News Scrap: Cynical Times vs NY Times

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I’m still getting some interesting feedback from last week’s infiltrator column. The strangest so far occurred when a New York Times reporter publicly confronted me for criticizing The Gray Lady’s flawed early coverage of Occupy Wall Street.

Times-boy was standing next to a tall undercover cop in Zuccotti Park, with people carrying video cameras all around us, when he began making a spectacle out of himself. It was a show worthy of the Lilli Von Shtupp character in the film “Blazing Saddles” (see clip below left).

I just could not shake this silver spoon off. Even though I listened to what he had to say, repeatedly told him I was trying to conduct some interviews, and invited him to discuss it at greater length via email.
 
I’m favorably inclined toward anyone who is both a fellow scribe and a fellow New Yorker, but things quickly deteriorated into our own little episode of journalistic class warfare. I felt like Ron Burgundy in Anchorman or Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles as I sought to escape from this over-entitled member of the mainstream news media.

That said, a part of me really enjoyed the subsequent middle-aged shoutfest. It was good to see a reporter standing up for themselves as passionately as Times-boy at a time when so many journalists are running scared in the contracting news industry.

Too many ruthless middle managers have neutered too many good reporters in recent years to promote the kind of safe journalism that advances short-term profit growth. While eroding the very reason for the news industry’s existence.
 
The uncertain look on the young undercover’s face was priceless too as the journalism spat unfolded like some kind of nerdy rap battle. The officer’s head swiveled back and forth like he was watching a tennis match. His eyebrows shot upward toward his spiked black hair when I described the Times’ early coverage of Occupy as “a sty.”

That was low.

I kind of wish I hadn’t said it because there is so much to love about the Times and my accuser seemed to be one of the good guys there. Then again, I was provoked.

I must have listened to Times-boy say the same crap five times before it dawned on me that he was grandstanding for the undercover, rather than trying to have a legitimate conversation with a professional peer. He kept poking his bony finger in my face and saying that I was out of line for criticizing the venerable newspaper’s early coverage of Occupy Wall Street. Mostly because the stories under his byline were so damn good.

That’s like saying NYPD has not been brutalizing Occupy protesters because every officer on the force has not engaged in such behavior, or politicians in Washington, D.C., aren’t crooks because U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is not for sale.
 
 Sorry. I’m not swallowing any of those fictional storylines.

To quote Sheriff Bart: “Fifteen is my limit on Schnitzengrubben.”

I do buy into the idea that Times-boy has done some good work. However, the painful truth is much of the Times’ early coverage of Occupy was elitist garbage. So much so that I cancelled my subscription immediately afterward, even though I’ve been loving on The Gray Lady for as long as I can remember.

Art Brisbane, the Times’ courageous public editor, acknowledged the paper’s struggle to cover Occupy fairly in his own diplomatic way in articles published Nov. 4  and Nov. 12. Brian Stelter weighed in with a Nov. 20 column about the challenges the movement poses for mainstream news media.

Clearly, those articles were promoted by a diversity of opinion within the Times.

That’s a nice way of saying there are still a few decent people on a Times’ newsroom staff dominated by prep school grads and well-connected elites who remember what it’s like to go to bed hungry and scramble to find subway fare.

It’s worth remembering The New York Times Company is a publicly traded company that exists to generate profit growth for investors. It has $2.4 billion in annual revenue and about 7,400 employees. Its profits for the fourth quarter of 2011 declined 12.1 percent to $58.9 million from the same period a year earlier, according to the online news publication Capital.

By contrast, The Cynical Times is a nonprofit corporation that exists to serve the faltering middle class and create employment for displaced journalists. Cynical hasn’t amassed any revenue since starting online publication in June and has no paid staffers.

I guess Times-boy thought he could impress people by kicking us around because we’re so much smaller.

Big mistake.

It’s also worth remembering that members of the Sulzberger family – which has run the Times for generations – are longtime members of the 1 Percent. They recently gave a $24 million severance package to a less than stellar CEO, while trying to squeeze non-managers during contract negotiations with the Newspaper Guild, according to the SaveOurTimes website. The existing contract expired today.

Call me crazy, but I think the uber-wealthy Sulzbergers are still calling the shots at The New York Times. Not Times-boy.

To their mutual credit, The New York Times’ coverage of Occupy has improved tremendously the past three months. However, the Sulzbergers continue to extend a free pass to New York City’s billionaire mayor for his obvious conflict of interest. 
 
Sadly, you don’t rewrite the past by behaving differently. You acknowledge the error, run a correction, fix things and move on.

Bottom line, the Times slow-played the most significant American political movement of the past 40 years. It has to live with that.

The painful truth is we often do a better job of covering Occupy at Cynical, with far less resources.

Why?

Because we’re not worried about pissing off sources at City Hall and One Police Plaza, and we don’t care what the Sulzbergers and their buddies in the country club set think. 
 
The New York Times still needs to start reporting Michael Bloomberg’s obvious conflict of interest in the class warfare dustup between Occupy Wall Street and an investment sector that’s helped him build a $20 billion fortune via the Bloomberg LP financial information service. The man is the richest elected official in U.S. history and the Times is still behaving as if he’s a neutral third-party.

He’s not.

Bloomberg has been an active participant in this class clash, much like the fictional character of conniving State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles (video clip at left), and should be treated as such. And the painful truth is the Sulzbergers have appeared at times as little more than his unwitting dupes,  much like Gov. William J. Lepetomane (middle).

Correcting the horrendous flaws in the Times’ early coverage of Occupy is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not going to change the fact that Gina Bellafante’s Sept. 23 article about the nonviolent movement was the worst kind of hatchet job imaginable. The story, which was called “Gunning for Wall Street With Faulty Aim,” described the nonviolent movement as an “opportunity to air societal grievances as carnival” and “a diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater.”

Bellafante was one of the first to advance the fiction that Occupy has a confused message.

“The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face,” wrote Bellanfante.

And Times-boy is yelling at me?

I’ve never had any problem distilling an over-arching theme for the Occupy movement, which is that societal benefits and burdens are being unfairly distributed to magnify the wealth and power of the 1 Percent at the expense of everyone else.

Duh.

Everything else is a sub-theme – part of the movement’s vaunted big-tent.

Cynical has never had any problem understanding what was at stake and that the small early version of the movement had the potential for tremendous growth. The moment a populist movement taps into both a tremendous need and a tremendous reservoir of social frustration it has legs. The lobbyist-directed Tea Party had the latter. Not the former. Occupy has it all and has also succeeded in making political protest cool for a whole new generation of frustrated young people.

Bottom line, things need to change. Both in society as a whole and within the Times’ newsroom.

The recent improvement in the Times’ coverage of Occupy doesn’t alter the fact that the Gray Lady balked at producing a proper crowd estimate for the Oct. 5  rally with unions in Foley Square. The event drew more than 30,000 people, but most mainstream news media reported there were only 5,000 protesters and did so without naming the source for this disingenuous estimate.

The Times engaged in the journalism equivalent of a political shuffle by saying instead that “thousands of union members marched with the protesters.” This suggests to me they knew the 5,000 figure wasn’t kosher, but were unwilling to stick their neck outs by producing a more accurate figure.

It reeks of the kind of posturing nonsense which once prompted Times legend Johnny Apple to fly to foreign capitals strictly so he could put their datelines at the top of his articles.

The botched count is not a small miss.

How do I know?

Well, instead of using an anonymous crowd estimate from a participant in this class conflict – like say the Bloomberg administration – I stood by the main exit at the bottom of Foley Square and conducted a brief survey. I saw five to 10 people leaving through this choke-point every second. Since the crowd spent 60 to 90 minutes getting out of Foley, I simply multiplied five and 10 by the 3,600 seconds in an hour.

The results were 18,000 people to 36,000 for 60 minutes and  27,000 to 48,000 people for 90 minutes.

I used those ranges as my starting point and coupled them with the knowledge that the crowd had spilled well beyond the square. I also knew many protesters inside the square left by other exits. My final estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 people actually was quite conservative given the information available.

The bigger question is how so many legitimate news organizations could come away with an unattributed estimate of 5,000 for the same event?

Well, it helps to be a big for-profit corporation with a vested interest in protecting the status quo and a vested interest in writing stories that please influential sources and advertisers.

Am I claiming Cynical Times is perfect?

Hell no.

We’re very flawed here at The Cynical Times and very over-matched. However, we also do not routinely claim to be perfect. Another self-serving fiction routinely advanced by many of those who work for The Times and her peers.

The other over-arching question about the crowd size estimate is why the Times declined to provide leadership for the news pack on this aspect of the story. As the preeminent U.S. news source that’s their role. They’re meant to lead. That’s where their Pulizter Prizes come from.

Instead, The Times spit the bit and took the easy way out and traded painful truths for access to Michael Bloomberg, whose metallic Boston accent is like nails on a blackboard for many working class New Yorkers.

God forbid The Times should offend Czar Mike and risk the possibility he’ll funneling a few blowjob stories to competing news outlets. Or write aggressively about any of the Sulzberger family’s many country club friends.

So much for public service journalism, right?

Once upon a time it all began with readers for the mainstream news media, before the virus of short-term profit-growth-by-any-means began to transform America’s leading news organizations into corporate zombies motivated solely by the mindless pursuit of their next meal.

The Times also came up short in the early days of Occupy by performing like a business trade magazine that produced one story after another about the supposedly deleterious impact the Zuccotti Park camp had on area businesses. These garbage stories encouraged similar articles about other camps by lesser news organizations.

Never mind that a large 24-hour population in a downtown area with few residents has to have a beneficial impact on at least some of the retail businesses dependent on foot traffic, such as the restaurants and the food trucks around the camps.
 
More to the point, who cares?

What difference does the purchase of a few thousand more gyros, cheeseburgers, Egg McMuffins and Grande Lattes every day make when you’re evaluating the political significance of the first wave of big grassroots street protests in decades by the long-apathetic middle class?
 
I’m glad the good people at The Gray Lady have started to sort things out over there and pulled the choke collar on their own delusional 1 Percent. Much as the good people of Red Rock rallied around Sheriff Bart. However, the spectacle I encountered Friday was more than a bit out of proportion to the tangential reference I made to the paper.

There’s still a helluva lot to like about the Gray Lady. So I found myself pondering the shoutfest with Times-boy last night when I suddenly remembered the Times has been very sensitive to the allegation its reporters make stuff up ever since the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal unfolded in 2003. They’re also pampered and sheltered enough to make everything about themselves.

Such is the burden of the kind of elevated social standing which comes with a life spent behind the walls of gated communities, country clubs and elite prep schools.

Instantly, the bizarre behavior of Times-boy began to make more sense to me as a news industry veteran.
 
It’s been nine years since the ambitious Blair was exposed as a serial plagiarist. That’s enough time to move on, at least for the rest of us, but not for the insular Times. It seems that I touched on that hot button in my infiltrator column without realizing it.

I could name Times-boy, but I won’t. Not for him, but for me. 

The Sulzbergers are just dumb enough to fire him for it and I won’t be party to that kind of plantation nation nonsense.
 
To set the record straight, I never suggested the Times was making anything up. I said its early coverage of Occupy was atrocious and it’s not the first time I’ve said it in print. I also wrote about it on Oct. 25 in a column called “Newsroom Insider: Occupy Wall Street.”
 
I didn’t write that column because I dislike the Times, which is still the leading U.S. news organization. I wrote it because it’s the painful truth. Just like the name of this column.

I also wrote it because I expect better from the Times. As do most Americans with a clue.
 
Part of the infiltrator story dealt with my being falsely accused of being a cop posing as a journalist by two Occupiers because of my persistent pursuit of real names, ages and hometowns during my interviews. I spent several paragraphs explaining why good journalists pursue these details from their sources.

I also quoted an Occupier saying The Times didn’t ask his name, age, hometown or any of the other identifying information.

Here’s an excerpt:

“What do you need that for,” Genius-1 interjected after Genius-2 complied.
 
“I’m just doing my job,” I said. “Good journalists ask for that kind of information so people know we’re not making stuff up.”
 
“The New York Times didn’t ask me for that,” Genius-1 said, brushing his long brown rebel bangs from his unshaven rebel face.

 
Somehow, Times-boy found a way to make the infiltrator column about himself, as if I was speaking just about his articles and not the Times’ overall coverage.

I suspect his misplaced tirade might have been sparked in part by internal criticism at the Times about the infiltrator column, because he was angry to a degree my story did not merit.

It’s been a while since I worked at one of the big for-profit news organizations like the Times – where corporate backstabbing is off the hook. However, I spent many years in that environment and know what it can be like. So, I feel for Times-boy in that respect.
 
It’s not hard to read between the lines and envision the infiltrator column prompting a scathing message from Times management to the reporters covering Occupy, warning them to be very careful about anonymous sourcing. If you’re proud and you’re doing it right – which Times-boy apparently is – that alone would be enough to piss you off.
 
His coverage of Occupy has been solid. He named names in the stories I saw and stayed out late, when things tend to get ugly. He’s proud of his employer, too, which is nice. I’ve heard they pay quite well.

I take no pleasure in criticizing the Times, but the painful truth is that Times-boy does not work there alone. If he and his colleagues are going to revel in the benefits of its stellar pay and reputation, they also must shoulder the elevated professional expectations which accompany them, because the concept of “benefits without burdens” is limited strictly to the tippy-top of the idle 1 Percent.

No man is an island in journalism. We’re all part of a team comprised of photographers, editors, page-designers, and other reporters.

When Times-boy does well, he reflects favorably on the team. And when his fellow reporters and editors come up short, they reflect badly on him and everyone else at the Times.

It’s a package deal.

I realize that covering Occupy the right way while teammates are screwing up all around you is exhausting, as are the high expectations constantly directed at the Gray Lady, but there’s a fine line between legitimate grousing and playing the victim. And there were more than a few moments in the tirade directed at me when Times-boy crossed that line so deeply into the surreal he seemed to be channeling the ghost of Lilli von Shtupp, as played by the late great Madeline Kahn.

Or perhaps she was channeling the general feeling at The Gray Lady when she sang “I’m tired – tired of being admired” in the clip at right. “I’m tired of playing the game. Ain’t it a crying shame. I’m so tired.”

I completely understand, but it’s still hard to feel good about the Times’ tired coverage of Occupy when it’s taken as a whole. And that’s exactly how the rest of us view it.

We’re tired too. Tired of waiting for the Times to start scrutinizing events here in New York City with the same aggression and vigor it’s rightfully famous for in Washington, D.C., and overseas.

What’s the moral of the story?

You don’t just get to be a great news organization on your best days, when your best people are kicking ass and taking names. You also have to be a great news organization on your worst days, when sheltered silver spoons are on point who were hired strictly because they made the Sulzbergers feel good about themselves. 

This story was updated April 4 to give it sharper teeth.