The New York Times’ Anonymous Sources

New York Times BuildingYesterday, I wrote, NYT Creating Talking Points for Republicans. It was about how the same reporting team managed, in the last six months, to provide the Republicans with two major anti-Democratic talking points that turned out to be completely wrong. They were both based upon anonymous sources. Because the article got pushed back a few days, there has finally been some response from The Times. Most notably, their public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote, Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article.

On Friday, she spoke to executive editor, Dean Baquet and the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton. And they both agreed that these were major problems. But they said that there is no reason to believe that the sources had a political agenda. Rather they were just incompetent — not knowing the difference between public and private messages. Further they noted that the reporters were both excellent. I mentioned that myself when I wrote about it. One of them had won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting before.

“But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism — a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.” —Margaret Sullivan

I wonder about the whole process. Sullivan noted, “But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism — a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.” I wonder about that. I have a hard time believing that these stories would have been so causally pushed through editing and to publication if they had been damaging to Republicans. As usual, it isn’t because I think The Times is conservatives, but rather that it perceives itself as being the opposite. It is constantly attacked as the “liberal media” and so anti-liberal hogwash more easily makes it onto its front page.

Anonymous Sources

But the editors seem united on one thing. As Baquet said, “This was a really big mistake, and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.” I agree. The New York Times has been too dependent upon anonymous sources. But there’s a problem. Margaret SullivanThey already have a policy about anonymous sources. They’ve had it for a very long time. It has its problems. In particular, it is vague. For example, its 2007 policy claims, “The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy.” That sounds like a mighty fine idea. But isn’t it the case that we constantly get anonymous government sources that are saying nothing but that the government is right or its enemies are wrong? Yes, it seems we see that each and every day in The New York Times.

Back in 2011, Janine Jackson at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) wrote, But You Didn’t Hear It From… Anyone. In it, she provided an example where a “top Israeli official” was given anonymity to provide some of the most innocuous, milquetoast comments one could image. Even more absurd:

Likewise, the Times stands, in principle, against anonymity “as cover for a personal or partisan attack.” The actual paper, on the other hand, contains stories like one (10/4/10) in which “an executive at Fox News” is provided incognito so he can express “astonishment” that Barack Obama would single Fox out for criticism: “We are so in his head,” he taunted. “Can you believe with all the other things going on in this world he’s preoccupied with Fox News?”

She also talked about the ridiculous policy of telling readers why the source is anonymous, “But the explanations are patently ad hoc and random.” And in the article at hand, there is no justification as to why these sources are anonymous — or indeed even that they are anonymous. All the article stated was, “American law enforcement officials said…” And far from being a little used technique, in the week 1 October 2011, FAIR found that between a fifth and a quarter of front page stories in The Times and The Washington Post used anonymous sources.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the problems that reporters face. But it is mostly a question of efficiency. It would be harder for newspapers to do the work they know needs to be done to properly report the news. But I really have a problem with The New York Times editors claiming that they are going to do something about this. We’ve already been through Judith Miller; that’s why we got the 2007 policy change. This new case could lead to a policy change. But the paper won’t follow it and we will get the same old garbage again.

Republican Frame of Fear

Afraid: Republican FrameThe most disappointing thing in the Democratic debate Saturday night was that both Clinton and especially O’Malley accepted the Republican frame about the threat of terrorism and how afraid we should all be. And I’m really trying to get my head around all this. Here’s the thing: I’m not afraid. Yet I consider myself a complete coward. How can that be?

I think it has something to do with my clear grasp of sampling bias. Let us suppose, for a moment, that the San Bernardino attack had not been committed by a couple of Muslims. Imagine if it had been a white couple of the Alex Jones inclination. In that case, we wouldn’t be talking about ISIS as though they were some kind of existential threat to the United States. The San Bernardino attack did not change anything on the macroscale about the United States, but somehow it is an entirely acceptable position to think that everything changed — like it was 9/11 all over again.

Martin O’Malley seemed almost hysterical about it. He calmed down eventually, but for a while I thought he would have fit in better at last Tuesday night’s debate…

Other than this attack being more successful than most, how is this any different from any other attack? Even if you want to limit it to Muslims who think they are part of some worldwide jihad, how does this attack change things? Has there been an uptick in these attacks? What about Nidal Hasan? Why didn’t that attack require that we change the whole fabric of society and our foreign policy? Could it be, I don’t know, that there is a presidential campaign on now?

Despite the fact that media and the political class are convinced that the San Bernardino shootings are Very Significant, I haven’t found many people who think this. And those who do think this are people who have been frightened into it by that very media and political class. As a people, we live in a nation is used to mass shootings happening every day. Unless 5 people get killed in one, it isn’t likely to even make national news. But we have been told that this is one that we must really pay attention to. It is so very meaningful that we must monitor the internet and destroy encryption.

At the beginning of the debate, Clinton gave far too much emphasis on this. But Martin O’Malley seemed almost hysterical about it. He calmed down eventually, but for a while I thought he would have fit in better at last Tuesday night’s debate with his clear acceptance of the Republican frame about terrorism. Sanders was the standout in this part of the debate, because he just didn’t go there. He’s good at focusing on what’s important.

But it was quite an interesting contrast. Because even when the Democrats are talking about terrorism, the focus is on specific things that we might do. I watched the whole Republican debate. It contained nothing that you couldn’t get from six seconds of The Fly, “Be afraid; be very afraid.” It’s interesting that the film came out in 1986 at the height of the “Reagan Revolution.” At least we had cause to be afraid then.

The truth is that as gullible as Americans are, they are even more quick to distraction. So the San Bernardino attack will fade from memory and they will get back to focusing on what they always do: their poor economic situation. This Republican frame will not last. But it does raise a concern that a similar attack in July or August of next year could throw everything into chaos and we could end up with President Trump.

Morning Music: Christmas Songs You Won’t Like

Vera LynnIn many ways, I am a vicious person. I thought it would be fun to do a week a Christmas songs. In general, I hate Christmas songs. And I could, if I wanted, try to find those Christmas songs that I actually like. But it seems like more fun to torture you.

Now that doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to present horrible songs. But I’m not going to shy away from them. And that brings us to today’s song, “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot.” It’s one of those songs that people like because they get it. I distinctly remember liking the song when I was ten years old because it made me feel clever. Plus: it is a real tearjerker. Now I just feel vaguely embarrassed that the song would manipulate me both intellectually and emotionally. It’s worse than Beaches.

It was written by the Michael Carr, Tommie Connor, and Jimmy Leach. I can’t find any information about Leach, but the other two are well know British songwriters. Carr wrote the title tune in the 1939 Gene Autry’s vehicle, South of the Border. But I suspect the preciousness of this song comes to us from Connor who wrong the similarly sly, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” And I might run that song, which I actually like.

“The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot” is probably best known to Americans as a Nat King Cole song. But it’s a bit too hip for such a sappy song. What’s more, it has that horrible spoken word center that makes me want to pull out my hair. So we are going to go with the first big recording of it by Vera Lynn.

It’s a nice version with exactly the kind of accompaniment that we expect from “The Forces’ Sweetheart.” She really is amazing. She has the ability to perform trite nonsense as though it were Homer.

Anniversary Post: Zodiac Killer’s First Victims

Zodiac Killer Artist RenderingOn this day in 1968, teenagers David Arthur Faraday and Betty Lou Jensen were murdered by the Zodiac Killer. They were his first of five confirmed murders. There were two others who he shot or stabbed but who survived. There are four other victims who may have been killed by him: three before this and one after.

Growing up in the Bay Area, the Zodiac Killer was a big deal. He was everything you could ask for in a serial killer. First, he wasn’t into necrophilia; Second, he didn’t torture; he just killed people. I know these might seem like small things to appreciate, but they matter — especially the second one.

More important is that the man had style. He wrote letters to the newspapers. And he created ciphers — only one of which has been decoded. In it, he explains that all the people that he killed would be his slaves in the afterlife. Given his penchant for killing couples, you have to wonder about his repressed sexual desires. Then again, the man was probably just a psychopath.

Zodiac Killer SymbolHis various correspondences included exactly the kind of games that we know from the movies. These included his tally of the game he was supposedly playing with the San Francisco Police Department with things like, “Zodiac = 13, SFPD = 0” but there was his symbol rather than the word “Zodiac.” He also took credit for murders that apparently weren’t his. And he made numerous threats that he never carried out, like bombing a school bus.

All his confirmed killings are confined to a ten month period. Then maybe something a year later. There have been numerous suspects, but everything has fallen through. It’s curious. I tend to think he was someone like Neal Falls: the serial killer who seems to have moved around the country. I don’t know that I care. Even if we determined who he was, it wouldn’t explain anything. We’d be left with the same conclusion: mentally ill murderer.