Plus: Has NYTimes.com gone tabloid?

Plus: Has NYTimes.com gone tabloid?

Plus: Has NYTimes.com gone tabloid?

Media criticism.
April 21 2006 7:11 PM

Anonymice Devour Times

Plus: Has NYTimes.com gone tabloid?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The editors of the New York Times, perhaps sensing that I could use an easy item to complete my weekend column, published a story this morning (April 21) overrun with anonymice—those pesky, gratuitous, and sometimes misleading unnamed sources I've railed about again and again in this column. (See "Related in Slate" below.)

Today's Times mice don't appear in a vital piece about secret surveillance, an urgent story about secret foreign prisons, or in a fabulous scoop about a military coup in the making but in an article about White House staff changes that might happen.

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Titled "Bush Counsel May Be Next In Shake-Up," the article speculates on the imminent transfer or disposal of White House counsel Harriet Miers. (Remember her?) The paper first grants anonymity to an "influential Republican with close ties to [White House Chief of staff Joshua B.] Bolten … [who] was granted anonymity to talk openly about sensitive internal White House deliberations. …"

What does the Closely Tied Influential Republican say? Not much:

"It's a reflection of Josh's thinking," the Republican said. "It's not a prediction that he's going to get it done."

Providing a counterpoint to the Influential Republican is a "senior White House official … who was granted anonymity to get around the administration's policy of not commenting on personnel matters." What does that Senior White House Official say from under the camouflage? Very little:

"It's not the case."

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A few paragraphs down, a pack of Republican anonymice skitter through the story as Times reporters Elisabeth Bumiller and Jim Ruttenberg write:

Mr. Bolten is said by a number of Republicans in Washington to feel that Ms. Miers is indecisive, a weak manager and slow in moving vital paperwork through the system.

A number of Republicans? Three? Ten? Twenty? Five thousand?

This weirdly sourced article turns all the weirder when it speculates that a Miers defenestration might not be in the offing. Instead, talk of it might be "a trial balloon to gauge White House reaction to the idea, or … to send a signal [from Bolten] to Ms. Miers that he would like her to think about leaving on her own." If that's the case, a better headline for the piece would have been, "Republicans Confuse the Batshit Out of the New York Times."

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Just when you think the anonymice have retired, new ones pop out of the woodwork. Bumiller and Ruttenberg write:

Republicans close to the White House said Mr. Bush was the driver of the changes made so far, including the decision to ask Mr. Rove to focus primarily on the midterm elections.

And:

Republicans said Mr. Bolten has been focused on finding a new White House press secretary with good contacts in the Washington news media and a deep understanding of how they work.

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Who the hell are these Republicans?

One last set of anonymice tear through the story before it ends. The subject is whether Fox News commentator Tony Snow will succeed Scott McClellan as White House press secretary. The unnamed sources for this item are granted anonymity "because they did not want to upset [Snow's] private discussions at a sensitive time."

Isn't this a tad nuts? How would applying the sources' names to this Times story upset private/sensitive discussions in a way that the anonymously provided information doesn't? Unless, of course, the sources for this item are Snow and his tapeworm.

A year and half ago, the Times acknowledged that excessive reliance on anonymous sources could be injurious to the paper's credibility and formed a committee charged with exploring ways to reduce them. I believe that the anonymice have eaten the committee alive.

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NYTimes.com, Not Craven: If you Google the word "Duke" or the phrase "Duke lacrosse," the top search engine serves this sponsored link at the top of the screen:

The Duke Lacrosse Scandal: NYTimes.com reports on the accusations rocking the university.

Likewise, if you Google "Duke rape," "Duke case," "Duke escort," or "Duke scandal," the site will kick out a sponsored link on the side of the page, with the same clickable come-on. If you search "Duke" or "Duke lacrosse" on Netscape.com, Clusty.com, or the New York Times Co.-owned content site About.com *, the same NYTimes.com sponsored link appears. Those pages feature no other sponsored links from other prominent publications.

Has NYTimes.com turned so craven that it's trying to build traffic and therefore advertising dollars by exploiting its saturation coverage of the Duke rape case?

No, says Times Co. spokeswoman Catherine J. Mathis.

Like most top online publications, NYTimes.com monitors the Web for frequently searched key words and phrases and buys "sponsored links" to the results generated by those searches. It also purchases from search engines the key words and phrases most frequently used by visitors to NYTimes.com. At this moment, "Duke lacrosse" is the fourth most popular search term on NYTimes.com.

How did the terms become so popular on NYTimes.com?

"We have covered the Duke story more extensively than others because it is a national story and because some of the players are from the New York metropolitan area," she writes via e-mail.

*******

If you Google "Jack Shafer," the sponsored link is "To the Point with Warren Olney Discussing National Issues Live. www.KCRW.com." What the hell is that about? Blogger and Los Angeles Times wage slave Matt Welch discovered this week that the Olney show had purchased the Google sponsored-link rights to his name as well as those of Mickey Kaus, Connie Rice, William Bratton, Jack Kyser, Sheila Kuehl, Kevin Roderick, Andrés Martinez, and Michael Newman. Welch speculated that the show buys the names of people who've appeared on the program, except I don't think I've ever had the honor. Mr. Olney, please send e-mail to slate.pressbox@slate.com and tell me why you bought me. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Correction, April 24, 2006: The original version of this article mistakenly referred to About.com as a search engine. It is a content site. Return to the corrected sentence.