“It only takes 20 minutes to shift the blame,” but far more than two months to establish the truth

Two months and a bit ago, I wrote a piece trying to analyze the two web write-throughs of the New York Times coverage of the NYPD arrests of hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. Someone—and I still don’t know for certain who—took screen captures of these two versions of the story, pasted them side-by-side, and sent them around the Internet in an attempt to implicate the Times as being a capital-E Establishment pawn of the NYPD in telling the police side of the story. This was easily my most-viewed post, since it comes up high in the search results. And it got picked up by a commenter in an Austrian newspaper; by a left–wing podcaster; and by an information literacy class at ASA, a for-profit college in New York. I, too, got called out for being too soft on the Establishment by being too soft on the Times, though I honestly believed then—and continue to believe—that the change in the stories doesn’t reveal a malicious conspiracy, but is instead an artifact of the fluid nature of news and events and the difference between facts and truth. All of which would make a great seminar in journalism, politics and truth telling (and I did use the “20 minutes” image to spark discussions in both my Communication and Society classes and my News Editing class).

And the immediate impetus for this update does have something to do with truth (I realize I have now buried my own lead). This weekend, I received an email from Colin Moynihan, the reporter with the sole byline in the first version of the Brooklyn Bridge story. In my original post, I had written that “the Times was certainly slow to start covering the protests,” and I linked to a Philadelphia Daily News essay by Will Bunch, attacking “big media” for being slow to cover the protests. It had been the first article I read about the protests when the began, and I took it for true. Moynihan, who gave me permission to quote from his email, corrected me on the facts of Bunch’s essay:

I wanted to let you know that the Times wasn’t slow to start covering the Occupy Wall Street protests.  I was in the financial district on September 17, the first day of the protests and wrote a story that appeared on the Times website that day and was in the paper the following day.  I wrote another story on the third day of the protests.  By my count there were seven stories over the first nine days of the protests.

A list of the Times articles about OWS confirms this. Which I suppose goes to show that you can’t necessarily trust something just because it comes from a reputable source (depending on how you view the Philly Daily News). In my view, I’d say it is slightly less reputable now, not just because of the misrepresentation of the Times coverage, but also because of the strange new “update” at the top of the Will Bunch essay:

Corrected and edited to reflect the fact the [sic] one of Colin Moynihan’s earlier blog posts was reverse published in New York Times editions delivered to New York City residents — but not here in Philly and elsewhere — still doesn’t change the basic fact of undercoverage, at least until the mass arrests and pepper-spray incidents in the second weekend.

This reads to me like a grudging acknowledgment of being incorrect, though I can’t say I understand what Bunch means by “reverse published.” He may still be right that the first week or so of the protests were undercovered. That’s a judgment call, after all. But they were not not covered. In any case, I apologize to Colin Moynihan, and to readers, for using a shoddy source and for claiming to be “certain” about its assertions.

I should also point out here that if you look at the final version of the story, which I should have spent more time on in my original essay, you will see that there is actually a detailed description of the events leading up to the Brooklyn Bridge arrests:

Where the entrance to the bridge narrowed their path, some marchers, including organizers, stuck to the generally agreed-upon route and headed up onto the wooden walkway that runs between and about 15 feet above the bridge’s traffic lanes.

But about 20 others headed for the Brooklyn-bound roadway, said Christopher T. Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who accompanied the march. Some of them chanted ”take the bridge.” They were met by a handful of high-level police supervisors, who blocked the way and announced repeatedly through bullhorns that the marchers were blocking the roadway and that if they continued to do so, they would be subject to arrest.

There were no physical barriers, though, and at one point, the marchers began walking up the roadway with the police commanders in front of them – seeming, from a distance, as if they were leading the way. The Chief of Department Joseph J. Esposito, and a horde of other white-shirted commanders, were among them.

After allowing the protesters to walk about a third of the way to Brooklyn, the police then cut the marchers off and surrounded them with orange nets on both sides, trapping hundreds of people, said Mr. Dunn. As protesters at times chanted ”white shirts, white shirts,” officers began making arrests, at one point plunging briefly into the crowd to grab a man.

This “final” version of the story (see the postscript below for my explanation of the scare quotes) has bylines for Al Baker and Colin Moynihan, as well as a third author, Sarah Maslin Nir; and two other names are cited as having provided reporting. All of which goes to show that in covering something as complex and protean as a protest march in which hundreds of people are arrested, even five reporters is probably too few to ascertain “truth.” Reporters are human beings, and newspapers are human institutions. Both have limitations, but the good ones—and I usually count the Times among the good ones—are doing their best to get at that truth.

Postscript: I think we can also take away from this incident something about the changing nature of newsrooms. Many of those early stories that the Times ran began as Moynihan’s posts on the Times’s excellent City Room blog. The news blog format allows for the kind of temporal fluidity that constantly evolving news requires, in some way making the idea of a “final” version of a story, as I refer to above, almost laughable. Our understanding of the flow of events has changed, and there is no more news cycle. Time moves on and we learn more. We learn more and our understanding changes. It’s a challenge that reporters have always had to deal with, and those who post to blogs and Twitter understand that an article, the traditional unit of news, is no longer sufficient. It is just one slice in time, queued to the deadlines of dead tree media. Readers who are not enmeshed in the reporting process may be slower to understand that, but in a generation—when my students are the news consumers—they will get it.

One comment

  1. […] (December 14, 2011): I received an email from Colin Moynihan, and have written a follow-up to this original post. Share this:TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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