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August 18, 2005
Air America: Garbo Gray Lady Speaks Again!

After apparently receiving a number of e-mails and letters regarding the New York Times' almost-total noncoverage of the Air America/Gloria Wise funding scandal, the public editor has published a response on his forum. Byron Calame, who recently took over the position from the Times' first ombudsman Daniel Okrent, acknowledges that the Times has not kept up with the story -- but blames disorganization rather than bias:

Readers of The Times were poorly served by the paper's slowness to cover official investigations into questionable financial transactions involving Air America, the liberal radio network. The Times's first article on the investigations finally appeared last Friday after weeks of articles by other newspapers in New York and elsewhere. ...

"We were slow in the first place and need to do more," Rick Berke, an associate managing editor at The Times, told me Monday. While it's no excuse for such a belated response to the brewing scandal, it's true that pieces of the unfolding story fell in the domains of three different parts of the newsroom: the metropolitan desk, the business desk and the culture desk. There was, my inquiries suggest, a lack of coordination and awareness of what the paper's competitors across town were writing.

I don't want to do a complete fisking of Calame's statement, because he mostly admits that the Times has dropped the ball on Air America. I also think that the Times has done a pretty good job so far on Able Danger, which may not have the same level of fun that the Air America story has but means a lot more to American security.

However, a couple of statements in here need serious challenge. Calame asserts that this story is still unfolding, as a weak rejoinder as to why the coverage has been somewhat less than extensive. Perhaps the story is still in motion, but that's due to the coverage given to it by other people -- reporters like David Lombino at the Sun, and bloggers like Michelle Malkin and Brian Maloney. Newspapers used to cover stories in motion, not wait for them to come to a screeching halt and issue meaningless post-mortems.

Calame also wants us to dismiss the notion that a left-wing bias has affected their attention to the scandal. He asserts that "conservative bloggers" have inspired that analysis, but that their attention really got diverted by the fractionalization of data across three different beats in the newsroom. Calame himself, however, demonstrates the silliness of that excuse in his defense of the coverage:

The Times's recent slowness stands in contrast to its flurry of articles about Air America in the spring of 2004, when the network was launched. "Liberal Voices (Some Sharp) Get New Home on Radio Dial," read the headline on The Times's article the morning of March 31 when the network went on the air. The article noted that the network had a staff headlined by comedian Al Franken and hopes of establishing a counterpoint to conservative radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh.

Two months later, The Times reported that the network had come close to running out of money in April but had received an infusion of an undisclosed amount of cash from sources that weren't identified. The article noted that Evan M. Cohen, a primary early backer and the chairman of the network, had resigned.

Yet The Times was silent as other publications reported that city and state investigators were looking into whether the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx had made improper loans of as much as $875,000 to Air America. Mr. Cohen, it turned out, had served simultaneously as a top executive at Air America and as the club's development director. And since the club operated largely with grants from government sources, any money passed to Air America may have come from the public till.

Calame has a case of modesty. A search of the phrase "Air America" since January 2003 results in 64 matches, only two of which relate to the scandal, and one of those is a correction of the other. The New York Times had the resources to coordinate information on 62 other Air America stories, almost all of them positive public-relations stories about the startup and the personalities involved in Air America and its programming. Obviously, the news desk had no issues pulling together across the beats to produce those stories, and yet when it came to looking at a scandal involving a corporation dedicated to broadcasting a liberal message, the Times suddenly became The Gang That Couldn't E-Mail Straight? That explanation beggars belief.

If the Times wants us to believe that it objectively reports the news, especially that which occurs in its own back yard, then we expect to see some in-depth coverage of the apparent fraud involving Piquant Media, Progress Media, Air America, and Gloria Wise, and not just a bloodless regurgitation of facts already well known to anyone with an Internet connection. Blaming conservative bloggers for their poor reputation after sitting on this story for three weeks demonstrates that the Times doesn't hold a very high opinion of its readers or itself.

UPDATE: Bruce Kesler has a better experience with his local ombudsman, who understands that the straightforward approach works much better.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at August 18, 2005 12:00 PM

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