Please join me by emailing editors at the New York Times. I have written a letter of protest and emailed it to the New York Times over an article on likely, upcoming social security cuts. In the article in dispute, the New York Times writer Jackie Calmes used anonymous sources to bolster the credibility of three economists without telling readers that ALL THREE come from backgrounds favoring cuts in entitlements, and that ALL THREE have ties to Robert Rubin and the Rubin-funded Hamilton Project. One of the mainstays of the Hamilton Project, embedded in the Brookings Institution, is to cut entitlements. The article in question does not provide information from any economists who question cuts in entitlements.
This may seem a bit confusing but I believe the following letter which I just sent to the Times lays the case out:
Dear Clark Hoyt, Public Editor, New York Times
Dear Jill Abramson, Managing Editor, New York Times
Dear New York Times Editors:
The New York Times has long been the most important newspaper in the nation so it is with concern that I write to you about a story that appeared on your web site. The story was written by Jackie Calmes and titled, "Next Big Issue? Social Security Pops Up Again" published on the web site on March 22, 2010. Here’s a link to the story. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/23/us/politics/23fiscal.html?hp
Unfortunately, this article raises concerns about journalistic ethics and use of anonymous sources.
Before exploring the difficulties that article presents, let me address policies toward anonymous sources that the New York Times, to its credit, clearly have in place. Here are some key parts of the paper’s policies on that subject that should apply here:
"The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers reliable and newsworthy. When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation – as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.
We will not use anonymous sourcing when sources we can name are readily available.
Anonymity should not be invoked for a trivial comment, or to make an unremarkable comment appear portentous."
Further helpful is this writing from "Talk to the Newsroom: The Use of Anonymous Sources" published in the Times web site at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/09/business/media/09askthetimes.html :
"In many cases, anonymous sources are people working inside the government, a business or other powerful institution who witness possible abuses of power and talk to journalists in order to hold power accountable. They fear retribution, perhaps losing their jobs or worse. This is why they ask to be cloaked in anonymity.
Certainly, not every story that uses anonymous sources rises to this standard. There are noble anonymous sources and less noble ones. And it is always preferable to have named sources, so readers can evaluate the information, credibility and vantage point of a news source. In two decades spent as an investigative reporter and editor in Washington, both for The Times and The Wall Street Journal, I have relied on solid, reliable, high-minded anonymous sources. I have also seen anonymous sources who leak information for self-serving reasons, to float a policy balloon or damage a rival. Anonymous sources can be misguided, wrong or even lie to reporters.
As for worries that reporters can be lazy when information comes to them anonymously, The Times tries to be extremely scrupulous in checking anonymous sources."
Let us now have a look at the article which I believe violates the above policies of the New York Times with regard to anonymous sources.
In her article, Jackie Calmes is writing about possible cuts in entitlements, specifically in Social Security. Here is the key paragraph in question in this article:
The administration includes several economists who are authorities on Social Security, including Peter R. Orszag, the budget director; Jeffrey Liebman, an associate budget director; and Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council.
“Three of the best minds and prolific authors on Social Security among Democratic economists are all working for the White House,” said an adviser to Congressional leaders, who asked to remain anonymous to talk candidly. “So it’s natural that there has been a lot of thought given internally to different ways we could deal with Social Security.”
What Jackie Calmes appears to have done is to use an anonymous source to build up, and identify the names of three economists within the White House. What she doesn’t tell us is that all three of these economists, "authorities on Social Security" are in fact all economists who have written articles in favor of cuts in entitlements, or who have worked for agencies (notably the Hamilton Project associated with the Brookings Institution) that is in favor in cuts in entitlements.
Peter Orsag, for example,has extensive ties to Robert Rubin (one of the founder of the Hamilton Project). One of Peter Orszag’s mentors, according to Wikipedia, is none other than Robert Rubin. Orsaz also comes from Goldman Sachs AND before his present gig, was Director of the Hamilton Project at Brookings.
Jeffrey Liebman, Orszag’s assistant, also has Hamilton Project ties and biases. He co-edited a paper subsequently revised and published in The Path to Prosperity: Hamilton Project Ideas in Income Security, Education, and Taxes. Edited by Jason Furman and Jason E. Bordoff. (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2008). Recall that the Hamilton Project is housed in the Brookings Institution, following a grant to that institution from Goldman Sachs and Robert Rubin.
Jason Furman also has directed the Hamilton Project (from early 2007), according to Wikipedia and his bio over at Brookings. He was also at the Brookings Institution and co-wrote (along with Douglas Elmendorf) the Hamilton Project sponsored "If, When, How: A Primer on Fiscal Stimulus."
Interestingly, Furman according to Wikipedia, is "widely respected by Republicans" and has defended WalMart’s business model. When Obama appointed Furman to his administration, Obama’s pick was derided by liberals and labor groups, according to the Los Angeles Times:
"Labor union officials and some liberal activists were seething Tuesday over Barack Obama’s choice of centrist economist Jason Furman as the top economic advisor for the campaign. The critics say Furman, who was appointed to the post Monday, has overstated the potential benefits of globalization, Social Security private accounts and the low prices offered by Wal-Mart — considered a corporate pariah by the labor movement.
Furman, 37, is linked closely to Robert Rubin, a Wall Street insider and Clinton economics aide who eventually became Treasury secretary. Rubin’s views on global trade and deficit reduction riled liberal economists and labor activists, though his presence gave the Clinton administration valuable credibility in the business and financial communities.
"We are very much taken aback that Furman has been put at the head of this team," said Marco Trbovich, a senior aide to United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard, whose support is considered crucial to Obama’s success in heavily unionized areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota and other battleground states."
So, what the New York Times Jackie Calmes article does NOT tell its readers is this: it has used an unnamed source which in turn names three economists and identifies them as leaders on social security reform. But it also does not tell us that these three leaders all have links to Robert Rubin, all have ties to Rubin and Goldman Sach’s Hamilton Project (which wants entitlement cuts). Two of the three "leaders" indeed, have been Directors of the Hamilton Project. One of these (Furman) has supported ideas about privatizing social security and has praised WalMart’s business model. So the New York Times has essentially provided cover for the Hamilton Project and those who want cuts in entitlements.
Asking three economists affiliated with the Hamilton Project about their views on Social Security "reform" is kind of like asking three Kentucky fans their views on who will be the NCAA basketball champions. They have their biases.
Unfortunately, Jackie Calmes misleads her readers by not exploring their backgrounds or providing any alternatives. Further, exactly why would any decent, hard working reporter need to use an anonymous source in this case? Social security reform is hardly a national security issue. What Calmes has done is to cloak these three economists (all coming from a particular background and with a particular axe to grind) with respectability by using an anonymous source. This was completely unnecessary in an honest, straightforward discussion of this important topic.
I believe that you owe your readers an apology for this story, for not presenting all of the policy alternatives and questions relating to social security reform, and for misusing your own anonymous sources policies. I also believe that the writer in question (and the editor(s) who approved the story) should be admonished for her/their actions.
New York Times Reader
Readers here can get more information (including lots of links) from a diary I wrote on this subject recently entitled "New York Times Beats Drum For Social Security "Reform" (Meaning Cuts, Age Increases).
PLEASE help out by joining me and emailing the following individuals to protest the misuse of anonymous sources at the New York Times in this article on Social Security:
1. Clark Hoyt, Public Editor (similar to Ombudsman), New York Times
email addresss: email@example.com
2. Jill Abramson, Managing Editor, New York Times
email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE ON GLENN GREENWAlD writing on anonymous sources:
Glenn Greenwald has a wonderful column up over at Salon (March 7, 2010) lamenting major newspapers overuse and misuse of “anonymous sources”. His remarks included the New Times. Greenwald wrote, in part:
The greatest blow to the credibility of establishment journalism over the last decade — especially the NYT and the WP — was their active, enthusiastic involvement in disseminating outright falsehoods to their readers in the run-up to the Iraq War. So glaring and destructive were their failures that even they were forced to acknowledge at least some of what they did. One of the principal steps they took in assuring their readers that they were determined that this would not happen again was the adoption of clear rules which stringently limited the use of anonymity. Anonymity was a key instrument used by dishonest government officials and subservient reporters to disseminate those pre-war falsehoods.
Despite all that, they continue to violate their own guidelines over and over by indiscriminately using anonymity in the most reckless ways. And they know they do it, because it’s been repeatedly documented, even by their own ombudsmen and reporters. Yet they blithely continue. What other conclusion could a rational person reach other than that the publishers, editors and reporters of these newspapers neither care about nor deserve journalistic credibility? Just think about it: in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, they announced: We know we have lost credibility and here are rules we will follow to win back that credibility, only for them to then systematically and continuously breach those rules over and over, thus replicating exactly the behavior that led to the loss of credibility in the first place.
In very limited circumstances, anonymity is valuable and justified (e.g., when someone is risking something substantial to expose concealed wrongdoing of serious public interest). But promiscuous, unjustified anonymity — which pervades the establishment press — is the linchpin of most bad, credibility-destroying reporting. It enables government officials and others to lie to the public with impunity or manipulate them with propaganda, using eager reporters as both their megaphone and shield. It is the weapon of choice for reporters eager to serve as loyal message-carriers and royal court gossip columnists. It preserves and bolsters the culture of secrecy that dominates Washington — exactly the opposite of what a real journalist, by definition, would seek to accomplish (though most modern journalists seem to prefer anonymity, as it makes them appear and feel special and part of the secret halls of power, and allows them to curry favor with powerful officials as their favored loyal message-carrier). In sum, petty or otherwise unjustified uses of anonymity are the hallmark of the power-worshiping, dishonest, unreliable reporters (which is why its most indiscriminate practitioner is Politico). As Izzy Stone put it about the Vietnam War: “The process of brain-washing the public starts with off-the-record briefings for newspapermen. . .