The New York Times dinged the New York Observer today in an absolute fair and responsible fashion, documenting the weekly’s great efforts to pillory Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, the results of which the Observer published on Tuesday (“The Politics and Power of A.G. Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or Will Reckless Eric come undone?”).
Both the Times piece and a BuzzFeed article, published earlier in the week, build the circumstantial case that the Observer story was a hatchet job designed to retaliate against Schneiderman. Why should the Observer want to hurt the attorney general? Well, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald J. Trump last year. Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, who owns the Observer, and Kushner bosses the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. Kurson originally assigned the Schneiderman story to an inexperienced writer and allegedly encouraged him with comments (Schneiderman is a “bad guy” and a “phony”) as well as plying him with negative articles about Schneiderman. How hard did Kurson push? The young writer bailed because he believed Kurson was prodding him into writing a “smear piece,” and a new writer was enlisted.
Obviously, the Trump-Kushner-Kurson axis has motives to scuttle Schneiderman with a newspaper article. But neither the Times nor BuzzFeed cite any inaccuracies in the Observer piece. The Times calls it a “searing, 7,000-word indictment of Mr. Schneiderman, portraying him as vindictive and politically opportunistic” and as a “robust defense” of Trump. In an editorial note, the Observer offers some transparency about its conflicts of interest, and presents a genesis of the article.
The unstated subtext of the Times and BuzzFeed pieces seems to be that there is something wrong about commissioning a hatchet job. But don’t editors do that all the time? If an editor can’t commission a hatchet job, or at the very least encourage a reporter to take a preferred direction, what’s the point of being an editor?
Excessive fairness provides only one path to truth, and one man’s smear is often another man’s exuberant truth-telling. The fact that an inexperienced writer did not grasp Kurson’s concept for the piece, and thought he was being directed to “smear” the subject doesn’t mean Kurson was shopping for a smear. It could be that the writer, being inexperienced and new to the Schneiderman topic, and Kurson, being certain of the story he was chasing, miscommunicated at a basic level that the writer perceived as an attempt to smear. Whatever the case, the motives and skullduggery behind a story usually matter less to me than does the story’s substance. In the case of the Observer story, I’ll sit tight until somebody knocks it down as inaccurate, a piece I’ve yet to see.