Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2011  



Blips #113
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news."
—A.J. Liebling (1904-1963)
"Editor: a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed."
—Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)
"Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists."
—Norman Mailer (1923-2007)
"The world only goes forward because of those who oppose it."
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


(Swans - July 18, 2011)   PERHAPS IT IS GENERATIONAL or an aging symptom -- I am turning 61 next Sunday -- but changes can be quite confusing to someone who is, I will concede, a person of habits. Changes have taken place at the institutional paper of record, The New York Times (NYT), at a truly alarming pace. Last March, The Times "reimagined" their weekly magazine. But for the crossword, the entire content was reinvented "to make everything sharper, clearer, more alive and dynamic," wrote Hugo Lindgren in an editor's letter. A few years back they shrank the font size, making it hard on older eyes. Now they publish unsigned letters, post-post-modernist (or is it futurist and de mauvais goût?) photo journals, essays whose authors' one-line bio is either missing or listed at the beginning of the magazine and that are "based on long-form narrative journalism" (please explain the difference between a "long" narrative and a "long-form" one). I suppose I will have to get used to these changes, which may be targeted at a younger readership, but it presently is unreadable.

THEN, THE GRAY LADY announced that Executive Editor Bill Keller would step down in September, to be replaced by Jill Abramson, the first woman in the 160-year storied life of the august paper to hold that position. Bill Keller did a decent job in the past eight years to bring back some luster and refreshing candid honesty that the paper had lost in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal (among others -- e.g., the blatant "selling" of the Iraq War by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon) and the editorship of Howell Raines. Keller was not faultless, as his hatchet job on Julian Assange (good old mate Louis Proyect wrote a sharp post on that topic) or his obsession with Sarah Palin attested, but he was decent and relatively dispassionate in representing the interests of the elites he served and to which he belongs (his father was CEO of Chevron). It remains to be seen whether Ms. Abramson will further the trend that The Times has embarked on for the past 40 years -- the consolidation of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. After all, before joining the paper in 1997, Ms. Abramson worked for nine years at The Wall Street Journal.

BUT IF THOSE WERE NOT ENOUGH CHANGES, the paper announced on June 19, 2011, that the venerable "Week in Review" of the Sunday NYT (it debuted in 1935) would be overhauled and renamed the "Sunday Review." Bill Keller and Andrew Rosenthal (the editorial page editor) explained that the paper wanted to "reinvent, reimagine and reorganize the Week in Review to offer new features and a new way of presenting our finest analytical and opinion writing." Reinvention, reimagination, reorganization, new, new, new kids on the block... The result is a blur of news analyses and opinions, a potpourri that does not distinguish between each and indicate which is what. Here again, the authors are not described or defined. Sure enough, long-time readers know who Maureen Dowd is, an Op-Ed writer whose columns I no longer read because of her predictable and boring bloviations that remind me of Rachel Maddow, a host of an MSNBC show, whose high-pitched laughter -- that rah-rah-rah-rah, which is even worse than the noisy song of a rock partridge, known in French as a bartavelle (or Greek partridge)...ga-ga-ga-ga-chakera-chakera-chakera -- puts me to sleep in a hurry. The intent, apparently, is to move toward "opinion journalism."

OPINION JOURNALISM, two contradictory terms par excellence... William Safire was a superb columnist and opinion maker, but he was not a journalist. Steven Erlanger, the current Paris bureau chief for the paper, is a journalist, but not an opinion maker. One could make the case that Judith Miller was both a journalist and an opinion maker, but she also was a liar. Journalists are supposed -- repeat, supposed -- to stick to the news and present the facts to the best of their knowledge, and let the readers form their own opinion. They are fact hunters. From these facts, columnists create their own narrative and develop an opinion with the intent to influence the readers. These two separate activities are being joined in the NYT, as though they have decided to offer a marketing package similar to that of the Huffington Post -- an aggregating potpourri. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. This is particularly ironic since Bill Keller wrote a scathing critique of the "queen of aggregation [who] is, of course, Arianna Huffington," in his March 13, 2011, column in the paper's Sunday magazine.

SO HERE WE ARE, June 26, 2011, the maiden issue of the new, and improved, and reinvented, and reimagined Sunday Review. The potpourri is filled with malarkey and the old humorous cartoons and one-liners from comedians on page 2 are nowhere to be found. The editors want to make sure the readers get it. They write: "This is the first issue of the Sunday Review, a new section that replaces the Week in Review. It features news analysis from Times reporters and opinion writing from our columnists, as well as essays and reported opinion pieces from outside contributors. We hope you enjoy the changes, and if you have criticisms, thoughts or suggestions, please get in touch with us at oped@nytimes.com." Want thoughts or suggestions? Here is what I shot off: "While The Times remains the country's best daily by far, this latest reinvention is really awful. Please, oh please, bring back the Week in Review, the cartoons and comedians' one-liners -- our dreadful quotidian needs some humor to get through the day -- and for heaven's sake do not blur news analysis and opinions. This is the worst change you've ever made." Of, course, I did not get a response and my comments were not published. What's new? I've read the paper and written letters to the editor for some 30 years, without being acknowledged even once.

WELL, I DID GET ACKNOWLEDGED, sort of, yet short of, as you will see. In that maiden issue, the current public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, let it be known in a flabbergasting column (a must read) that the NYT was no longer the "paper of record." The Times, wrote Mr. Brisbane, was "airbrushing" the content of its Web site. In short, it was removing or replacing pieces, deleting inconvenient errors, and even erasing prior posted corrections. In other words, The Times is fully engaged in "scrubbing," a contemptible practice I covered last April 2010 in "The Scourge Of Plagiarism And Scrubbing." Brisbane's revelations were dumfounding. I decided to contact him.

Dear Mr. Brisbane,

Airbrushing an article, to alter its contents, and, worse, remove it entirely, is known as "scrubbing." According to Craig Silverman (Columbia Journalism Review, PBS MediaShift), it is "the practice of fixing an error in an online article without including a correction." In its more extreme form scrubbing refers to the removal of paragraphs, articles, incorrect facts, and embarrassing tidbits from Web sites altogether.

The question to be pondered: how can anyone cite a short excerpt of a NYT article -- dutifully pointing to the URL -- without the certainty that such a citation will not be deleted or the article removed? In other words, with no strict record, the "paper of record" will go the way of the dodo in the near future. It will no longer be possible to rely on the integrity and accuracy of its content.

It is to be hoped that The New York Times will reverse this deplorable -- and unethical -- practice in short order.

(Please, see PS below.)

Gilles d'Aymery
P.O. Box 267
Boonville, CA 95415
[Phone number]

PS. FYI, I have written on "The Scourge Of Plagiarism And Scrubbing" in April 2010. The article can be retrieved at http://www.swans.com/library/art16/ga280.html -- scrubbing is treated in the second part of the piece; a piece in which I did mention the NYT and your predecessor, Clark Hoyt. (Full disclosure: I am the publisher and co-editor of the 15-year-old digital magazine, Swans Commentary, and our household subscribes to the Sunday edition of the NYT.)

TO MY STUPEFACTION, Mr. Brisbane responded -- a first in 30 years. While he is not a Times employee -- he is an independent contractor paid to politely offer his own impressions about the nuts and bolts of the paper -- his response was most appreciated. He wrote:


Thanks for your message regarding my column "On NYTimes.com, Now You See It, Now You Don't."

I received a variety of interesting responses from readers, some with suggestions for solving the technical problems, some with their own anecdotes about articles that seemed to disappear and many others expressing frustration with the fleeting nature of some content on NYTimes.com. I appreciate having this feedback and perhaps will return to the subject some time in the future.

I plan on keeping your email on file in the event that I would like to publish it in my print column or on my blog. If I decide to do so, my assistant will reach out to you to confirm that this is OK beforehand.

Again, thanks for sending me your thoughts on the subject.

Art Brisbane
public editor

TO MORE SURPRISE AND PLEASURE, his assistant contacted me the following day, on July 1, 2011.


thanks again for writing in on Mr. Brisbane's column. We were interested in publishing your letter in Mr. Brisbane's letters column scheduled to run on July 10. Is this acceptable with you? If so, we will need your place of residence and a phone number to confirm a few things. We may have to edit your letter due to space constraints, but we will let you know beforehand.

Joseph Burgess
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

OF COURSE, I answered: "Dear Mr. Burgess, Thank you for your willingness to publish my letter. Of, course, this is acceptable to me, and I understand that you may edit it due to space constraints. Here again are my coordinates: [...]" However, I did not hear from Joseph Burgess until Friday, July 8, 2011, two days before publication date. It was not a phone call. It was an e-mail that read:

Gilles: thanks for the reply. Unfortunately due to space constraints we will be unable to include your letter in Mr. Brisbane's print column this weekend. Our apologies for the inconvenience. But we do plan on publishing it on Mr. Brisbane's blog on Monday. We will send you a link once the blog post is live.

Once again, our apologies for the inconvenience and have a nice weekend. - best, Joseph Burgess

A NICE WEEKEND, eh? You just spoiled it, Burgess. Thanks! On Sunday, I checked the letters Art Brisbane included in his Letters to the Public Editor, "Searching for Perspective Amid All the Labels." Six letters were included -- three about the new Sunday Review, two about the careful choice of language in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and only one about the media's public record (i.e., the scrubbing). The length of the letters ranged from 85 to 272 words. The letter on scrubbing ran 134 words. My original letter was 162 words long, which in 5 minutes of editing I shortened to 129 words. I suppose that the reason given for not publishing my letter -- space constraints -- was technically speaking correct, but I have a lingering thought that it was an editorial choice. Why would I have such a lingering thought? Because I have yet to hear from Joseph Burgess regarding posting my letter on Brisbane's Blog. For cause, on July 12, they posted nine additional letters under the heading "Additional Letters: Searching for Perspective." Mine was not included. So, this time around one cannot claim that it was due to "space constraints" -- it's the Web. No, it was eminently an editorial decision. Not only did I feel very disappointed, I found the treatment they gave me rather classless and appalling.

A FEW LAST WORDS on the issue of "airbrushing" (or scrubbing) articles on the NYT Web site: In the comments section of Art Brisbane's column, a reader, Karl K, from Chicago (comment #18) posted a short excerpt of George Orwell 1984, which is worth sharing as it indicates a clear sign of the times in which we live. (I haven't verified the citation.)

As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of The Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE, to say the least. Meantime, our saga with the home delivery of the paper, which Jan Baughman recounted in "Help Wanted: A rural struggle with The New York Times delivery," is a story with many more legs to be told at a later time.


SWEET MEMORIES AND THE END OF AN ERA. I still visualize where I was on July 20, 1969, at about 9:15 pm (French time): Le Moulin, an old windmill used in times past to mill wheat to make flour that would turn into the French staple, bread. It had been remodeled into a weekend and vacation home, with a swimming pool and many modern amenities, which my grandparents' home, a kilometer away, did not have. It was owned by Simone Alié-Daram (who graces the pages of our coin français) and her then-husband Robert Biermé. They were both physicians. Bob was a tall, handsome, and gregarious man, an inveterate courreur de jupons, who had a Mercedes -- a rarity in those times -- which he was driving like a consummate Formula 1 racer. There we were, Simone, Bob, their children, and me, assembled around the TV to watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting the very first human feet on the Earth's satellite early the next morning. We watched, mesmerized, the entire night, only able to keep repeating "Wow!"

IT WAS A TIME THE CAN-DO American spirit ran high. President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) in 1958. By the end of the Apollo program in December 1972, twelve astronauts had walked on the moon. Then began the era of the reusable spacecraft with the launch of the first shuttle, the Columbia, on April 12, 1981. From that date to July 8, 2011, when the very last mission began with the launch of the Atlantis, 135 launches have taken place with only two tragic disasters (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 -- 14 astronauts losing their lives). I've watched an overwhelming number of these launches on TV, every time crossing my fingers that nothing would go wrong, always mesmerized by the engineering and technological feat -- the beauty of science. Since I am not an engineer, a physicist, a mathematician, or a global thinker, I've never understood the merits of those space programs, particularly the worthiness of the International Space Station, which will be abandoned in the next few years. The money spent for these endeavors (hundreds of billions of dollars) could have possibly been spent on solving problems down here on Earth. Still, NASA has contributed to immense technological advances "in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental resources, computer technology, and industrial productivity."

SADLY, THE NO-CAN-DO SOCIETY has become the US leitmotiv. The country remains more or less up to the task of waging wars and impoverishing its commons, but has lost its compass as it focuses on material and narcissistic endeavors that enrich the few to the detriment of the many. That is "a fact." So, goodbye old dreams. I don't think I shall ever see this feat of science and technology again in my lifetime. I can only say: Thank you NASA and your people for having allowed me to share your incredible journey.


CORRUPTION ANYONE? We all know about the travails of Greece and the Euro Zone. Greeks, in their majority, did not ask for the chaos that they are facing -- and Greeks are neither lazy nor do they retire early (check this interesting article). My older brother, a very successful financial executive in France before retiring a couple of years ago, told me that Greece should never have been admitted to the European Union in the first place and, above all, should never have been allowed to join the Euro Zone, because, said my brother, everybody knew that the Greeks were corrupt to their very core. I am not convinced by his assessment. Greece is the cradle of our Western civilization and as such wholly deserves to be a member of the EU. The country actually became the first associate member of the original Common Market in 1962 (again, read this analysis), and if corruption is a factor in the current mayhem -- which it is -- then how does one explain the turmoil in, say, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy? There is much more than corruption among politicians and corpocrats to explain the societal conundrum we all face, though I am not willing to embark on another long dissertation on a topic that I have covered many a time. Still, my brother is correct about the corruption of the elites (though he would not use the term).

TAKE OUR U.S. LAWMAKERS: John Schwartz, the national legal correspondent for The New York Times, wrote a somewhat humorous essay published on July 10, 2011, that detailed how US Congress members "earn statistically significant abnormal returns, outperforming the market by 6 percentage points." US Senators are doing even better. Writes Schwartz: "They beat the market, my friends, by 10 percentage points a year." How come? The lawmakers need money to run their political campaigns. They get the money from big business. In turn, they pass laws favoring big business, which the latter returns with information about their own investments. Talk about insider trading... Go and ask my big brother about corruption...


AMERICA IN A NUTSHELL: Last week I got a visit from a deliveryman (no woman as of yet) that fills our propane tank. We depend on Ferrellgas, whose headquarters are located in the Midwest (Kansas), a thousand miles away from our home. He was not Chip, the regular delivery person. The tank, which we rent from them, was 45 percent full, but since he was here I told him to fill it up. Wait, he said, Chip told me to let you know the price first. It's $3.98 a gallon. Wait, I said. That's the highest price I've ever been charged -- more than in 2008 when the price of oil was about $150 a barrel. Even the US Energy Information Administration indicated in its latest weekly summary that the inventories of propane have received a large build, reaching almost 45 million barrels. Can't be, I said incredulously. He advised me to call the office, talk to the representative, be nice with her, and she could lower the price. He added that a competitor, AmeriGas, had substantially lower prices. I got to the phone right away.

THE CUSTOMER REPRESENTATIVE on the other side of the line was indeed quite friendly. She said that she had never heard of AmeriGas (err, it's the largest propane distributor in the U.S., but never mind...). She asked me to wait a minute so that she could check the account, and then came back to deliver an amazing punch line: "Your problem," I paraphrase from memory, "is that you are using too little propane. The more you use the cheaper it gets. All I can do for you is to notch you down to $3.63." I was mind-boggled. "Are you saying that the more I waste, the cheaper it gets? Are you saying that a wealthy household with a 10- or 15,000-square-foot mansion pays less than I do? Are you saying that the more frugal and attentive to saving resources and helping the environment, the more I get penalized financially? That's incredible." Yes, she answered: incredible and unfair, but that's how the system works. They want you to use and waste as much as possible. She added that she was only a little person at the bottom of the ladder and could not do anything about these policies. She advised, since the tank still had a good amount of propane, to wait a few weeks -- the price, she said, usually falls in August. I followed her advice and did not get a refill. Finally, I asked her whether her wages had gone up of late. Not in three years, she answered. (I also learned from the driver that the price can be much lower -- currently about $2.50 -- when one owns the tank, because then they have to compete with the other distributors.)

THIS, FRIENDS, IS TRULY America in a nutshell. Like the little frog in the pot with water slowly heating to a boil we are on our way to becoming a Third World nation and we are not even conscious of the happenstance. I wonder what our representatives and senators will do with their hefty returns on investment when the entire system is torn asunder. I'm very sorry for the coming generations. We are bequeathing them a nightmarish future.

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Published July 18, 2011