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Having Won a Pulitzer for Exposing Data Mining, Times Now Eager to Do Its Own Data Mining

Barely a year after their reporters won a Pulitzer prize for exposing data mining of ordinary citizens by a government spy agency, New York Times officials had some exciting news for stockholders last week: The Times company plans to do its own data mining of ordinary citizens, in the name of online profits.

The news didn’t make everyone all googly-eyed. In fact, some people at the paper’s annual stockholders meeting in the New Amsterdam Theatre exchanged confused looks when Janet Robinson, the company’s president and CEO, uttered the phrase “data mining.” Wasn’t that the nefarious, 21st-century sort of snooping that the National Security Agency was doing without warrants on American citizens? Wasn’t that the whole subject of the prizewinning work in December 2005 by Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and James Risen?

And hadn’t the company’s chairman and publisher, Pinch Sulzberger, already trotted out Pulitzers earlier in the program?

Yes, yes, and yes. But Robinson was talking about money this time. Data mining, she told the crowd, would be used “to determine hidden patterns of uses to our website.” This was just one of the many futuristic projects in the works by the newspaper company’s research and development department. Heck, she added, the R&D department, when it was founded several years back, was “a concept unique in the industry.”

These days, of course, all media outlets—not just the Times—are trying to bulk up their online presence, and many are desperately attempting to learn more about their readers’ habits and then target ads to them. The old-line newspaper companies in particular are under immense pressure to figure out how to make double-digit leaps in profits annually—something they didn’t have to worry about doing before websites spirited away huge chunks of newspapers’ classified advertisers.

Not that anyone would confuse an old-line media company like the Times with a modern data expert like Google, but Sulzberger himself made kind of a comparison earlier in the stockholders’ meeting. Morgan Stanley and other investors have ragged on the Times for having a two-tiered stock structure that protects the powerful voting shares from falling into the “wrong” hands. Sulzberger reminded the crowd that Google stock, that most coveted of Wall Street delicacies, also comes in two tiers.

But that’s business. Do readers really want data-mining behavior from their newspapers—not just the Times but every other big media outlet? Do they want newspaper databases to store reading histories, minute by minute, until one day the government shows up to examine ordinary citizens’ shopping and viewing and chatting habits in detail? If you think it can’t happen, ask the librarians who’ve been told to hand over readers’ checkout records under the Patriot Act.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, agrees that the prospect of a media-compiled reader-habit database is worrisome.

“My concern is, what happens when the government comes in and subpoenas it?” he says. “It’s bad news to keep long, deep storehouses of information about how people use the Internet.”

Harper notes that the Justice Department has been pushing since last spring for a “data retention” law that would require Internet service providers to warehouse their customers’ online activity for the convenience of government investigators.

Ancient Times man Arthur Gelb made this hardly surprising observation to the Observer the other day: “Some day we’ll all be reading our papers electronically.” But the problem with reading papers electronically is that they can also read you.

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Dishonorable Non-Mention: Juan Gonzalez and the Daily News’ 9/11 Pulitzer

Millionaire Mort Zuckerman sounded like a man of the people last week in his Pulitzer victory speech to the Daily News staff. His paper had just won the prize for editorializing about sick 9/11 first responders, and as his employees sipped champagne, he proclaimed that the honor “reaffirms my belief that this paper fights for people who too often have no voice in this city.”

But the News journalist who does most of that fighting, especially on the 9/11 health issue, Juan Gonzalez, was conspicuously absent from both the party and the speeches. Gonzalez had been the first reporter in the city to deliver the radioactively controversial news in the fall of 2001 that the air near Ground Zero was far less safe than federal and local officials were saying.

City officials, trying to discredit Gonzalez’s scoop, called a press conference, at which Mayor Rudy Giuliani declared that “the problems created . . . are not health-threatening.” In the back channels, as Gonzalez himself later wrote in his book Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse, “one of Giuliani’s deputy mayors called a top editor at the
News to complain.” The head of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce fired off a letter calling Gonzalez’s column “a sick Halloween prank.” EPA director Christie Whitman immediately wrote Zuckerman, accusing Gonzalez of trying to “alarm” people, and her complaint ran on the op-ed page days later. Its opening could scarcely have been more patronizing: “Those of us in government and the media share an obligation to provide members of the public, in a responsible and calm manner . . . ” Gonzalez’s attempts to follow up his scoop were met with the “obvious displeasure of the paper’s top editors,” who delayed and sometimes killed his columns, he wrote in his book. What stories he did get published were relegated to the back of the paper—”behind a refrigerator ad,” as his Democracy Now co-host Amy Goodman put it.

The scars from that battle still mark the newsroom and accounted for some of the “muted applause” during last week’s celebration, staffers say. After all, the irony was pretty stunning: The paper won one of journalism’s highest prizes for writing about illnesses that might have been prevented had the paper not bowed to government and corporate pressure in 2001 and instead kept Gonzalez’s prescient warnings in the public eye.

It’s impossible to say just how much of this irony the Pulitzer judges grasped when they awarded the News its prize. Joel Shufro, executive director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health—which is honoring both Gonzalez and the editorial team next month—says his organization’s letter to the Pulitzer board in support of the News editorial writers’ submission also mentioned Gonzalez’s reporting. “We cited Juan as acting in the face of political pressure,” he said. But the letter didn’t mention that much of this pressure came from within his own paper. Gonzalez didn’t name names when he wrote about the Giuliani administration’s private pressure on his editors, but then-editor Ed Kosner tells the Voice he has no memory of such phone calls. But Kosner does say, “Some people who were in positions of authority complained about it.”

Zuckerman says he stands firm on the way his paper handled the story in 2001. “We don’t regret the way the paper treated Juan’s stories,” he says. “We regret the way the EPA treated the facts.”

Editorial writer and winner Arthur Browne wasn’t even at the News in 2001 but is still more charitable—at least in his post-Pulitzer-celebration glow. “I do regret not mentioning Juan the other day,” Browne says. “There’s no reason not to.”

Reached at home, where he is on book leave, Gonzalez is clearly magnanimous, congratulating his colleagues and adding: “My only concern is that, if more journalists, not just at the News but in the rest of the New York media, had had the courage to follow the story back then, maybe there wouldn’t be as many people getting sick or dying now.”

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Another Imus in the Mourning?

If you’re thinking that Don Imus will never resurrect his tattered career (assuming that the turkey-necked talker doesn’t think he’s too old to do so), don’t bet against him. Look at the curious case of Mike Barnicle during last week’s Imus saga.

When Imus was merely suspended (before his firing last Thursday), CBS’s boneheaded first move was to tap Barnicle to fill in. A longtime Imus guest, friend, and joke-lifter, Barnicle made headlines as recently as 2004 for mocking a black woman on the air.

Talking about the marriage of former secretary of defense William Cohen (who is white) and his wife, Janet Langhart (who is black), Barnicle remarked, “Yeah. I know them both. Bill Cohen. Janet Langhart. Kind of like Mandingo.”

Protests from the NAACP and others resulted in a 17-minute on-air self-flagellation by Barnicle. But he wasn’t the first to liken Cohen-Langhart to master-slave. Imus (naturally) did it in 2000. But no one expected originality from Barnicle, who was run out of the Boston Globe newsroom in 1998, after a 25-year career as a columnist, for lifting jokes from George Carlin.

Even that plagiarism episode had a racial tint. Only months before, the Globe had fired a black columnist for making things up, and Barnicle’s initial punishment was just a slap on the wrist. His critics included Howell Raines, then editorial page editor of the Times (the flagship of the chain that owns the Globe). Raines charged that Barnicle’s light sentence had everything to do with his place at the old boys’ poker table alongside defenders like Imus, Tim Russert, and Larry King.

Raines’s words in the Times still hover over the Barnicle incident: “Long after Mr. Barnicle settles back into his column, the historical bottom line of this event will be that a white guy with the right connections got pardoned for offenses that would have taken down a minority or female journalist.”

But after getting caught making things up himself shortly thereafter, Barnicle wound up walking the plank at the Globe. And later, of course, in yet another twist, Raines was driven from the Times for overly protecting young black plagiarist Jayson Blair.

All that furor over Barnicle is widely known, especially in press circles, which is why it was such a head-scratcher that CBS considered—even for a second—trying to attach a Barnicle to its sinking ship.

The idea apparently came from Boston CBS station WTKK. Station management won’t talk about it, but Leonard Atkins, the Boston NAACP president who took Barnicle to task in 2004, gives WTKK’s relatively new management the benefit of the doubt. “Unless you are familiar with the history around the personnel,” says Atkins, “you are bound to fall into these kinds of situations.”

The people at CBS syndicator Westwood One were certainly familiar with it, however, and staffers there say they were stunned when CBS told them last Wednesday night that Barnicle would be sitting in Imus’s chair during his suspension.

Once word of it hit the newswires, however, Barnicle could forget about it. By Thursday afternoon, CBS had sent its ship in another, smoother direction, firing Imus and putting WFAN sports guys Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in the slot instead.

But the episode shows that Barnicle has resurrected his rep in just a few short years. Of course, Imus was one of the main resurrectionists. Maybe Barnicle, who after all still has a radio show in Boston, will return the favor.

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Scoopable Litter

Rudy Giuliani‘s fundraising may not be presidential yet, but his campaign’s seat-of-the-pants media manipulation—another requirement for contenders—is looking pretty good. The result: Giuliani grabbed the front pages of two New York City tabloids on the same day by giving one paper’s scoop to the other.

On March 23, both the Post and Daily News splashed on their front pages a revelation about Rudy’s wife No. 2, the former Judi Nathan. Her revelation? Rudy is not her husband No. 2 but is really her third. Such news would likely hurt Giuliani only among religious conservatives, and they don’t like his gay-people-accepting, abortion-tolerating ways anyway.

So when you’re finished gasping at the shocker that Rudy’s wife had another prior husband in addition to the one we all knew about and didn’t care about, share a smirk at the expense of the Daily News, which thought it had scooped the Post.

“This is clearly our story,” grumbles Daily News national editor Mark Mooney. “We got it, and they dumped it on the Post.”

Mooney’s lament is understandable: The News had done weeks of gumshoe reporting—only its story contained a copy of a marriage certificate unearthed in Las Vegas and divorce papers from Florida.

The Post‘s Andrea Peyser even admitted in her column that Judi’s bombshell was dropped in her lap “like a hand grenade.” So why did the Post not only have the story up on its website first, but also get credited by the Times the next day for the scoop?

It was quick thinking by Giuliani spokesman Michael McKeon. He had scheduled interviews with the ex-mayor for the News and the Post—in that order—for Thursday, March 22.

“I had no clue what the Daily News had,” McKeon swears. “We made them no promises, and they asked for no promises.” Not exactly. There actually had been promises made between the Giuliani campaign and reporters from both the Post and News on the day that Judi shared her little secret. Daily News reporter Heidi Evans went into the 2 p.m. interview with Judi agreeing that the profile would be embargoed until Sunday, according to Mooney and Giuliani campaign officials.

“She asked, ‘Well, what if she makes news?’ ” Mooney recalls
his reporter saying, to which McKeon replied, ” ‘Oh, she’s not making any news.’ He had no intention of releasing that that day.”

But during the interview, the News‘ Evans pressed the issue. “She did not admit that she had been married another time, despite several questions that gave her an opening, until she was asked straight out whether Bruce Nathan was her first husband,” Mooney says. “She said, ‘No, my first husband was Jeffrey Ross.’ ”

McKeon, who says the campaign was in control of this info all along, did some quick thinking. So right after that interview, Judi went ahead and spilled the same beans to the Post. And there went the News‘ exclusive.

Judi showed she’s hip to such maneuvers when she told Barbara Walters, on a 20/20 segment that aired at the end of that week, why she had kept the fact hidden from the public.

“So it wasn’t that you were keeping it hidden. It’s that nobody brought it up?” Walters asked.

“That’s correct,” Judi replied, blinking nervously. “That’s absolutely correct. And, when I was asked, we discussed it. That was my decision.”

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Five Cents a Right-Wing Dance

After a long day of shopping at Gimbels, nothing beats an icy highball at McHale’s, then heading home on the Ninth Avenue El with the newspaper you bought for a nickel.

Well, at least one of these things you can now do again. The New York Post recently began offering weekday subscriptions for the jaw-dropping price of $13 a year, or five cents a day.

“That’s, like, free,” marveled Post flak Jody Fisher, before respectfully declining to discuss the financial logic behind his client’s offer.

Startled observers, rubbing their eyes to make sure they hadn’t fallen into a tabloid time machine, were split on whether this proved the Post was crazy or evil.

“This is yet another example of a desperate company making a desperate move,” said Marc Kramer, Daily News CEO and leader of the “crazy” camp. “The fundamentals of their business are interesting, because there are no fundamentals.”

The Post finally overtook the News in circulation last fall—averaging 704,011 paid weekday copies to the News‘s 693,423—after a steady climb that began when the Post dropped its newsstand price to a quarter in 2000. (The News still trumps the Post on Sundays, 779,348 copies to 427,265.)

A few months before resigning in 2005, Post publisher Lachlan Murdoch acknowledged to BusinessWeek that halving the cover price widened the paper’s annual loss, rumored to be in the tens of millions. In the same article, he said he intended to restore the paper’s 50-cent cover price if and when the Post passed the Daily News in circulation, adding, “We very much care that it make money one day.” But it seems pretty clear that “one day” will not come until the
Post is straddling the bleeding, lifeless corpse of the undercut Daily News. (Current
Post publisher Paul Carlucci did not return calls for comment.)

Thus the “evil” theory. Robert Broadwater, founder of the media mergers and acquisitions firm Broadwater & Associates, said there has long been suspicion in the industry that the Post is “willing to lose buckets of money to put the Daily News out of business.”

While some see the Post‘s price as a throwback to Hearst and Pulitzer’s 19th-century newspaper war, others see it as heralding the future of daily newspapers in the Internet-driven 21st century.

“It’s a small step to giving it away,” said Piet Bakker, who runs an Amsterdam-based blog, newspaperinnovation.com, which tracks free dailies. He compared the Post‘s strategy to that of several European papers, which have responded to today’s hostile business climate by offering their papers free to part of their readership. “We will definitely see more models like this.”

New York’s own free dailies also expect company. “There will be more people coming into this space,” said Daniel Magnus, publisher of Metro New York. “The traditional newspaper model in the eyes of investors is done.”

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Cheers, Mate! The BBC Is the Future of Your Paper. Maybe.

Jill Abramson was in mid-sentence when the lights began to dim.

The New York Times managing editor continued addressing her audience, who’d gathered at Columbia’s journalism school last Wednesday night to talk about the future of
newspapers. But by the time she finished explaining why her paper wasn’t going to allow reporters to
blog personal opinions on its website, the encroaching blackness could no longer go unaddressed.

Dark Victory?” she said, arching an eyebrow and scanning the room for anyone familiar with the 1939 weepie in which Bette Davis goes blind from a terminal brain tumor.

No laughs. The evocation of Davis’s spunky young heiress—who’s doomed and knows it—might have cut just a little too close to the topic at hand.

Optimistically titled “How Newspapers Can Survive (and Thrive) in the 21st Century,” the Columbia Journalism Review–sponsored event turned out to be a rather excruciating examination of why most of them probably won’t.

Things started out hopeful enough. Panelists talked about hybrid platforms and interactive graphics and said the word monetize a lot. Robert Kuttner, the American Prospect co-editor who wrote the barely upbeat CJR essay that inspired the panel, whipped up a consensus that newspapers could save themselves by getting all Sumner Redstone on Google’s ass. Newspapers should join the legal battle against unauthorized online distribution of their stories—or at least make a better deal. “The search engines,” he said, “are taking too big a cut of our content.”

But panelist Steven Rattner, who recently wrote an epitaph for newspapers in The Wall Street Journal, said the real problems ran deeper. Because readers will never linger over news online the way they did on the page, the advertising profits of yesteryear are gone for good. He suggested a new paradigm in which newspapers are regarded as a public service and supported by the citizenry, not subsidized by shareholders.

“It’s not fair to ask the public shareholders . . . to bear the burden of providing something for the whole society’s good,” he said.

The Nation‘s Victor Navasky was the only one who seemed really interested in probing just what that meant. “Have you thought about the role of government?” he challenged the panel.

You could have heard a mouse click. Someone coughed weakly, followed by audible squirming in seats. Finally Kuttner spoke, pointing to government-supported models like the BBC or NPR as a way of keeping newspapers alive. But even he didn’t seem enthralled by the idea.

Later, Abramson, still angry about being forced to testify at the Scooter Libby trial, blamed distrust of the government for the idea’s chilly reception. “Especially,” she said, “at a time when this particular government has created such a toxic environment for the press, with threatened prosecutions, criminal leak investigations, and the like.”

“Could there be a day when you have more open minds about other models or some kind of government or public support?” she continued. “Possibly. But right now it’s hard to be at all comfortable with that.”

Or, as Bette Davis’s character says when her doctor suggests the true cause of her headaches: “Suppose we just don’t talk about it anymore.”

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The Times’ Nicholas Kristof—A Rudy Giuliani White House Adviser?

Poor David Brooks. By all rights, the moment should have been his.

It was last Wednesday night, the first big hometown fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani, and the Sheraton New York ballroom was resplendent in faux-folksy glory. A thousand Republicans had come to toast (and fund) the candidate whom the New York Times columnist has compared to Teddy Roosevelt, lauded as a “courage politician,” and crowned with his very own “ism.”

Women in pearls tipped back longnecks of Bud and men in crisp suits munched Cracker Jack and hot dogs, the ballpark fare serving as props for the baseball-themed, $2,300-a-head event. The urban elite was trying its best to look all-American. If they were not quite pulling it off, they were at least epitomizing the pragmatic, purple-tinted brand of Republicanism that Brooks fantasizes about in his columns.

And yet, when Giuliani got to the section of his speech that cited a New York Times columnist, the honor went to . . . Nicholas Kristof? The guy whose most recent word on the presidential race was a giddy love-up of Barack Obama? Who swoons for the senator’s antipoverty crusades and worldly ability to appreciate the Muslim call to prayer as “one of the most beautiful sounds on earth at sunset”?

Yep. Giuliani told a roomful of Republicans that, when it came to the crisis in Darfur, President Bush “should pay attention to the advice of Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. Not exactly a commentator that I agree with all the time, or I imagine agrees with me. But he wrote a column the other day . . . that displays something that we all have to embrace.” Kristof had suggested that Bush lead an international summit on Darfur, and Giuliani rhapsodized about what a nifty idea he thought that was.

After the speech, Times reporter Richard Pérez-Peña, the paper’s main man on the Giuliani beat, could only stammer that he was “surprised” by the bizarre shout-out. He later blogged about it with even more befuddlement.

Kristof was as shocked as anybody, he said the next day. But it turns out the Giuliani-Kristof love does not flow only one way. In the summer of 2004, Kristof suggested that Bush would have a better chance at re-election if he dumped Dick Cheney for someone like Colin Powell, or, if Powell wouldn’t do it, then Rudy Giuliani. “He’s strong on national security and crime, but soft on abortion, which is what you need with swing voters,” Kristof wrote.

He concluded by telling his regular readers not to worry that his advice might help bring on four more years of W, since Bush always did the exact opposite of whatever he suggested. But now, with Giuliani leading in the polls, Kristof suddenly faces the possibility of having a guy in the Oval Office cribbing policy from his columns.

“It would be very unsettling for any pundit to find officials who actually listened and followed one’s advice,” Kristof said, unconvincingly.

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Air America’s Green Revolution

After a rocky quarter-century in New York politics, perennial progressive candidate Mark Green has heard plenty of bad puns on his last name. But not until he and his brother Stephen Green bought Air America Radio did so many of their name’s connotations—well-funded, untested, a little bit hippie—apply all at once.

In his new corner office overlooking Sixth Avenue last week, the recently minted media mogul shifted and fidgeted in his seat like a kid on the first day of school, alternately swigging Diet Coke and smoothing his faded black chinos. He could barely wait to get back to calling each of Air America’s 70 affiliate stations to assure them that the company’s wild ride—which accelerated when the network’s former parent, Piquant, declared bankruptcy last October—was over.

Scott Elberg, the radio veteran who guided the network through bankruptcy and will now run it as chief operating officer, sat next to Green, explaining that such courtesy was uncommon in the business. “It’s amazing,” Elberg said. “It’s kind of like sitting at a subway stop shaking hands when you are running for office.”

“No,” Green countered. “It’s like sitting at a desk calling potential donors. But it’s a lot easier than cold-calling rich people.”

Green has spent a life making such phone calls, in a political career that began with a run for Al D’Amato’s U.S. Senate seat in 1986 and ended last year with his loss to Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for state attorney general. Along the way, Green served two terms as the city’s public advocate, but he’s best known as the guy who might well have been mayor if not for 9/11. His older brother, Stephen Green, the largest commercial real estate owner in Manhattan, has long been his biggest supporter. (Stephen Green declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“There’s a joke at Harvard College that if you get A’s, you end up a scholar, and if you get C’s you end up a wealthy businessman,” said Green, who went to Cornell and Harvard Law School. “So I got the grades, but Steve got the street smarts.”

The notion of going into business together emerged from a casual conversation at the elder Green’s house in mid-December. Mark mentioned plans to guest-host on his old friend David Bender’s Air America morning show—and that the bankrupt network was looking for a buyer. Stephen was interested, and three months later bought the majority share in the company for $4.25 million, on the condition that Mark and Elberg run it together. Stephen Green will serve as chairman of the board.

The vote of confidence in Elberg was based “on the merits,” Green said, but some staffers worry Elberg lacks the partisan zeal to push the progressive product. Most, though, are grateful for the stability. “Considering what a revolving door we’ve had, it’s nice to have things carry over,” said drive-time host Rachel Maddow.

The trio received loud applause from nearly 50 staff members when they announced their plans in a meeting on March 6. “It really feels like the cavalry has arrived,” Bender said.

Air America has long needed financial rescuing. It went broke less than two weeks after its glitzy launch gala on March 30, 2004, and has lost money each year since. The reasons for the money troubles are manifold, ranging from financial scandals to a network business model that many radio experts thought was nuts. “We were tilting at more than windmills,” said former network CEO Mark Walsh. “We were tilting at a radio structure that had become decidedly right-wing across the board. We thought we were going to change the national conversation.”

Despite the red ink in the company’s ledgers, Air America the brand did affect that conversation. Green pointed to the many liberal outfits, from The Huffington Post to MoveOn.org, that have blossomed since Air America launched its answer to Rush Limbaugh et al.

The newly installed Green has come out swinging. Last week, in response to the Nevada Democratic Party’s (now-revoked) invitation to have Fox News sponsor a Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, Green fired off two statements: one to the “fair and balanced” news channel proposing that Air America talent fill half of the panelists’ slots; another to the New Hampshire Republican party offering to sponsor their candidates’ debate. Neither Fox nor the Granite State GOP responded, but a more local target of Green’s quest for political dialogue has.

“I have no interest in participating,” New York Post editorial page editor Bob McManus told the Voice, rejecting Green’s invitation to have him on the air once a month in exchange for a regular liberal op-ed in the paper. “That sort of balance doesn’t concern me as it would if we were a one-newspaper town.”

Green, told of the response, put up his rhetorical fists: “McManus and the
Post
run outrageous monologues because they are scared of dialogue. He couldn’t stand up to me in a dialogue.”

Until now, such fightin’ words usually came out of the mouths of Air America’s hosts, not its executives. But with the company’s biggest star, Al Franken, off to run for Minnesota senator, perhaps it’s appropriate that a former Senate candidate step into the role of lead zing-slinger. Green’s pugilistic instincts and the network’s loudmouth partisanship seem to be a good fit. Together they might make the radio waves that save Air America.

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More on the ‘Voice’ Editor Change

Tony Ortega, editor of New Times Broward–Palm Beach, has been named editor in chief of The Village Voice.

Ortega, 43, who started his career with New Times (now Village Voice Media) in 1995 at Phoenix New Times, will take the reins at Cooper Square later this week, according to Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey.

“It’s something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” Ortega said of the Voice editorship. “If you are in the alternative press and you’re ambitious, that’s always the Mount Everest of the alternative world.”

Former Voice editor David Blum was fired last Friday after six months on the job. Lacey contested media reports that Blum’s comments on race during last Wednesday’s staff meeting were the reason for his termination.

“We had a difference about administrative style, and I did want more news in the paper,” Lacey said. “The incidents surrounding the copy meeting—not merely within the copy meeting—turned out to be the last straw.”

After the staff meeting, Blum apologized “to the party that was most offended,” said Lacey. “The problem was, his apology made it worse.”

After a four-year stint as a staff writer in Phoenix, Ortega wrote for New Times Los Angeles for three years before returning to become associate editor at Phoenix New Times. He served as managing editor of The Pitch in Kansas City from 2003 to 2005, when he became editor of the 70,000-circulation New Times Broward–Palm Beach.

Ortega lived briefly in New York City as a freshman at Columbia University in the early 1980s. A self-described “half-Mexican California kid,” he grew up attending public school in Los Angeles and Orange County before receiving a John Jay National Scholarship to the Ivy League institution in 1981. He left after three semesters, in debt and disillusioned, but said he retained his love for the city.

“I loved living in New York. I had a mohawk at the time, and I remember riding the subway home at three in the morning from the Pep Lounge,” he said, referring to the fabled Peppermint Lounge nightclub.

“Lincoln promoted General Grant late in the game,” Lacey said. “Stalin promoted Marshall Zukoff late in the game. Tony Ortega is the right man at the right time. He’s an accomplished writer and editor.”

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The Haze Over 43rd Street

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has finally joined the urgent campaign to get Washington to care for the responders who helped New Yorkers after the Sept. 11 attacks,” read the New York Times editorial page on March 2. Funny to hear the folks on 43rd Street chide the mayor for his late entrance when the paper just got its own thinking straight on the matter. After faulting the mayor for once being skeptical of ground zero illnesses, the editorial high-fived its own foundation for recently pledging aid to sick responders. But a look back at the Times‘ own coverage shows how the paper had long been as skittish as the mayor about making the WTC-illness connection.

“The persistent pall of smoke wafting from the remains of the World Trade Center poses a very small, and steadily diminishing, risk to the public,” reported the Times‘ Andrew Revkin on the front page three days after the attacks. In a story free of community voices, he uncritically relayed the Environmental Protection Agency’s line that “health problems from pollution would not be one of the legacies of the attacks.”

That turned out to be false. Yet the Times‘s most prominent recent statement on the topic was not an exposé on the bureaucratic quagmire that unhealthy responders are now in. Instead, it was a February 13, 2007, front-page takedown of the Daily News‘ coverage of NYPD officer Cesar Borja, who became a poster boy for 9/11 illnesses when he fell sick with a lung disease after working near ground zero. Sewell Chan and Al Baker used Freedom of Information Act requests to show Borja had not been working near the WTC site until months after his family originally claimed.

The next day, a New York Post editorial delivered the punch the Times pulled. “There is also no substantial reason to believe that [Borja] was sickened by conditions at ground zero, or that he was harmed by government negligence,” declared the paper.

“There will be those people who will use [the Borja story] against the effort to get appropriate resources,” said Micki Siegel de Hernandez of the Communication Workers of America, which represents many workers affected by the dust.

Chan and Baker’s story earned kudos in the media world and will likely deflate the News‘ Pulitzer application for its 2006 editorial series on sick 9/11 responders. But it further galled downtown residents and activists, who say the Times was the leading mouthpiece for the EPA’s initial all-clear message. “The Times just took hook, line, and sinker the information that the government agencies were offering,” said Joel Kupferman, head of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

The Daily News was one of the few city papers that questioned the agencies early on. When the NYELJP conducted tests showing higher levels of asbestos than the EPA had reported,
News columnist Juan Gonzalez broke the story on September 28, 2001. A month later, he reported on the results of a massive FOIA request by Kupferman, documents that showed the EPA itself had collected evidence that the air was more toxic than it told the city.

Many papers repeated the EPA’s assurances, but when people began to complain that the dust was making them sick, the Times was alone in virtually ridiculing them. “The intense fear of contaminated air has spread throughout downtown and taken on a life of its own, despite repeated assurances by the authorities, becoming one of the more unexpected and unmanageable side effects of the trade center disaster,” wrote Revkin and Susan Saulny on October 6, 2001.
Susan Edgerley the Times‘ deputy metro editor at the time, defended the paper’s skepticism: “Our coverage was responsible and careful, and we worked hard to learn what we could and what we couldn’t know.”

The Times‘ failure to challenge the EPA more forcefully has led to calls for a mea culpa from the paper in the mold of its 2004 apology for failing to question the government’s trumped-up case for the Iraq invasion. The Times‘ public editor, Byron Calame, says don’t hold your breath. “I haven’t looked into the Times‘ coverage of 9/11 airborne toxicity because studies haven’t come to my attention that clearly linked the air quality to illnesses, specified the number of people affected, and sorted out such factors as the genetic makeup of people,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Mount Sinai Medical Center released a report last September that Times reporter Anthony DePalma wrote would “erase any lingering doubts about the connection” between the dust and disease. It was this document that spurred the New York Times Company Foundation to set aside $1 million last week to help treat sick but uninsured 9/11 responders.

“What, the fires kept burning for four months?” said Jack Rosenthal, a lifelong Timesman who became president of the foundation in 2000. “I don’t think any reasonable person has any doubt that the respiratory effects were real and related.”

So what responsibility does the foundation’s namesake have for perpetuating the dangerous early belief that the air was safe?

“If we carried stories, it was because [EPA head] Christine Whitman and Rudy Giuliani made these announcements,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t know how the paper can be faulted for doing any more than reporting.”

But if the Times can be saluted for digging into the Borja story, it can be faulted for lacking the same aggressiveness when the smoke hung over downtown. If the paper refuses to examine its own role in reinforcing false claims about air safety, who will believe the Times should the unthinkable happen again?


Tony Ortega, editor of New Times Broward–Palm Beach, has been named editor in chief of The Village Voice.

Ortega, 43, who started his career with New Times (now Village Voice Media) in 1995 at Phoenix New Times, will take the reins at Cooper Square later this week, according to Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey.

“It’s something that I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” Ortega said of the Voice editorship. “If you are in the alternative press and you’re ambitious, that’s always the Mount Everest of the alternative world.”

Former Voice editor David Blum was fired last Friday after six months on the job. Lacey contested media reports that Blum’s comments on race during last Wednesday’s staff meeting were the reason for his termination.

“We had a difference about administrative style, and I did want more news in the paper,” Lacey said. “The incidents surrounding the copy meeting—not merely within the copy meeting—turned out to be the last straw.”

After the staff meeting, Blum apologized “to the party that was most offended,” said Lacey. “The problem was, his apology made it worse.”

After a four-year stint as a staff writer in Phoenix, Ortega wrote for New Times Los Angeles for three years before returning to become associate editor at Phoenix New Times. He served as managing editor of The Pitch in Kansas City from 2003 to 2005, when he became editor of the 70,000-circulation New Times Broward–Palm Beach.

Ortega lived briefly in New York City as a freshman at Columbia University in the early 1980s. A self-described “half-Mexican California kid,” he grew up attending public school in Los Angeles and Orange County before receiving a John Jay National Scholarship to the Ivy League institution in 1981. He left after three semesters, in debt and disillusioned, but said he retained his love for the city.

“I loved living in New York. I had a mohawk at the time, and I remember riding the subway home at three in the morning from the Pep Lounge,” he said, referring to the fabled Peppermint Lounge nightclub.

“Lincoln promoted General Grant late in the game,” Lacey said. “Stalin promoted Marshall Zukoff late in the game. Tony Ortega is the right man at the right time. He’s an accomplished writer and editor.”