The New York Times gives credit where credit is due.

Media criticism.
Dec. 16 2003 7:02 PM

The Same River Twice

The New York Times gives credit where credit is due.

(Continued from Page 1)

Obviously, Blake Gumprecht doesn't "own" the Los Angeles River, and at some point attribution can get out of hand. As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, we embrace "journalism in lieu of a dissertation" because modern times demand "the curt, the condensed, the well-digested—in place of the voluminous." In any event, you can judge the Gumprecht-LeDuff controversy for yourself: For Gumprecht's letter of comparison to the Times, click here. For LeDuff's article, click here. For a searchable copy of The Los Angeles River, follow this Amazon link and this link to read the introduction. (LeDuff did not return a phone message nor an e-mail inviting him to discuss the editors' note.)

Gumprecht, who pronounces himself largely satisfied with the Times editors' note, says he contacted the paper because it's the newspaper of record, because the story appeared on Page One, and because the Times has been so public about addressing its credibility problems in the post-Jayson Blair and -Rick Bragg period. He also adds that he wouldn't have protested if LeDuff had merely cited his book as a source.

When it's so simple to credit a book in a work of journalism that wouldn't likely exist without it, why not do it? One reason might be institutional. Alex Jones, a former Times reporter and co-author of The Trust, a history of the Times,says "the Times does not like to be beat." The newspaper wants to stand alone and be first, and whenever possible, publish its own version of events, as opposed to wire copy or reprints from other newspapers. As these Times guidelines lay out, "Our preference, when time and distance permit, is to do our own reporting and verify another organization's story; in that case, we need not attribute the facts. But even then, as a matter of courtesy and candor, we credit an exclusive to the organization that first broke the news."

The Times'mania always to be first might have made sense a couple of decades ago when it was so dominant. But the new New York Times seems to recognize that it's only the best among many newspapers, magazines, and broadcast channels and that it's not only OK to credit other journalists—it's glorious! "The Greenies," as the newsroom calls its internal newsletter, now praises Times reporters for giving generous attribution to other publications, thus eroding the royal sense of privilege still held by some Times reporters and editors who still believe that facts, no matter where they were discovered or how they were generated, belonged to the Times to do with as it might.

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Credit the change of spirit to Executive Editor Bill Keller or to the Web, which makes it increasingly difficult for any institution to bury its head in the sand when accusations start flying. And don't feel shy about tipping your hat to the new office of the public editor. I'm still a skeptic about what a public editor can accomplish, but with the creation of the slot, the Times has invited readers to hold it accountable for malfeasance and mischief in its pages. Even if Public Editor Okrent's only role in the editors' note was forwarding Gumprecht's e-mail, the speed with which the paper held itself accountable bodes well for everybody—readers, reporters, and book authors.

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Whom did I forget to credit? Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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