Monday, July 27, 2015

Journalistic truthiness: NY Times edition

In the last few days, two former New York Times reporters have savaged two major stories in the Times, providing pretty strong evidence that they are based on falsehoods and inaccurate reporting.

First up: nail salons (of all things). Apparently the Times ran a story on exploitation of workers in nail salons some weeks ago, which had a major positive impact. But was the story true in its claims about wage theft and worker exploitation? In the New York Review of Books, Richard Bernstein shows it was not.

As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.
Yes, he and his wife, both Chinese speakers and readers, own two nail businesses. While that fact might motivate his fact checking, it doesn't undercut what he says he found, (if we can believe him):
Consider one of the article’s primary pieces of evidence of “rampant exploitation”: in a linchpin paragraph near the beginning of the article, the Times asserts that “Asian-language newspapers are rife with classified ads listing manicurist jobs paying so little the daily wage can at first glance appear to be a typo.” The single example mentioned is an ad by a salon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which, according to the Times, was published in Sing Tao Daily and World Journal, the two big Chinese-language papers in New York, and listed salaries of $10 a day. “The rate was confirmed by several workers,” the story says. Judging from readers’ comments on the Internet, this assertion was a kind of clincher, a crystallization of the story’s alarming message.

And yet, it seems strange, or it should have seemed strange to the paper’s editors, that the sole example the reporter provides of the sort of ad that the Asian-language papers are “rife with” is one that is not even quoted from and for which no date is provided. Indeed, it’s not clear whether the reporter saw the ad at all—otherwise why the caveat “The rate was confirmed by several workers”? (Curiously, while Ms. Nir appears to have visited the salon in question, the story doesn’t say whether the owner of the salon confirmed or denied placing such an ad—or whether that question was even asked.)
To test the Times’s assertion, my wife and I read every ad placed by nail salons in the papers cited in the article, Sing Tao Daily and World Journal. Among the roughly 220 ads posted in each paper in the days after the Times story appeared, none mentioned salaries even remotely close to the ad the Times described. This led me to wonder if embarrassed salon owners might have changed their ads in the short time since the Times exposed them, so we looked at issues of World Journal going back to March this year. We read literally thousands of Chinese-language ads, and we found not a single one fitting the description of the ads that the Times asserts the papers to be full of.

In fact, only a small number of the nail salon ads indicate a salary at all—most simply describe the job on offer and provide a phone number for an applicant to call. Among the few ads that do indicate a salary, the lowest we saw was $70 a day, and some ranged up to $110.
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 But could it be that the ads indicating salary were not representative? Since most ads do not specify compensation, my wife called a few of the advertising salons at random, speaking Chinese, posing as a salon worker, and asking what the pay would be. The lowest salary she was cited was $70 a day, but the woman she spoke to, who allowed that that salary was “low,” quickly added that tips and commissions were “very good” at her salon, which she said was in Upper Manhattan. This conformed to the practice at our own two salons, where we offer starting salaries of $70 a day, plus tips and commissions. My wife has learned that if she is unable to assure her employees that they will earn a total of at least $100 a day, nobody will work for her. On busy days the take home pay can be $150 or more. Of course, even $150 a day does not constitute great wealth. Nonetheless, the classified ads, clearly and unambiguously, reveal the opposite of what the Times claims they do. They show that there is a lively demand on the part of nail salon owners for qualified workers and that the salons need to pay them at least minimum-wage rates to start, plus, in many cases, provide free transportation to and from pickup places in the Flushing Chinatown, to induce them to take the posts on offer.

Needless to say, it is not like The New York Times to get things so demonstrably wrong, or, if it did make a mistake, to show no willingness to correct it. As a former reporter at the paper familiar with its usual close editorial scrutiny of its contents, I was genuinely mystified by this matter of the classified ads, and I wanted to see if there was some explanation for them. And so, two days after part one of the Times exposé appeared, I emailed several senior Times editors, including Mr. Baquet, as well as Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s public editor, who represents readers’ interests vis-a-vis the editors, pointing out what appeared to be the paper’s misrepresentation of the ads. I received cordial replies from editors, but my questions about the ads were ignored, except by Ms. Sullivan who, in an email, told me she had asked Wendell Jamieson, the editor of the paper’s Metro Section, about them. Mr. Jamieson told her he had “direct knowledge” of the ads and was satisfied that they had been accurately described. I replied to Ms. Sullivan that I didn’t know what Mr. Jamieson meant by “direct knowledge.” Ms. Sullivan wrote again, saying that she had had a chance to “clarify” what Mr. Jamieson meant by that term: “that he has reviewed the newspaper ads over the past few days, and he is confident that they were represented accurately in the story.”

But these were the very “past few days” during which my wife and I, both of whom can read Chinese, were examining the ads, and the Times description of them was unarguably, incontrovertibly wrong. The Times has neither furnished any copy of the ten-dollar-a-day ad in question, nor identified when it appeared. But even if such an ad did actually appear at some point, the unanswered question would remain: why did the Times reporter, in seeking to portray the whole industry, fail to describe or even mention the numerous, very different kinds of nail salon ads that are easily visible in any of the main Asian-language papers every day? The Times, moreover, seemed curiously incurious about another obvious question: given that there are numerous ads listing salaries of $70 to $110 a day—and salons quoting similar figures when contacted by phone—why would any job seeker answer an ad offering one-seventh or one-eleventh of that amount?
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 How to account for these evident flaws, the one-sidedness of the Times story? Recently the Times’s own Nick Kristof wrote in a column that “one of our worst traits in journalism is that when we have a narrative in our minds, we often plug in anecdotes that confirm it,” and, he might have added, consciously or not, ignore anecdotes and other information that doesn’t. The narrative chosen by the Times, what might be called the narrative of wholesale injustice, is one of the most powerful and tempting in journalism. Certainly, as Mr. Baquet put it, it had “impact.” It was read, he told an audience in mid-June, by 5 million people, which is five times the readership of the Sunday print edition, and produced an immediate government response.
Another Times story from the last few days, had impact---like a nuclear stink bomb. Kurt Eichenwald explains:
What the hell is happening at The New York Times?
In March, the newspaper published a highly touted article about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account that, as I wrote in an earlier column, was wrong in its major points. The Times’s public editor defended that piece, linking to a lengthy series of regulations that, in fact, proved the allegations contained in the article were false. While there has since been a lot of partisan hullaballoo about “email-bogus-gate”—something to be expected when the story involves a political party’s presidential front-runner—the reality remained that, when it came to this story, there was no there there.
Then, on Thursday night, the Times dropped a bombshell: Two government inspectors general had made a criminal referral to the Justice Department about Clinton and her handling of the emails. The story was largely impenetrable, because at no point did it offer even a suggestion of what might constitute a crime. By Friday morning, the Times did what is known in the media trade as a “skin back”—the article now said the criminal referral wasn’t about Clinton but about the department’s handling of emails. Still, it conveyed no indication of what possible crime might be involved.
Eichenwald investigates, by reviewing the same documents discussed in the story.
 Indeed, if the Times article is based on the same documents I read, then the piece is wrong in all of its implications and in almost every particular related to the inspector generals’ conclusions. These are errors that go far beyond whether there was a criminal referral of Clinton's emails or a criminal referral at all. Sources can mislead; documents do not.
First, what did the Times article say? To be charitable, let’s use the skinned-back version and quote the first two paragraphs:
Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.
The request follows an assessment in a June 29 memo by the inspectors general for the State Department and the intelligence agencies that Mrs. Clinton’s private account contained 'hundreds of potentially classified emails.' The memo was written to Patrick F. Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management.
The words in those paragraphs would lead any rational reader of the Times story to conclude that sensitive government information was mishandled, that this mishandling raised concerns about criminal activity, and that these concerns related somehow to classified information in Clinton’s email account.
Here are the words that were left out: Freedom of Information Act. At no point in the story does the Times mention what this memo—and the other it cited—was really all about: that the officials at the Freedom of Information office in the State Department and intelligence agencies, which were reviewing emails for release, had discovered emails that may not have been designated with the correct classification. For anyone who has dealt with the FOIA and government agencies, this is something that happens all the time in every administration. (Advice to other journalists: That is why it’s smart to file multiple FOIA requests for the same document; different FOIA officials will declare different items unreleasable, so some records can be turned over where a sentence has been blacked out because one reviewer decided it was classified, while another deemed it unclassified.)
The problem is, it is not as if the real purpose of this memo was hard to discern. Here is the subject heading: Potential Issues Identified by the Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Concerning the Department of State’s Process for the Review of Former Secretary Clinton’s Emails under the Freedom of Information Act (ESP-15-05).”
Get it? This is about the process being used by FOIA officials in reviewing former Secretary Clinton. And former government officials have nothing to do with how FOIA officials deal with requests for documentation. To jump from this fact to a conclusion that, somehow, someone thinks there is a criminal case against Clinton (the original story) requires a level of recklessness that borders on, well, criminal behavior.
Yes, there is memo after memo after memo, which the Times gloats were given to it by a senior government official. (For those who have thoughts of late-night meetings in parking garages or the Pentagon Papers, they were unclassified documents. Reporters obtain those kinds of records through the complex, investigative procedure of asking the press office for them.) And all of them are about the exact same thing: the process being used by current FOIA officials reviewing the emails of a former official is messed up. That’s like criticizing the former owner of a car for the work conducted by the new owner’s mechanic.
So what was the point of the memo written by Linick and McCullough? The memo itself is very clear: “The Department should ensure that no classified documents are publically released.”
In terms of journalism, this is terrible. That the Times article never discloses this is about an after-the-fact review of Clinton’s emails conducted long after she left the State Department is simply inexcusable. That this all comes from a concern about the accidental release of classified information—a fact that goes unmentioned—is even worse. In other words, the Times has twisted and turned in a way that makes this story seem like something it most decidedly is not. This is no Clinton scandal. It is no scandal at all. It is about current bureaucratic processes, probably the biggest snooze-fest in all of journalism.
The heavy breathing of deception or incompetence by the Times doesn’t stop there. In fact, almost every paragraph at the top of the story is wrong, misleading or fundamentally deceptive.
The third paragraph states: “It is not clear if any of the information in the emails was marked as classified by the State Department when Mrs. Clinton sent or received them. No, in fact, it is quite clear. All of the memos are about emails that the officials say may not have been properly designated as classified, meaning it would be improper to release them. If a document is marked as classified, it is certainly not difficult to determine if it has been marked as classified. Paragraph three is false.
Paragraph four: “But since her use of a private email account for official State Department business was revealed in March, she has repeatedly said that she had no classified information on the account.” Mmmm-kay. A point that would seem to be reinforced by the fact that this whole issue is about whether emails should have been designated as classified by FOIA officials. The but makes it seem as if there is a contradiction, when in fact the two points are completely consistent.
Then there are a couple of paragraphs that are a short summary of the past and a comment from the Clinton campaign saying any released emails deemed classified were designated that way after the fact. Yah—that’s what the memos are talking about.
All of this is bad enough, but then there is the ultimate disaster, paragraph seven: “At issue are thousands of pages of State Department emails from Mrs. Clinton’s private account. Mrs. Clinton has said she used the account because it was more convenient, but it also shielded her correspondence from congressional and Freedom of Information Act requests.”
Wow. The first time that the story—which readers cannot possibly know is about FOIA requests—finally mentions FOIA requests, it just manufactures a reality out of thin air. Using a private account would not, in any way, shield Clinton’s correspondence from congressional or FOIA requests.
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Then there is accusation by false association. If a sentence read, “Bill shot Ted, and Ted died,” any responsible journalist who wrote that would understand the implication was that Bill killed Ted. But if the truth is that Bill accidentally shot Ted when they were on a hunting trip, and 30 years later Ted died from heart disease, the implied accusation is true in its fact yet false in its statement.
This unforgivable journalistic sin turns up in paragraphs 13 and 14 in the Times story. They read:
The inspectors general also criticized the State Department for its handling of sensitive information, particularly its reliance on retired senior Foreign Service officers to decide if information should be classified, and for not consulting with the intelligence agencies about its determinations.
In March, Mrs. Clinton insisted that she was careful in her handling of information on her private account. 'I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email,' she said.
No reader could possibly know that the two paragraphs, jammed together and using similar phrases—handling of information and handling of sensitive information—have nothing to do with each other. The first paragraph is once again based on the inspectors general’s memos. And again, what those memos are actually discussing is the way that the FOIA office is handling its review of the former secretary of state’s emails for public release. They in no way discuss Clinton, her handling of emails or anything approaching those topics.
But by slapping those two paragraphs together and using the same words, the Times—again, either out of recklessness, ignorance or intentional deception—makes it seem as if the inspectors general are saying Clinton mishandled classified information. They didn’t.
In our hyper-partisan world, many people will not care about the truth here. That the Times story is false in almost every particular—down to the level of who wrote what memo—will only lead to accusations that people trying to set the record straight are pro-Hillary. I am not pro-Hillary. I am, however, pro-journalism. And this display of incompetence or malice cannot stand without correction.
A troubling thought---maybe it is not incompetence. Maybe Times reporters and their editors are simply re-embracing the journalism of impact. Like its faulty journalism about Iraq's WMD's. That had impact.

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