The NYT ombudsman’s blogophobia

By Felix Salmon
May 24, 2009

The good news: the NYT’s ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, has weighed in with uncommon speed on l’affaire Andrews. But he’s done so in a most peculiar way: he spends 11 paragraphs on whether or not Andrews should be covering his own personal housing crisis at all, given his job, and then moves on to Megan McArdle’s bombshell with one final tacked-on graf, in which he can’t even bring himself to mention McArdle by name. (She’s first “a blogger for The Atlantic”, and then just “the blogger”. You’ll excuse me for reading that language pejoratively: if a newspaper columnist had written the same thing, I doubt they would have just been “a columnist” and “the columnist”.)

Here’s Hoyt’s conclusion in full:

Andrews is an excellent reporter who explains complex issues clearly. There are plenty of them to cover without assigning him to those that could directly affect whether he keeps his own house. He is too close to that story.

He can’t be too cautious. On Thursday, he came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.

“He can’t be too cautious” carries with it the clear implication that the next bit of criticism is largely unwarranted — an implication which is reinforced by Hoyt’s inability to name McArdle. And the way he talks about Andrews being “under attack” from this anonymous blogger also naturally puts the reader on Andrews’s side.

Eventually, Hoyt decides that Andrews’s wife’s bankruptcies really aren’t germane after all, on the rather peculiar grounds that since Andrews is open about his inability to manage his finances in any event, the news of the bankruptcies doesn’t really add anything. Huh? There’s a world of difference between a couple who can’t manage their finances and who are sucked into the subprime bubble, on the one hand, and a couple with two bankruptcy filings in the space of 8 years and 4 months, on the other. (You’re not allowed to file for bankruptcy within 8 years of your last filing.)

The reason why Andrews should have revealed both bankruptcy filings (not only the second one) is that they’re highly relevant to his family’s finances, and he’s written an entire book about his family’s finances. The reason is not just “to head off the criticism” he might end up receiving from the blogosphere.

As for the whiff of latent blogophobia which wafts through the whole thing, it’s worth noting that although Hoyt has a blog, he hasn’t written a substantive blog entry there all year — all the content from 2009 so far has been written by others and simply posted by Hoyt. What’s more, the NYT has broken links to his predecessors’ blogs: Dan Okrent’s blog used to be here, while Barney Calame’s used to be here. Neither link works any more. Clearly, if you want to make an impression on the public editor, it’s best to avoid any hint that you might be a blogger. It seems that McArdle should have mailed Hoyt an official complaint, on Atlantic letterhead, signing herself the Business and Economics Editor of The Atlantic: Hoyt would probably have taken that more seriously. It’s very sad that he still hasn’t moved on from that credentialist world.

Comments
16 comments so far

Andrews’ thesis: economic conditions caused the problem
Reality: personal spendthrift issues were the problem
New York Times crashed and burn watch: +1

Posted by fusion | Report as abusive

Be sure to check out the comments on Hoyt’s article, in which scores of angry readers dress him down much more brutally than Felix.

The Times is in an untenable position here (entirely of its own making, of course). It is standing by Andrews, its star economic reporter, but should it? The case Andrews thought he was making in the book and in his reporting is that banks took advantage of the small-fry, but also sophisticated people like himself. This is, by the way, largely true. The problem is that Andrews is paid to explain the economy and finance to the Times’ equally sophisticated readers. So Andrews’ book was ALWAYS going to embarrass his employer by pointing out that nobody there knew enough about what was going on to protect their readers. Ipso facto, the paper has not done its job for years. OOOPS!

Not only did the paper fail to understand this glaringly obvious (in retrospect, at any rate) point. It failed to ensure that Andrews told the full, unvarnished story in his supposedly full, unvarnished story. How’s that old saying go? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me! McArdle is the the kid shouting that the emperor has no clothes on, and the Times is not amused.

Then, as a piece de resistance, the Times fails (through Hoyt’s insanely obtuse anaylsis) to acknowledge either mistake number one OR mistake number two. Rubbing salt in the wounds of an angry readership is just plain suicidal. Ultimately, the sins of the paper and of the reporter are inseparable.

PBS also tried to undermine McArdle when it got Andrews to comment about her points.

Here’s how she’s introduced:

“Yesterday, free-market enthusiast Megan McArdle, who describes herself as “the tallest female econoblogger” but is more often identified in the blogosphere as a libertarian, devoted a post on theAtlantic.com to Ed Andrews.”

Translation: Freakishly tall, misguided neocon Megan McArdle…

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/businessdesk  /2009/05/ed-andrews-responds-to-critici .html

It’s also dishonest to call Meghan’s post an “attack” – a revelation, yes. But I think she was very polite about the whole thing, even calling the omission “laudable” in a least one aspect. I think a lot of what Meghan post’s can be bad, but this revelation was, well, revelatory, and very, very relevant (sorry). Andrew was too close to the story. He could write about how he got suckered into too much debt, but was unable to write about how his new wife was already very comfortable with living with too much debt, and how that may have affected the whole story.

Posted by Will Hunter | Report as abusive

“He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment.”

Job well done.

Sad…Megan gets pilloried on one of the rare occasions where she says something intelligent.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

If he didn’t want to embarrass himself or his wife, he shouldn’t have written that piece that was full of WAY too many intimate details of his personal life. It’s amazing he was willing to describe truly uncomfortable moments with his wife, while hiding key details that would change the characterization of the story completely.

In the end, it’s not that surprising that someone would omit information to try and make himself more sympathetic. What’s so insane about this case is that the author tried to deceive the whole NYT audience into believing he’s a victim of the easy-credit culture.

I think you really point out a really baffling anti-blog bias among some of the people involved. If McArdle had simply written a letter to the editor the reaction might have been different, but just because a “blogger” was involved it inspires dimissiveness and denigration.

Felix, I think the broader point (once again the spam word – broad – seems completely ironic) you are making here is that there remains a largely Establishment backlash to the technological and cultural disruption that is the Internet, and more specifically the blogosphere that has grown from it. I can draw a few conclusions from tales such as this:

1. This backlash will die out when those unwilling or unable to adapt to change die out.
2. It will continue to be a messy process.
3. Newspapers are dead. This one requires a few logical steps in between that I will leave as an exercise to the reader. But I will institute a denial of service attack (jj) at the next person who tells me that print will never die because they like the feel of paper in their hands.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

I can’t understand why so many people persist in portraying those who lost money in the real estate correction as victims. Investors were not “sucked into the subprime bubble,” against their will. Rather, they simply invested in the real estate market at the wrong time.

Posted by infp | Report as abusive

I also take exception with saying McArdle is ‘attacking’ Andrews. Megan outlined the facts, such as the bankruptcy, and in Andrews reply to her he doesn’t dispute any of the facts she raised; he does provide some additional color like the intra family lawsuit that led to the 2nd bankruptcy.

“All the news that is fit to print” is on the Times masthead and that wasn’t the case here.

I’d also call out Megan’s closing line after Andrew’s response which is that this is still a story worth telling, even with the wife’s bankruptcy, though it does add some shades of grey.

Posted by scott | Report as abusive

I think this is James Frey level deception. Yet the people that are really being saved by hiding Andrews’s wife’s bankruptcies are the banks. Who the hell extends that much credit to someone over extended and coming up on the 7 year milestone? Sure Andrews is much less of a sympathetic character with the omission, but the banks look completely worthless if they didn’t ferret out that he was married to someone about to default again.
The other entity that comes out looking awful is the Times. They were out reported, original reporting no less, by a mere blogger.

Posted by zach | Report as abusive

Felix way to mix it up a bit and expose the rather self righteous position of many narrow thinkers in current traditional media. Ironically the most important media during the founding of this country were the Pamphpleteer’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pamphleteer . The most well known being Thomas Paine who would probably have had a stonking blog.

When a media outlets importance or integrity isn’t self evident its protestations to that end may be more indicative of death throes rather than defense.

Et tu Wall Street Journal?

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB12432888 0454952177.html

McArdle should consider legally changing her name to “A. Blogger @ the Atlantic.”

But then, here is the real showstopper from this throwaway review:

“Mr. Andrews’s book makes it clear that the real culprit is human nature.”

Got that everyone? The mortgage meltdown was caused, not by underregulated, greedy lenders, risk-shifting brokers or pie-eyed sucker-borrowers. No, it was caused by human nature. To think, someone got paid to write that!

Personally, as someone who lives far outside of the rare air found over NY and D.C., I thought Andrews’ original story was revelatory enough about a family voraciously eager to spend its way into oblivion.

McArdle’s new info about the multiple bankruptcies just confirmed their insanity.

That the mortgage company didn’t care that the borrower had money to repay the loan, however, is also a huge part of the story. Once upon a time, the story would have ended with the loan application.

No book deal would have come from that, however. So perhaps Andrews is lucky in his lack of financial commonsense.

To me, the most interesting part of the whole thing is the circling of the wagons by the MSM. The PBS NewsHour guy responded that he didn’t know about the bankruptcy, and wouldn’t have investigated, because it was just a book story, not an expose, and doggone it, he LIKED Andrews and the wife and kids. (Let me know if George W. Bush’s book tour gets the same reax.)

Andrews is one a member of the club, and if he wants to tell his story, his way, so he can make some $$, everyone else needs to just be quiet.

Posted by BartS | Report as abusive

Doesn’t Salmon misstate the point of the “11 paragraphs” he criticizes? Hoyt wasn’t saying that Andrews shouldn’t have been covering his own story; he was saying that Andrews shouldn’t have been covering the foreclosure crisis.

Posted by Mark Regan | Report as abusive
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