Sunday, January 1, 2006

Sunday Reading

  • There’s a family feud going on at the New York Times. Byron Calame, the public editor (NYTimes’ term for ombudsman, which, in his case, means “spearcatcher”) takes issue with the stonewalling he’s getting from the management of the paper over the timing of the release of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretap story.

    The New York Times’s explanation of its decision to report, after what it said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.

    For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush’s secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States.

    I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future.


    If Times editors hoped the brief mention of the one-year delay and the omitted sensitive information would assure readers that great caution had been exercised in publishing the article, I think they miscalculated. The mention of a one-year delay, almost in passing, cried out for a fuller explanation. And the gaps left by the explanation hardly matched the paper’s recent bold commitments to readers to explain how news decisions are made.

    At the very least, The Times should have told readers in the article why it could not address specific issues. At least some realization of this kicked in rather quickly after publication. When queried by reporters for other news media on Dec. 16, Mr. Keller offered two prepared statements that shed some additional light on the timing and handling of the article.

    The longer of Mr. Keller’s two prepared statements said the paper initially held the story based on national security considerations and assurances that everyone in government believed the expanded eavesdropping was legal. But when further reporting showed that legal questions loomed larger than The Times first thought and that a story could be written without certain genuinely sensitive technical details, he said, the paper decided to publish.


    The most obvious and troublesome omission in the explanation was the failure to address whether The Times knew about the eavesdropping operation before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election. That point was hard to ignore when the explanation in the article referred rather vaguely to having “delayed publication for a year.” To me, this language means the article was fully confirmed and ready to publish a year ago – after perhaps weeks of reporting on the initial tip – and then was delayed.

    Mr. Keller dealt directly with the timing of the initial tip in his later statements. The eavesdropping information “first became known to Times reporters” a year ago, he said. These two different descriptions of the article’s status in the general vicinity of Election Day last year leave me puzzled.

    For me, however, the most obvious question is still this: If no one at The Times was aware of the eavesdropping prior to the election, why wouldn’t the paper have been eager to make that clear to readers in the original explanation and avoid that politically charged issue? The paper’s silence leaves me with uncomfortable doubts.

    Was it just blind fortune that the Times decided to hold the story for a year, or was there some more nefarious reason? It seems that there’s enough material here for everyone from the tin-foil-hat crowd to the the dismissive optimists to prove their point. The one thing that’s clear is that the paper is still deep within its own navel-gazing as a result of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller so that it is dangerously close to losing its nerve — if it hasn’t already lost it.

  • Dave Barry reviews last year.

    It was the Year of the Woman. But not in a good way.

    Oh, I’m not saying that men did nothing stupid or despicable in 2005. Of course they did! That’s why we call them ”men.”

    But women are supposed to be better than men. Women are the backbone of civilization: They keep families together, nurture relationships, uphold basic standards of morality and go to the bathroom without making noise. Women traditionally shun the kinds of pointless, brutal, destructive activities that so often involve men, such as mass murder and fantasy football.

    But not this year. Women got CRAZY this year. Consider some of the more disturbing stories from 2005, and look at the names connected with them: Martha Stewart. Judith Miller. Valerie Plame. Jennifer ”Runaway Bride” Wilbanks. Paris Hilton. Greta ”All Natalee Holloway, All the Time” Van Susteren. Harriet Miers. Katrina. Rita. Wilma. Michael Jackson.

  • The Dolphins end the season today against the New England Patriots. The ‘Fins do not play well in cold weather.
  • And if you thought the tropical storm season was over — WRONG!

    Tropical Storm Zeta tied a record for the latest developing named storm when it formed Friday in the open ocean, another surprising turn in an already-infamous 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

    Although the National Hurricane Center said Zeta wasn’t forecast to become a hurricane or threaten land, Zeta’s development was significant because it came a month after the official Nov. 30 end to the busy season.

    The six-month season featured a record 14 hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana and Mississippi in August in the most costly disaster in U.S. history. Forecasters exhausted their list of 21 proper names and began using the Greek alphabet to name storms for the first time.

    Well, Happy New Year anyway.