of pushing Air Force rescue workers out of the way to get himself on camera assisting a wheelchair bound woman in New Orleans down the stairs and out of her home. The problem is that the tape of the incident doesn't support any such conclusion. And no witness has yet come forth to support that account.

But tell that to Stanley and her NYT editor, Bill Keller, neither of whom want to hear anything different than what Stanley has reported.

And Geraldo is an easy target. The man is clearly a hotshot whose penchant for the scoop gets him into trouble. Granted, those qualities make him a particularly good event reporter on the scene who isn't afraid to literally get his hands dirty, but when unchecked, they have also helped to harm his credibility. Morally, he has the fidelity of Bill Clinton--he can't keep it clean to keep a marriage. And he is a bit intemperate. Being the host of the first fistfight talk show of the 1980s, popping open Al Capone's safe on national TV after much hype to reveal nothing, and reporting on the location of U.S. troops in Iraq as they were approaching various targets, prompting the unit commanders to direct him to depart from the unit and head south back to civilization where he would cause less trouble.

But it's something different to just make up a story about the guy. First, it scores no points. So, Stanley got an easy shot off of Geraldo, but so what? Second, when it seems that the hit was misplaced, and then defended against the facts, it actually generates a little personal support for Geraldo, who likely has had very little in his career.

But why bother with this defense? The facts don't support Stanley's claim. Just issue a retraction and apologize (but it appears that Stanley has a history of corrections and retractions, so perhaps she wanted to avoid one more embarrassment). But refusing to view the tape, and the editor refusing to correct a factless claim are nonsense. Perhaps this was an attempt to score a hit on Fox News and in Rather-esque form, the NYT folks believe the charge notwithstanding the inconvenient facts that tell a different and uninteresting account.

I just don't get why they don't admit an error, especially one that carries with it no significant consequence, and which may keep them out of court. And if I were advising Geraldo, I'd tell him to ignore all settlement offers and push the matter to a verdict. Because public embarrassments like this need to remain so.

And I really don't care why they did this. But it seems that the removal of Howell Raines did nothing to improve the quality of reporting at the Times, whose once-great reputation has been surpassed by that of the New York Post and the Washington Times.

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