Public Editor Lays the Smack Down on NY Times’ Amazon/Hachette Coverage

So the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has called the Times and David Streitfeld to task for its coverage of the Amazon/Hachette contract negotiation. Her comments echo in some ways the criticisms many have made of the Times coverage, including myself. In fact, I wrote a letter to Sullivan following what I believe is the most egregious example of poor journalistic ethics, the Streitfeld article pimping the $100k ad set to appear two days later. While she didn’t delve too deeply into that circumstance, she did at least address it with a note that the act of placing an ad in the Times doesn’t typically merit a news article of its own.

“Although this is a business dispute, it’s being treated as a battle for the soul of American culture.”

Sullivan opened on a high note, both clearly stating that the matter is a business dispute and noting that culture war aspects are a treatment of it. As she goes on, it becomes clear that she is uncomfortable with the Times roll is furthering that treatment as opposed to a more balanced approach to such a business dispute. The title of the piece itself says it all: “Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined.”

“It’s certainly true that the literary establishment has received a great deal of sympathetic coverage. Authors including Douglas Preston and Philip Roth have been featured giving their allegiance to the complaint against Amazon. But Amazon itself (as well as writers who say legacy publishers have ignored their work while Amazon has made reaching readers possible) is represented less consistently and forcefully.”

If anything, this is an understatement, but I’ll take what I can get. She goes on to describe a few instances where articles have played up (her words) “the fears and anger” of the Amazon opposition before and after giving relative short shrift to Amazon’s side or the side of writers opposing the publishers’ and/or Authors United’s position.

She repeatedly points out direct quotes against Amazon immediately followed by quotes from opposing voices, done in a manner in which none of this would have ever been necessary had Streitfeld himself done so even half as well in the articles in question. Sullivan made no value judgments in these comparisons, only clearly stating the conflicting viewpoints. I can’t speak to her intent but, to me, it almost felt like a direct message to Streitfeld, “this is how you’re supposed to do it.”

She wrapped it up nicely with her take in conclusion, two paragraphs which I’ll present here in their entirety because they make the case for fairness in reporting very neatly and illustrate where many of us, including Sullivan herself in some ways, feel the Times has fallen down on fulfilling their journalistic responsibility and veered too far into advocacy:

“It’s important to remember that this is a tale of digital disruption, not good and evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.

I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.”

Very well said. Thank you, Margaret Sullivan, for trying to hold journalism at the Times to a higher standard.

Now it should be noted that Sullivan, in her position as public editor, has no actual authority or ability to see that such suggestions are acted upon. Her position is as an independent monitor of the Times coverage and how that’s perceived/received by the public. She has the ability to speak freely but not the ability to actually force changes in the way things are done. But simply the fact that she has very directly and publicly called them out may have some result. We might see a more balanced approach, with other voices weighing in outside of Streitfeld’s seemingly partisan work. (I say “seemingly” to be polite, by the way.)

Now, there are two other references in her piece that I’d like to emphasize to make different points, one is a reference to author Ursula K. LeGuin’s incomprehensible (my words, not Sullivan’s) rant about Amazon and censorship. The other is David Streitfeld defending his disparagement of the indie author petition and trying to explain the reasoning behind his articles. Both are instructive in a few ways, I think. First, here’s the quote about LeGuin:

“Author Ursula K. Le Guin offered more on the perils of Amazon. “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author.”

I saw this the other day when the original scare piece billed as “Literary Lions Fight Amazon” came out and I was taken with its absurdity then. As I’ve thought more about it, though, I think it also represents another example of conduct on the part of some of these authors that I believe is misguided. Namely, she has a valid fear but she’s shouting in the wrong direction about it.

First, to equate Amazon with censorship and the rather ridiculous notion of them “disappearing authors” is, historically speaking, about as wrong as any human being has ever been about anything. Well, maybe not any human being, but it’s pretty audaciously wrong. Amazon has opened the doors to more acts of free expression to more people than damn near any entity ever. The Big 5 publishers and their brethren, on the other hand, have been responsible over the past century or so, of blocking more free expression than just about any collective group of entities in history. Obviously, I’m not equating publishers not choosing to print someone’s book with totalitarian regimes stifling speech and dissent, but if that thought crossed your mind when you just read that, it’s precisely the connection LeGuin made in her comments, and maybe you’ll understand a bit more why I’m annoyed with such an absurd suggestion. Plus, I’m reasonably sure Amazon is not a wing of the CIA and the publishing industry isn’t a mediocre ripoff of a John LeCarre novel, so the less said about authors being disappeared, the better.

Amazon is not the place to go to complain about censorship. Neither are the publishers. If she wants to truly defend free speech and expression, she needs to direct her concerns to the FCC while it’s still considering net neutrality rules and whether or not to permit ISPs to create fast lanes where companies with more money can buy quality internet distribution while the rest of us get ghetto-ized in the slow lanes. Media companies and retailers will always be inherently self-selective in what they allow. It’s the open internet, where we all have the same access at the same speeds to reach anyone on the other end, that guarantees freedom of expression. She should take her complaints there, where they might actually matter, or where they’re at least applicable. Here, as part of the Authors United front, they’re exaggerated noise that has little bearing to reality nor any applicability to the conflict at hand. They do sound nice as a demonizing, scare tactic sound bite, though, which I suspect was the only reason they were uttered to begin with. Why there wasn’t an immediate follow up question of “what the hell are you talking about?” (maybe phrased a bit more politely) is another clear journalistic failing.

Speaking of journalistic failings, that brings me to David Streitfeld. Here’s part of his response to Sullivan when asked about the perception that his reporting was taking sides:

“Mr. Streitfeld says his stories have been driven by one value: newsworthiness. When established authors band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great story, period.” And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says.”

Streitfeld says something very clearly here, if you’re looking. The terms “newsworthiness”, “established authors”, “great story” and “false equivalency” all reveal his motivations. Replace the word “established” with “famous” and that’s the angle from which he’s chosen to present this dispute. Famous authors versus mega retailer; the Godzilla-movie approach. He’s presenting the entire negotiating dispute through the lens of name brand authors. It’s sexier more “newsworthy” than anonymous authors against publishers. But, honestly, that’s his angle, it’s a valid one, roll with it.

The problem comes when he goes beyond reporting to manipulating the story to suit his angle. A much larger group of authors who dispute this group doesn’t further his story. So he chose not to simply ignore it but to actively disparage it; hence the “false equivalency” bullshit. The indie petition had 10 times the number of signees, made up of mostly independent writers and readers. The AU signing pool, on the other hand, is clearly a collection of writers from very specific sets of conditions within the industry. It’s also perfectly valid but his false equivalency line cuts both ways. It can be interpreted that the indie petition is far more representative of the reading and writing community than AU, and their letters could very easily be painted as entrenched interests fighting a populist tide threatening their positions (and, most importantly, paychecks).

But that’s just an angle. The truth is there are two (and really many more than two, but for the sake of clarity…) sometimes competing, sometimes aligned sets of interests on this matter. Each one has a point of view and relative merits (and demerits) to their various arguments. When he crosses over from reporting to advocacy, which is what I’d call it, he implies that, because of the AU writers’ position and importance (read: fame), their opinions matter more and therefore they must be speaking for all writers. He goes even further in implying any writers who dispute this are only fringe voices and any supporters they muster don’t carry the legitimacy (again, read: fame) of his selected subjects.

For the sake of full disclosure, I did not sign the indie petition. In fact, I criticized it a bit as being unnecessary, somewhat reactionary and for a tone which practically handed detractors the ability to dismiss it out of hand. Streitfeld’s line calling it a “rambling love letter to Amazon” shows precisely that. Still, it has turned out to be a useful counterweight to the AU group, and has been visible enough that Streitfeld even felt the need to try to attack it rather than simply ignore it.

So remember that. Streitfeld isn’t necessarily furthering any specific agenda for publishers or media entities. He’s furthering the narrative for his own “great story”. In this respect, Sullivan is absolutely right; cover the battle, don’t join it. He’s a journalist, it’s time to start behaving like one.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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