Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dowd's Dateline: Rosenthal's Rebuttal

The low key buzz over the Dowd Dateline Debate reached such a hum that Andy Rosenthal gave an interview to the New York Observer to clarify New York Times policy on datelines and assistants.

“It’s driving me out of my fucking mind,” Times editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal told Media Mob this afternoon.

"[Dowd] reported the column in New Hamsphire. The fact of the matter is, paticularly when covering a campaign which is a very high-speed story, it’s incredibly unusual for the reporter to be in the same place as the dateline when the story is filed. What do you do, stay in Des Moines while a candidate travels to New Hampshire? Oh, don’t go to Ramallah with the President because you have a Jerusalem dateline on your story! I mean this is just ridiculous! This is a complete invention, this controversy."

"Datelines are kind of an anachronism," he said. "It’s a little bit of an affectation."

As for the assistant, Mr. Rosenthal said it's common for assistants to collect quotes for columnists without a reporting credit.

"Has Greg Sargent ever heard of leg-work? If somebody wrote a blog post saying that all the reporters from the New York Times are Martians, would we have to respond to that too? This is no less ridiculous. It’s just ridiculous!"
This expletive-laden explanation did not assuage Sargent who stuck to his guns in a follow-up:
This is a straightforward representation issue. Because of the combo of the dateline and the uncredited reporting, readers of the Dowd column came away with the belief that she went to the victory party and talked to voters, when she didn't.
Rachel Sklar at Huffington Post gives datelines some mystical holy power:
What does the reader assume by seeing "DERRY N.H." in all caps and bold type at the top of the column? Well, obviously, that the story was written there, that the reporter had written his or her thoughts right at the scene. And why are datelines important? Well, for one they maximize information provided to the reader, but there's another: The dateline puts the reporter at the scene, which makes a statement about the publication's resources, level of reporting, and commitment to the story. Upshot: Datelines are selling points. So a misleading, not-quite-correct dateline is a bit like false advertising.
In Sklar’s mind, somehow news magically disappears if not written down immediately as it is witnessed. But in expressing umbrage, she manages to explain that the Derry dateline means that Dowd isn’t claiming she was at the victory party.
She mentions Hillary's victory party in Manchester (where apparently an assistant collected the quotes used), and herself watching Hillary's on-air tear-up on TV from the comfort of her office. She refers to an event in Salem, to Bill Clinton in Henniker. Otherwise, that's it. Derry is not mentioned.
The bigger point is that if Dowd wanted to lie about where she had been, why not name someplace more newsworthy? If anything Maureen was scrupulously honest about where she had been and where she hadn’t. And Adam Clymer, a former NYT political reporter tells the Observer that this sacred ground interpretation of a dateline is horsefeathers:
Oh, for crying out loud! The Times dateline rules are that you have had to have been in the place you use as a dateline, not that you have to be in it when you write. There is no evidence at all that the rules were not followed.
The real journalists, as opposed to the easily outraged bloggers, seem to be taking Dowd's side. Mike Peterson editor of the Franklin Journal in a comment at journalism oriented Poynter Online takes the side of Dowd by saying:
Maybe it's just the impact after a long week in the trenches, but this entire thing sounds like a lot of j-school theorizing and reminds me of that crack about an economist being like a guy who knows a hundred ways to make love, but doesn't have a girlfriend. As far as I can tell, Dowd spent some time in NH and, yes, she had a stringer pick up some quotes for her. That justifies the dateline but doesn't require sharing the byline and, as your fifth grade teacher would say, maybe if you spent less time worrying about what Maureen is doing and a little more time working on your own projects, you could have a nice trip to Jerusalem, too.
With all this huffing and puffing, a couple of points are agreed upon:
  • The New York Times admits to everything Sargent’s sources claimed, but fails to see any violation of policy or reader trust.
  • Everybody thinks datelines are kind of silly in an electronic world, but if you’re going to have them, make them mean something.
  • Nothing in the column was factually incorrect or fabricated.
  • A lot of people like to see Maureen Dowd and/or the New York Times taken down a notch no matter how petty the point.
I wish people would expend this much scrutiny on real scandals.

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