Brad Friedman, the New York Times, and the Need for News Quality Standards

February 24, 2010

I met Brad Friedman in January 2008 at a journalism conference in Santa Cruz, California, where I was promoting the idea of a Good Housekeeping-style "seal of approval" for journalists.  The idea, now promoted at as a “News Quality Rating System,” is to provide online readers with some measure of bloggers' accountability to ethical journalistic standards.   Not all writers are journalists, and not all journalists are created equal, and I thought then (as I still do today,) that it would be helpful for people to cut though the chafe to the wheat of genuine news reporting.

Friedman, the venerable investigative reporter at, bristled a bit at the concept.  It seemed like a good idea, overall, but he said, "Why just bloggers like me?  Why not the New York Times?"  I had to admit that he was right.  

What I didn't know was that he was prescient.
In recent days, a battle has escalated between blogger Friedman and NY Times public editor Clark Hoyt, over the "paper of record's" reporting on the now infamous story by James O'Keefe, purporting to reveal that ACORN employees had advised O'Keefe, dressed like a pimp, with his pretend girlfriend, Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute, how to avoid paying taxes on her night time income.  

Two problems with that story.  Friedman's careful examination of the transcript of the unedited ACORN video showed the non-profit's employees had actually advised Giles she had to pay her taxes.  

The second, more ingrained in the American psyche (thanks to You Tube) was of a ridiculously pimped out O'Keefe strolling into ACORN offices, promoting the idea that ACORN dealt with people in like get ups everyday.   But that image was a creation of careful video editing;  O'Keefe actually dressed like an everyday college student for the hidden camera set up.  His partner in pseudo journalism Giles admitted as much on videotape,  and O'Keefe's erstwhile employer Andrew Breitbart was also forced to so admit last week at CPAC.

But the New York Times refuses to correct its coverage about the pimp costume, even though it has called O'Keefe's reporting unethical.  In a letter to Bradblog, Public Editor Hoyt says, "the story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time."

A blog comment on this brought a smile to my face.   "Just because I write 'I got drunk and took my kids for a car ride' doesn't mean I did them at the same time." No, no, of course not.  Why would anyone think that?

Now Hoyt accuses Friedman of having a political agenda, and at the same time, a petition has cropped up online asking the Times to correct its reporting.  

It's fun to watch.

But it does bring back the idea of the benefit of some kind of metric for readers to understand journalistic standards.   On a scale of one to five, I'll give Bradblog five stars, the New York Times two, and O'Keefe...  well, maybe a jail term.


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