What the New York Times Could Learn From a Vows Column
Before Christmas, the New York Times set off a web firestorm with a Vows column that was highly controversial, to say the least: It told the story of TV reporter Carol Anne Riddell and ad executive John Partilla, who divorced their spouses and split up their families to wed. The two acknowledged the pain they’d caused — Partilla said that “I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could” — but Times readers for the most part found the two selfish and self-centered, and lacerated the couple in comments before the Times closed them. The reaction was similar on other websites and blogs, making for a spectacle that was simultaneously cringeworthy and fascinating. Internet shamings are always striking, but relatively few of them are so thoroughly self-inflicted.
But the column raised journalistic questions as well — and offered a valuable lesson in why news organizations need to be more open about the reporting and editing process.
In his blog for Forbes, Jeff Bercovici began with a pointed question: “Why were the ex-spouses of the newlyweds not mentioned by name in the story? Did the reporter call them for comment, as basic journalistic practice would dictate?” Asked that question, Riddell — perhaps beginning to understand she’d aimed both barrels at her own feet — declined to say, telling Bercovici that “I really don’t want to wade into this any further than we already have. It’s not helpful to anybody.” But she did say that the paper had been free to tell their story without preconditions: “They made their own decisions on that front.”
So Bercovici asked a Times spokeswoman, who said that “we do not comment on the process of editing and reporting including who was and was not contacted for interviews related to a specific story. The Vows/Wedding column adheres to the standards of the Times.”
Bercovici kept digging, and reached Riddell’s ex-husband, media executive Bob Ennis. Ennis said he hadn’t been contacted, and then lowered the boom on his ex and the Times. “The primary story here is not that interesting. People lie and cheat and steal all the time. That’s a fact of life. But rarely does a national news organization give them an unverified megaphone to whitewash it.” Ennis said he didn’t expect the Times to fact-check a style story, but added that “there’s a difference between that and publishing a choreographed, self-serving piece of revisionist history for two people who are both members of the media industry.”
Ennis was absolutely right — and the Times spokeswoman, asked to answer for the paper’s reporting, did the Times no favors by climbing atop a high horse and delivering a statement that only things made worse. The Times’ response reminded me of Cody Brown’s “magic journalism box,” an opaque structure inside which sources, information and everything else get turned into a finished newspaper story. With this model, Brown notes, a paper develops its brand “as the voice of god. … The community does not own the paper, an average person has little ability to influence it and because of this the paper is under constant scrutiny. … When they drop a story, it is designed to be read as fact.”
The problem with that opaque box, as Brown notes, is that it invites constant scrutiny — and when “newspapers publish something wrong, it doesn’t take more than a few careless edits for a newspaper brand to fall to pieces.” And in recent years, of course, the Times has had a couple of disasters emerge from its opaque box, leading to internal turmoil and giving its critics ample ammunition.
But you sure don’t see any evidence of lessons learned in how the paper handled this particular mess. The Times spokeswoman’s response is voice-of-god stuff — it’s not exactly illuminating (bad) and reveals this particular god as somewhat less than infallible (worse). For the Times clearly didn’t adhere to its own standards, telling one side of a painful story that obviously had another. Worse, it opened itself to charges that the story existed because a member of the media was doing a favor for another member of the media, as Ennis insinuated.
So what are the lessons here? I see three:
1. Innovation isn’t everything: Many commenters remarked that they expected feel-good stories from Vows. This is the kind of reader mindset that drives newspaper editors crazy, and often leads to ill-advised attempts to shake things up. (Ask anybody who’s ever tried to improve the comics page by turfing out ancient, boring strips. Beware the wrath of Mark Trail fans!) Yes, the newspaper’s job includes giving readers spinach to eat — but don’t try to get readers to eat it by mixing it into their ice cream. Familiar routines and comforting features are an important part of serving readers, too.
2. If you start open, stay open: The Times took the rare step of allowing comments on the Riddell/Partilla Vows column — but then closed them after about 24 hours, with the torch-wielding mob still in full cry. That looks like a second-guess. Think twice about changing course, and if you do so, explain why you’re doing it.
3. Remember that readers assume the worst: It’s an unhappy truth of journalism that in the absence of information, readers assume conspiracies, bias and agendas. The magic journalism box does us no favors here, allowing readers to imagine all sorts of malfeasance taking place out of their view. If they could see more of what actually occurs (within the bounds of propriety and responsibility to sources), I think we’d look far better than we do — readers would see that most reporters try to represent subjects and people fairly, and have a better understanding of why some sources aren’t identified. Rather than the opaque magic journalism box, give readers the marvelous journalism box, which is clear except for a few small areas shielded from view, with explanations for why those places are out of bounds.
When mistakes are made, this level of openness would give readers a better understanding of what went wrong, and let them see how often things went right. Is Ennis right that the Riddell/Partilla Vows column was a product of media ties? I’d like to think he isn’t, but the Times spokeswoman’s stonewalling response sure didn’t reassure me.