Lying by silence

SEE UPDATE AND RETRACTION BELOW

Kevin Drum posts a truly bizarre dialogue between one of his readers and the office of the “Public Editor” (ombudsman) at the New York Times.

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To: NYT Public Editor

According to Ron Suskind, “For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference.”

Can you confirm or deny this practice? If it is true, do you feel that the press should inform the public that the press conferences are scripted? This would appear to be a betrayal of the public’s trust.

To: Tony W

Dear Mr. W—,

I’m fairly certain that two reporters at the press conference asked unscripted questions.

Sincerely,

Arthur Bovino

Office of the Public Edtior

To: NYT Public Editor

Thank you for your quick reply.

Only two? Was the NYT reporter’s question scripted?

To: Tony W

Dear Mr. W—,

I am uncertain if Ms. Bumiller’s question was submitted to the president before-hand.

Perhaps you might write to the president if you are unhappy with this system.

Sincerely,

Arthur Bovino

Office of the Public Editor

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Am I missing something here? If the White House wants to give scripted press conferences and pretend that they’re unscripted, why does the New York Times (along with everyone else in the mainstream press) go along with the sham?

How hard would it be to write, in about the second graf, “The President, taking primarily questions submitted in advance, ….”

The practice as described — reporting on a scripted press conference as if it were a normal, unscripted press conference — strikes me as a very serious form of journalistic misconduct. It makes the reporter and the editor complicit with the President in the deception of their readers. Not really much different from fabricating quotes.

Again, this isn’t specific to the Times. But having acknowledged its institutional knowledge of what’s actually going on, the Times can’t now duck the question of what to do about it.

Update Now things get really weird. Elisabeth Bumiller, who represented the NYT at the press-conference, wrote a thumb-sucker the following Sunday that explicitly denies any pre-screening:

As it was, Mr. Bush’s 17-minute opening statement was nearly as long as a presidential address, meaning that in the end the White House maneuvered to get him much of the speech he wanted. Even so, Mr. Bush answered questions for another 44 minutes. He had prepared for the session in a final one-hour rehearsal earlier the same day, when his advisers threw the questions at him that they expected from the press.

Reporters do not submit questions to the White House beforehand, but administration officials have a good idea of what’s coming from the questions reporters ask at the daily press briefings. “For the most part, we got all the subject matter,” Mr. Bartlett said. He added that the president dislikes East Room news conferences not because he is afraid to answer questions, but because of the “pomp and circumstance” and what Mr. Bush considers the “peacocking” of reporters. [Emphasis added]

So what’s the story here? I’m hoping to hear more from Daniel Okrent, Mr. Bovino’s boss. (My letter to him is posted on The American Street. You can write him at dokrent@nytimes.com .

Update and retraction Josh Marshall has checked this with his White House correspondent buddies and says it’s b.s. Kevin Drum relays a flat denial from the NYT Public Editor. That ought to settle it. It leaves unexplained Bovino’s claim that “at least two” questions weren’t scripted, and his refusal to vouch for Bumiller’s. (On the other hand, it answers Kevin’s original question: If the questions are scripted, why aren’t the answers better?)

In any case, I seem to have grabbed this one by the wrong end. My apologies to the Times and the rest of the mainsteam media for rushing to believe something I’m delighted to learn wasn’t true.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com