Last Wednesday, a lengthy Editors' Note on Page A2 scooped a scoop I had planned on the toxicity of scoops. The note addressed irregularities in a March 31 front-page article by Karen W. Arenson, "Columbia Panel Clears Professors of Anti-Semitism." The Times, the note explained, had been given a one-day jump on other media in exchange for its agreement not to "seek reaction from other interested parties." While acknowledging that this was in violation of Times policy, the note said "editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public." It concluded, "Without a response from the complainants" - the students who had brought the anti-Semitism charges - "the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form."
Samuel Glasser, a reader in Port Washington, N.Y., who identifies himself as a former reporter and editor with three major newspaper chains, spoke for many: "The idea that editors and reporters would even have to be told not to do such a thing in the first place, let alone that they would 'forget' the policy, defies belief."
But I believe it all too readily. Unless they're enforced by a hanging judge, a mountain of policies (The Times has an Everest's worth; you can find most at www.nytco.com/press.html) will not deter editors and reporters from the heart-pounding, palm-sweating, eye-goggling pursuit of scoops. (Managing editor Jill Abramson told me that the Editors' Note "speaks for itself.") Wanting to be first, to beat the competition, to compel other media to say "as reported yesterday in The New York Times" puts the paper in a position where it can build staff spirit, expand its reputation and win prestigious journalism prizes. And be manipulated like Silly Putty, too.
I'll leave it to Columbia's faculty, students and alumni to pass judgment on their school's press strategy. From a journalist's perspective, a university trying to manage its public image at a moment of crisis is about as surprising as a tuition increase. The recruitment handouts don't say, "Come to Columbia, where off-campus housing is extremely expensive and not very appealing." The press handouts don't say, "The report on anti-Semitism was immediately condemned by students who had brought the charges."
Columbia wanted to control how the news of the report broke. That's my version; Susan Brown, the director of Columbia's Office of Public Affairs, told me "we wanted the report to speak for itself, to stand on its own." Same thing. Eventually it exploded in Columbia's face and in The Times's, after The New York Sun, some aggrieved students, and (he said immodestly) some rude inquiries from the public editor messed things up. But until then, Columbia landed its version of events on the front page. Its controversial report was insulated from its controversy, presented to a large degree unchallenged. (Arenson did insist on interviewing the one professor the report cited for misbehavior.) The Times was able to tout its possession of an important document "obtained by The New York Times and scheduled for release today." And the readers got an incomplete story that wasn't made whole until Arenson's article about student reaction appeared the next day - but not on A1, of course.
The first Columbia story would probably have made Page 1 in any case, but the fact that it was an exclusive guaranteed it. Beating the competition is so much more rewarding when you can shout it through an amplifier.
In March of 2004, when the top half of the front page was given over to the carnage wrought by terrorists' bombs that killed 191 people in Madrid, many readers were offended by the presence, at the bottom of the same page, of an article headlined, "In Science's Name, Lucrative Trade in Body Parts." The Madrid story demanded to be there that day; the story about what happens to cadavers in the United States, and the stomach-churning juxtaposition this brought to readers' breakfast tables, did not. When I asked why it hadn't been held a day or two, a masthead editor told me, "We heard The Los Angeles Times was on to the same story and would be running it in the next few days."
Last June, when I tut-tutted the Page 1 placement of Michiko Kakutani's review of Bill Clinton's "My Life," I think I missed the point: a front page position for an opinion piece may have been odd, but publishing a review of a 957-page book barely 24 hours after it arrived in Kakutani's hands was even odder, unless you buy the premise that speed equals virtue. The Pulitzer judges who awarded Kakutani her prize in 1998 cited "her passionate, intelligent writing on books and contemporary literature," not her speed-reading capabilities.
The timing of both the cadaver story and the Clinton review, and their consequent claim on front-page real estate, are symptoms of a persistent genetic disposition. Some newspaper people seem to regard beating the competition as the opposable thumb of journalism, an essential characteristic that distinguishes winners from losers. I think it's more like the tailbone, a vestigial remnant from the era when reporters were still swinging from the trees - that distant time when New York had eight daily papers, and newsboys in knickers prowled the streets shouting "Extra!" whenever their papers had something the other guys didn't.
Darwinian selection might have weeded out the weaker specimens, but the traits that kept them alive for years haven't disappeared. Today, breaking news belongs to those who deliver electronically, so reportorial wiles become the chief weapons in this meaningless war.
A reporter doesn't even need to make a deal to protect a scoop, gratify a source and stiff the readers. This is especially easy in Washington, where puppet masters on both sides of the aisle use hypercompetitive reporters as their willing playthings. A pol gives a hot piece of news about, say, an impending appointment - late afternoon is an especially propitious time for this dodge - to a reporter. The reporter knows that if he seeks comment from someone likely to be opposed to the appointment, that person has plenty of incentive to bust the balloon by calling the reporter's competitors, grabbing some television face-time and otherwise making it a very bad day for the scoopster. But if the reporter doesn't make that call, the leaker gets the story the leaker wants, unmolested by thorough reporting.
When I ask why being first inspires high fives from colleagues and love notes from bosses, some editors look at me dumbly, as if I'd asked why words have vowels. Some, though, have convinced me that the footrace can benefit readers, who are well served by the competitive instincts that impel journalists to do better than the other guy. And some make the very good point that the scoops that truly matter aren't those that arise from someone's slipping a document (or, in the Robert Novak-Valerie Plame case, a name) to a reporter, but those resulting from a reporter's sustained diligence.
Not every good story requires more than 500 interviews, conducted over 15 months, like reporter Walt Bogdanich's unimpeachable series on safety at railroad crossings that won a Pulitzer last week. But a component of all good reporting is an unrelenting thoroughness even under time constraints, and an element of all good management is a willingness to wait another day when time can't be stretched.
I wish I could say the Columbia story was an aberration. I wish as well I could prove it was not. Reporters who make secret quid pro quo agreements with sources don't pick up the phone to tell me they've just concluded a deal. I've stumbled across several pieces in the last few months that emit a slightly fishy aroma, but it would be unfair to cite specifics when reporters deny they've made deals and I can't prove otherwise.
But there are some telltale signs that could lead readers to draw their own conclusions. The first tip-off, of course, is a string of words like "to be announced tomorrow," "obtained by The Times and scheduled for release today," or any other permutation that suggests this is in The Times, just The Times, and you won't see it anywhere else for at least a day. Then, if the only people quoted in the article are those who benefit from spreading its substance, be wary. And be angry, too. You deserve better journalism than that.
Many people at The Times know this, and they take it seriously. Among them I would include Steven A. Holmes, one of the editors who handled the Columbia story. "I do think journalists can be too scoop crazy," he told me last week. But, he added with palpable rue, "That's a lot easier to say when it's somebody else's scoop."
The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.