To see arrogance in a New York Times reporter is to see the state of the art of that trait. Fortunately such swell-heads are a minority of the many good, curious and open-minded reporters who call everyday from the nation’s most influential newspaper. Nonetheless, the arrogant ones do enough damage to warrant some observations from someone who has dealt with them for quite a few years.
In the early nineteen sixties, I journeyed to New York City to place my findings of the auto companies and unsafely engineered vehicles before the Times. I was directed down a narrow hallway to the office of a veteran reporter who greeted me while leaning back in his chair with his feet on his desk. He listened briefly and rendered his judgment: “what else is new, everybody knows the auto companies suppress safety devices.”
About five years later, I brought evidence of widespread contaminated meat plants to the Times’ Washington Bureau. No interest. Instead a reporter from the Des Moines Tribune became sufficiently intrigued to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Arrogant Times reporters seem to use their overbearing nature to motivate themselves. Indeed, they are usually prolific, heavily reliant on official sources, in order to lay the basis for official leaks to them, and, of course, they know far more about their subjects than people who have spent their careers in citizen groups working these issues.
All this would be as amusing as watching a rooster strut over a hill except for the deprivations of the Times’ readers. Tom Friedman, Pulitzer Prize winner and now a Times columnist who specializes in calling leaders of nation’s by their first name or nickname, covered the GATT trade controversy in the mid-nineties. Single-handedly he kept out of the paper the textually based criticisms’ such as the profoundly anti-democratic procedures of the World Trade Organization, the supremacy of trade over domestic health and safety laws, not to mention the many events by the national coalition of environmental, consumer, labor and other groups that made the GATT legislation a heavy controversy in Congress.
When the Times does not report, it is often the case that the television networks and other major print media imitate.
On one of the weekend Washington pundit shows, Friedman admitted that he favored GATT. Being abrupt and slamming phones down on leading GATT-critics who wanted to give him a story hours before his evening deadline was not just prompted by partisanship, it was nourished by arrogance.
I became convinced that Mr. Friedman never read the 500 page GATT legislation in all the months he was covering this story by dutifully conveying the Clinton’s Administration’s official line and defining the agenda for his readers.
In the mid 1980s, consumer and neighborhood groups would hold press conferences warning about the looming S&L crisis and the crime, speculation and manipulation that was festering. The Times reporter covering this area said he did not cover news conferences -except, one gathered from reading his dispatches, official government or business press events where he was misled and lulled into a smugness that dis-served his readers. Nor were reports, testimony or demonstrations by protest groups on the S & L debacle given so much as a paragraph or two.
More recently, David Rosenbaum, who is covering the tobacco story from the Times’ Washington Bureau almost day after day, missed a key provision in Senator McCain’s tobacco legislation that would have immunized from civil lawsuits “any person that at any time was or is an affiliate, officer, director, employee, attorney or agent of a participating tobacco product manufacturer.” This would have been an astounding escape hatch for numerous big time culprits in lying, covering up, deceiving the public about nicotine addiction, marketing to children and denying the harmful effects of smoking over several decades.
On May 1st, my colleague, Robert Weissman, a Harvard trained lawyer, phoned Mr. Rosenbaum to confirm his receipt of a public letter we just sent to Senator McCain pointing out this wholesale immunity provision that the tobacco attorneys must have had a hand in getting through the Senator’s Committee. Mr. Rosenbaum curtly said he got it and closed the phone.
Three days later, Mr. Rosenbaum authored a chart in the Times comparing the various legislative approaches regarding the tobacco industry. In describing the McCain bill, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in April, Mr. Rosenbaum wrote: “Liability -state lawsuits would be settled, and an annual ceiling of $6.5 billion would be set on private legal claims. But the industry would receive no other protection from liability, and class-action suits would be permitted.” He left out that the movers and shakers in the industry, together with their attorneys, were on track to receive immunity from civil lawsuits.
It is arrogance on the run that generates this kind of shoddy non-reporting. It is up to editors to stop viewing arrogance as a motivating force and begin evaluating what the Times is missing week after week on beat after beat by such reporters. The gaps are not just episodic; they are systemic and not worthy of the capability, history and resources of the New York Times.