Friday, January 13, 2012

Letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times

To the Public Editor,

Re: "Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?" and "Update to my Previous Post on Truth Vigilantes"

Both of Jan. 12, 2012

Both Web publications.

Sir:

I logged off my computer yesterday afternoon with a sense of optimism engendered by the first of your referenced posts (and, I might add, its accompanying comments thread). I thought you'd made an unfortunate choice when you cited the example of Clarence Thomas' assertions about his financial disclosures: that is a peccadillo, in greater scheme of things, and close enough to the edge of verifiability to be a poor example of the issues your readers responded to in their comments. I also thought the title infelicitous: "vigilantism" carries pretty unsavory connotations for people who care about fairness and due process, and I don't think many of your readers want you to abandon your commitment to those virtues.

I took the first of your posts yesterday as meaning something quite different than what you intended, apparently. I was deeply vexed and disappointed to read your "Update" today. I think it is particularly dismaying that you should dismiss your readers' comments as consisting of "more heat than light." I took the trouble to read all of the comments (265 at the time I'm thinking of) and fewer than 2% offered something other than the sentiment of "Hooray! The Times is waking up to the fact that people think it's a stenography service and mouthpiece for wealth and power, and they want to do something about that!" How often do you see 98% of the respondents to any question, in any forum, respond with that degree of unanimity? Even flash mobs organized to overwhelm online polls don't generally manage that.

The comments that you dismiss so blithely in your "Update" are so unanimous because the Times has a real problem of credibility, which it shares with every other nationally-distributed commercial news outlet. Namely, to some sizable fraction of your readers, you appear unwilling to challenge or even cast doubt on the statements of powerful people or institutions when doing so might expose you to criticism for "liberal bias." This unwillingness extends to such extraordinary lengths as, for example, allowing the former Vice Presidential candidate of one of the two major parties to repeatedly assert that the winners of the election she'd lost were proposing legislation which would have the effect of establishing euthanasia panels for elderly Americans, without pointing out that in the plainest possible terms that the proposed legislation contained no such provision. Indeed, the larger story with the incidents to which I refer is that one of the major political parties in the United States has utterly abandoned any pretext of interest in being truthful with the people it seeks to govern, preferring instead to mislead and obfuscate and flat out prevaricate more or less without respite. The Times apparently did not consider this newsworthy, and, given the tone of your "Update" evidently will continue not to do so.

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