Monday, April 13, 2009

Merkin Op-Ed Shows Why Public Editors Matter More Than Ever

Clark Hoyt Slams Times Op-Ed Page for Less-than-Full Disclosure on Madoff Piece

Public Editor. Readers' Representative. Ombudsman.
Whatever the title, it's one that has been gradually disappearing from newspapers, as a convenient way to cost-cut.
And that the membership rolls of the Organization of Newspaper Ombudsmen continues to shrink cannot be a good thing, as yesterday's column by New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (above) showed us.

Hoyt excoriated the Op-Ed editors for a March 21 piece by frequent Times contributor Daphne Merkin about the Bernard Madoff scandal. The fifth paragraph begins:
"What Mr. Madoff brought to the table, I think, was a sense of mishpocha, of being part of an extended family, but one you carefully chose rather than being arbitrarily born into," and then parenthetically mentions: (I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him.)"
And the winner for understatement of the year is....

As Hoyt and other readers have pointed out, that sibling is none other than Ezra Merkin, a prominent money man who funneled more than $2 billion of his clients' money to Madoff and collected $470 million in fees. Merkin has not been charged with any crime, but is being sued by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for civil fraud.
And yet Daphne Merkin -- with the approval of her editors -- was allowed to essentially skip past that mess. While what she wrote is true, Hoyt notes, it's "about as forthcoming as saying that Milton Eisenhower had a sibling in the United States Army in World War II."
The wording was meekly defended by Op-Ed editor David Shipley, who had sought out Merkin for the piece. Merkin obviously -- and perhaps correctly -- didn't want it to be about her brother. Still, you can't ignore the $2 billion gorilla in the room. And that's essentially what the Times did, and which Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal essentially admitted to Hoyt was an error.
At a time when newspapers are teetering on the brink of oblivion, the last think they can risk is their credibility. They need to be held accountable, just like they do to the public officials and scoundrels who run or ruin our lives.
Ombudsmen can only make newspapers better. And when more readers and advertisers are deciding whether to abandon them for good, newspapers need to be at their best. The Clark Hoyts of this world are the best insurance for achieving that goal.

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