January 24, 2004


In response to complaints about Maureen Dowd's poodles 'n' lackeys column, the NYT's Arthur Bovino is sending this form email:

Thank you for your message.

Unless there's evidence of ethical misbehavior of factual error, individual columnists can say what they want to say and individual readers can like the ones they like and dislike the ones they don't like.

Please email us with your concerns on any specific articles with which you take issue.

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Which would be fair enough, except we know that individual columnists at the NYT can't "say what they want to say". This is Spectator editor Boris Johnson's account of events following his submission of a column (requested by the NYT) last year:

'Boris,' said [NY Times op-ed editor] Tobin, 'we love it! Everybody loves it. But we have, uh, a few issues of political correctness that I have to go through with you' ... he said that he had made a change to a sentence about donations of U.S. overseas aid to key members of the UN Security Council. I had said something to the effect that you don't make international law by giving new squash courts to the President of Guinea. This now read 'the President of Chile.' Come again? I said. Qué?

'Uh, Boris,' said Tobin, 'it's just easier in principle if we don't say anything deprecatory about a black African country, and since Guinea and Chile are both members of the UN Security Council, and since it doesn't affect your point, we would like to say Chile' ...

That was nothing, however, to the trouble I had with a sentence about the aftermath of the war.

I was trying to explain that so many people, in the commentariat and in the saloon bars, had invested so much emotional and intellectual capital in the anti-war cause that in a perverse way they would be hoping for disaster. To illustrate the point, I noted that the last Gulf war had been so amazingly free of casualties that Gulf war syndrome (a stochastically unexceptional ragbag of symptoms) had been invented to fill the void, and to satisfy the yearning of the anti-war brigade for catastrophe.

'We just cannot say this,' said Tobin.

So ... columnists at the NYT can say what they want to say about Australia and England and other US allies, but can’t say what they want to say they about black African countries and Gulf War syndrome. Perhaps Mr. Bovino would care to explain.

UPDATE. Judith Weiss has other examples of the NYT not allowing opinion writers to say what they want to say.

Posted by Tim Blair at January 24, 2004 04:27 PM

I'd like to help Boris, but it would be like pissing into a volcano.

Posted by: Dylan at January 24, 2004 at 05:20 PM

I think it means FU.

Posted by: Timothy Lang at January 24, 2004 at 05:35 PM

I can say what I want to say too. I want a job at the NYT.

*sets about his first column*

... PLASTIC TURKEY!!!!!!!!!111

Posted by: Sortelli at January 24, 2004 at 05:54 PM

What the heck is "Office of the Public Editor"??

That alone guarantees the "automaton" response.

Posted by: mike at January 24, 2004 at 06:25 PM

Well there is something that really upsets me, even before I care to know if the columnists at the NYT can write what they want (No, I'm not surprised to learn that they can't unless their name starts with Maureen and end with Dowd)

What buggers me is that bit of Arty's answer: "Unless there's evidence of ethical misbehavior of factual error, individual columnists can say what they want to say (...)

What does that mean Arty? That the Brits, the Aussies, the Poles (et caetera, et caetera, et cae-goddamn-tera) truly are "poodles 'n' lackeys" as Maureeeeeeeen says?

Or does it mean that Arty needs "evidences" that they are not?

That is indeed one of the very few occasions where I am quite satisfied to be French. For if I was a Brit, an Aussie or a Pole (et caetera), I would be pretty inclined to kick some Arty and Maureen bottoms now. Lackey or not.

Posted by: the dissident frogman at January 24, 2004 at 07:31 PM


1. Read the first clause of that sentence:

"Unless there's evidence of ethical misbehavior of factual error..."

Does that even make sense from a grammar point of view? It seems that only a person could commit "ethical misbehavior" yet they are saying "factual error" would need to be committing "ethical misbehavior", right? WTF??!!??

2. Or is the NYT trying to say that (a) there must be factual error, (b) the columnist misbehaved unethically when using that factual error, and (c) there must be evidence of both (a) and (b)?

Posted by: David Crawford at January 24, 2004 at 08:19 PM

Thank you for your . . . ethical misbehavior . . . individual columnists can . . . email . . . your concerns . . . with which you take issue.

Meh. That was disappointingly hard to Dowdify.

Posted by: Sortelli at January 24, 2004 at 08:48 PM

Lets see what response I get to the below I sent back to our mate Arthur!

Dear Mr Bovino,

In response to your reply, I would like to point out that the countries that did indeed form the coalition, were staffed with human beings, rather than poodles. So in that spirit of evidencing "ethical misbehaviour of factual error", yes, I would like this factual error rectified, and I look forward to seeing Maureen Dowd or the New York Times print such a correction.


Posted by: Dave at January 24, 2004 at 08:59 PM

"... the countries that did indeed form the coalition, were staffed with ... poodles ... I ... like this"

Good luck getting a response from Bovino that doesn't amount to "stop picking on us" ;)

Posted by: Sortelli at January 24, 2004 at 09:11 PM

Spam. Yay.

Posted by: dazed at January 24, 2004 at 11:54 PM

...there's evidence of ethical misbehavior... individual columnists... dislike... you...

Posted by: Jim Treacher at January 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Um... so he's saying they'll actually correct Dowd's factual errors, in the unlikely event that she ever makes one? Like chopping up a quote from the president?

Maybe they're still working on whether that counted as error or ethical misbehavior.

Posted by: Mike G at January 25, 2004 at 12:10 AM

Dowd is wrong about poodles too. Thurber writes somewhere of one that had had a litter under a barn floor, and how his (grand?)daughter had shown up with bite marks, just bitten hard enough, but no harder, to say that puppies were not a toy. I can't find the story. Perhaps it was a letter. Perhaps a bad example too. They'd put the dog down today. It was canine excellence then.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at January 25, 2004 at 12:58 AM

"individual columnists can say what they want to say"

That's not true, Jayson Blair got sacked from the NYT for saying what he wanted to.

Posted by: Arty at January 25, 2004 at 12:59 AM

Arthur, Arthur Bovino, Banana Fana Fovino, Fee Fi Movino.


Posted by: goldsmith at January 25, 2004 at 01:03 AM

Too bad us lackey-fied sons and daughters of poodles are simply unable to grasp the higher truths represented by the NYT, MoDo, etc. The problem is that we keep on clutching simple truth, justice and the American (Brit, Aussie, etc. etc. etc) way. Woe is us!

Posted by: Dean Douthat at January 25, 2004 at 01:12 AM

Well, in response to Maureen Dowd's crappy, inaccurate columns in general, and the one where she characterizes Britain, Australia, Poland, and the like as poodles and lapdogs in particular, I would like to say that the New York Times is below the Weekly World News in my opinion of truthfulness and veracity.

May I be damned to hell if I ever buy the NY Times again.

Posted by: ushie at January 25, 2004 at 02:14 AM

How about:

[T]here's evidence of ethical misbehavior... , ...individual readers...dislike...us.

David Crawford, I think that's supposed to be an "or": "ethical misbehavior OR factual error". Calm down. Although it does mean that the public editor needs an editor.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at January 25, 2004 at 03:37 AM

Hey, the Weekly World News is on our side! Remember killer bees? Who can forget the WWN Killer Trees, escaped from a lab in Brazil, working their way north? They were chiefly a threat to the old and infants because these could not get out of the way fast enough. Then there was the Brazilian Needle Bird that gave you a poisonous injection, also working their way north. World's smallest whales! pic: small whales in 10 gal aquarium.

They're best a little after Spring Break, when an inrush of interns provides ideas.

Ed Anger has gotten tiresome; he's sort of their Maureen Dowd. I assume he's still there.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at January 25, 2004 at 05:45 AM

Best Weekly World News headline I remember was from last spring. Something like "Saddam Offered Sanctuary in France, Will Become French Ambassador to US"

Posted by: Timothy Lang at January 25, 2004 at 07:45 AM

In a column a while back, Ed Anger offered Jayson Blair a position at the Weekly World News after leaving the NYT - though he cautioned Blair that 'we don't just publish anything at the Weekly World News' and that they had a responsibility to uphold 'journalistic standards of research'. Or words to that effect...

Posted by: TimT at January 25, 2004 at 10:28 AM

If you think that's bad, read about international human rights lawyer Anne Bayefsky's battle with the NYTimes over an op-ed she wrote.

It went far beyond PC.

Posted by: Yehudit at January 25, 2004 at 10:42 AM

Here's yet another example of the Times riding roughshod over someone's op-ed.

Posted by: Yehudit at January 25, 2004 at 11:13 AM

Hey, I didn't get quite the same form letter!

Dear Ushbeti@aol.com,

The opinion columns are governed by different rules than the news pages. In fact, the guidelines are very, very broad -- the Times doesn't allow obscenity, nor does it countenance libelous material. But opinion writers are, in fact, allowed to express their opinions.
Nonetheless, I do feel that the issue is a substantive one, and will look further into it as I get more comfortable in this difficult job.

Yours sincerely,

Daniel Okrent
Public Editor
Daniel Okrent
Public Editor
N.B.: Any opinions expressed here, unless otherwise indicated, are solely my own

Posted by: ushie at January 26, 2004 at 02:43 AM