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You Can't Be An Insider and a Journalist

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and book critic Janet Maslin  - peoplewhowrite

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and book critic Janet Maslin

Or can you? Journalists require inside access / inside sources to get to the truth of a story, but going too deep inside can compromise objectivity if real care isn’t taken.

It’s been interesting to watch the appearance of compromised journalism unfold via the Dylan Farrow / Woody Allen child abuse coverage. I’ve been keeping up with the dueling op-eds, think pieces, and many of the articles that sparked or responded to them, and personal connections seem to have played an inordinate role in where and how the story has come out.

The New York Times in particular has become a media focal point of this contentious family drama, with different members of the organization appearing to take sides. Columnist Nicholas Kristof basically admitted he’s Team Mia. At the beginning of this month, Kristof gave his New York Times‘ op-ed space to Dylan Farrow to have her say about what happened 21 years ago, in her own words. This, after the New York Times editorial department declined to run the letter.

In the preamble to Dylan’s open letter, Kristof didn’t hide his close relationship to the story: “(Full disclosure: I am a friend of her mother, Mia, and brother Ronan, and that’s how Dylan got in touch with me.) …I reached out to Allen several days ago, and he declined to comment on the record.”

In response, the Times’ opinion section chose to run Woody Allen’s rebuttal. Then New York Times book critic Janet Maslin weighed in, indicating “a friend very close to the story” had given her the impression Dylan Farrow was only speaking out because she wanted attention. She was also quoted as asking a reporter who later asked her about her comments: “Please do not write about what I said in there.”

To be fair, all the Times coverage has been in the opinion / editorial pages, but these particular opinion pieces are not, on their face, about wider issues of child sex abuse, divorce, adoption, or family drama. They are highly personal and specific stories that were co-opted into these sections of the paper because they are not journalism, but blog posts.

From the very beginning of this sad family saga, reports have allegedly been filtered through conflict-of-interest connections. Maureen Orth’s 1992 Vanity Fair feature called out the New York Post and New York Daily News reporters that contributed reporting to the case: “Particularly vicious were the tabloid Hamill brothers, Pete in the New York Post and Denis in the New York Daily News, whose brother Brian has worked for Woody as a still photographer on 17 movies.” 

Meanwhile, The Guardian has questioned the motive behind Orth’s past and recent profile of Mia Farrow and her children — “Momma Mia” — calling the journalist “a long-time friend” of Mia Farrow’s and accusing her of “spin for the Farrow family.” Orth firmly debunked the insinuation, forcing The Guardian to retract.

It seems Dylan Farrow’s allegations have exposed not only her adopted father to scrutiny about the abuse, but the nepotism that powers some aspects of journalism too.

Last April,  New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out that author Nathaniel Rich, son of NYT columnist Frank Rich, had been “reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list. Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families.”

When Sullivan asked Theater and Books Editor why certain authors enjoy multiple coverage, Heller admitted, “In the best of all worlds, it would be healthiest to spread the attention around… There are so many deserving writers out there, and it sends a wrong signal.” However, the piece concluded, Heller feels the system “seems to work.”

At what point does a journalist have to recuse herself/himself from a story because the subject is too close to home? When does an editor step in and say, ‘Sorry, but you can’t write this piece about your son/friend/brother’s boss because you might be just a little bit biased?’ or ‘Why don’t you create a WordPress account and post this on your blog?’ Both Dylan and Woody knew what it would mean to have a newspaper with the New York Times‘ reputation for excellent, impartial journalism running their side of the story, even if it was in the opinion section. 

I miss the days when I at least thought I was getting impartial news — when I was given the opportunity to make up my own mind. In what is now the adolescence of the blogosphere and cable news, news that’s heavily filtered through bias and opinion has become the norm, for better or worse. 

On a recent episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, actor Stephen Merchant half-joked to Maher, “I never quite know where to go to in America for my news sources. I watch [Real Time], but obviously you’re a deeply biased man…” He added, “I think Fox News is presumably a spoof.” 

Truthfully, it’s all going the way of spoof.  Entertaining? Usually. Informative? I can’t tell. 

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