November 2004

When Journalistic Misfeasance Becomes Felony

by Louis Torres

Journalistic misfeasance that results from what one might broadly consider working conditions may be explainable, but it isn't excusable. And misfeasance becomes felony when the presentation of the news is corrupted by bias, willful manipulation of evidence, unacknowledged conflict of interest--or by a self-protective unwillingness to admit error. -- Daniel Okrent

Attempting to persuade the New York Times to rectify the postmodernist bias of its arts coverage has long been a frustrating endeavor--a largely futile one, it seemed, until Daniel Okrent was appointed Public Editor [1] late last year. Suddenly, readers were given unprecedented access to an ombudsman who vowed to keep reporters, critics, and editors honest--at least until his limited tenure, and perhaps the office itself, ends on May 29, 2005. When Okrent made his debut late last year, he declared ("An Advocate for Times Readers Introduces Himself") that his only concern would be "dispassionate evaluation," and that his only colleagues would be "readers who turn to The Times for their news, expect it to be fair, honest and complete, and are willing to trust another such reader--[him]--as their surrogate." It was an auspicious beginning. Having railed time and again at the paper's art critics for their unthinking acceptance of the notion that virtually anything is art simply because the artworld declares it to be, I hoped Okrent would agree that in journalism such defiance of objectivity--not to mention common sense--"becomes felony," as does the Times's critical bias against classically trained sculptors and painters.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Designed by . . .

The subject of my first appeal to Okrent was one that has long troubled me--misrepresentations of who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C., and as a corollary, what it comprises. Throughout its more than two-decade history, writers at the Times (as elsewhere) have misleadingly referred to it as the sole work of Maya Lin--who, in fact, designed only the wall bearing the inscribed names of the dead and missing, not the composite memorial that eventually evolved. Unmentioned in all these accounts are bronze figurative works by two of America's most accomplished sculptors--the late Frederick Hart's Three Soldiers (honoring those who fought in Vietnam and survived, often at a terrible price) and Glenna Goodacre's Vietnam Women's Memorial (commemorating nurses who served in the war).

Debate over the proposed World Trade Center memorial in lower Manhattan early this year generated a spate of new references to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A series of articles by David W. Dunlap and Glenn Collins on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center--"How Greening of Design Swayed Memorial Jury," "Unveiling of Memorial Reveals a Wealth of New Details," and "The 9/11 Memorial: How Pluribus Became Unum"--referred repeatedly to Lin as the sole designer of the Vietnam memorial. The last of these prompted my first letter to Okrent, in which I cited not only these three articles but also a piece published soon after, by Herbert Muschamp (then the Times's architecture critic)--"Strong Depth of Emotion and No Frills in 2 Footprints." Muschamp praised the "effect . . . achieved by Maya Lin in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its reflective surfaces of dark, polished stone," and referred to the memorial as "Maya Lin's masterpiece." Ironically, as I noted in my letter, two years earlier the Times had published a letter from Aristos co-editor Michelle Kamhi and me, objecting to the fact that that in an article entitled "Out of Minimalism, Monuments to Memory," chief art critic Michael Kimmelman had referred no fewer than four times to the memorial as being by Lin--who was an architecture student when she designed the wall, and is now both an architect and an "environmental sculptor." We pointed out that only the wall (considered a "Minimalist sculpture" by Kimmelman and other critics) was by her, and that the other part consisted of Hart's Three Soldiers (regrettably, we neglected to mention Goodacre's sculpture). As I informed Okrent, the true story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is told on the National Park Service's official website, which properly credits Lin [more] [more] [more] [more], Hart [more] [more] [more] [more] [more]--also known for the splendid Creation Sculptures on the west facade of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.--and Goodacre [more] [more] [more].

I concluded my letter by quoting Okrent's observation about "journalistic misfeasance,"and arguing that ignoring evidence was as blameworthy as the "manipulation of evidence." I further suggested that bias had been a factor in both Kimmelman's reporting and the editorial decision to delete criticism of him from the published version of our letter. I also pointed to the misfeasance of the Times in failing to direct its writers to honor the facts regarding the memorial.

Not long after, I heard from Okrent's associate, Arthur Bovino, who relayed a response he had received from Dunlap. Reflecting the sort of integrity one expects from newspaper reporters, Dunlap [2] stated that "in the interest of fairness and accuracy" in his own reporting he would try to remember that Lin's role in the memorial was limited to designing The Wall. Ironically, that very day, the Times published an article by culture critic Edward Rothstein ("What Should a City Be?") referring to "Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington"--though he, like Muschamp and Kimmelman, undoubtedly knows better.

A subsequent letter to Bovino citing Rothstein, Muschamp, and Kimmelman yielded only a response from Muschamp, the architecture critic, who claimed that in using variations of the phrase "Viet Nam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin," he was referring "only to the original portion of the memorial" designed by her--"not to the subsequent portions added by others that were not part of Ms. Lin's original design." That is sheer nonsense. Words have meaning, and Muschamp cannot properly use the name of the whole to refer to just one of its parts, which is why no reader would grasp his alleged intent. As for Rothstein and Kimmelman, neither deigned to respond at all it seems.

Classification Chaos

A more substantial matter than that of the Times's misrepresentations of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is its practice of publishing articles and reviews having nothing to do with art or the arts on the front page (often above the fold) of its daily section entitled "The Arts." While writing What Art Is, Kamhi and I had compiled a file of such instances, which formed the basis for Appendix C of the book, to which we have continued to add examples in What Art Is Online. In June, I wrote to Okrent once again, referring to that list, and stressing that the "Arts" section of the Times regularly features coverage of non-fiction books, television programs, and documentary films--on politics, sports, business, science, medicine, celebrity figures, and other matters unrelated to the arts. Suggesting that such pieces belong in other sections of the paper, I cited recent examples, ranging from "My Name is the Big Book. My Future is Open" (about a Sotheby auction of "the master annotated draft of 'Alcoholics Anonymous'") and "Good Grief: The Appeal of Public Sorrow" (on the death of President Reagan and "the makeshift . . . shrines [that] keep popping up") to "And You Thought It Was Just a Ballgame" (a review of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do) and "Salvaging Jewish Heritage in China, Block by Block" (about the restoration of buildings in the old Jewish ghetto of Shanghai). Surely, I thought, he would agree that these had nothing to do with the arts.

I urged Okrent to bring my complaint to the attention of the appropriate editors, and said that I looked forward to the day when the Times would cease publishing on the front page of its "Arts" section, articles on such topics as child molestation, Muhammad Ali, Hitler, and the tragedy of cystic fibrosis. Bovino again responded, albeit unsatisfactorily this time. Purporting to speak for both of us, he said that he was afraid that we were going to "have to agree to disagree" regarding this matter--he did not "see anything wrong with the placement" of the pieces I had cited, but had nonetheless "noted [my] disapproval" to Okrent. Regrettably, it seems that neither the culture editor nor the executive editor of the paper had been asked to consider the matter. Most disappointing, Okrent apparently agreed with Bovino, as I received no further word.

Would Okrent find "nothing wrong" if the Times were to publish music reviews in the Sports section, say, or articles about hostilities in Iraq on the front page of the Real Estate or Travel sections? Of course not--which means that there is, in effect, a double standard at play. While the definition of "sports," "real estate," "travel," are objectively fixed, that of "art" is regarded as open-ended, perhaps not as important, and therefore left to the whim of the paper's culture and arts editors.

1. The first time you visit the New York Times website, you must register, but can request that you not be sent any e-mail by the Times or any third party. For most articles, access is free within a week of the publication date, but for some (such as the Public Editor's page linked to above) such access seems indefinite.

2. Dunlap is not an arts critic. He writes on architecture and design, real-estate development, landmarks, and urban history for the Times and is also a photographer and author. His most recent book is From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan's Houses of Worship, published this year.