"I just wasn't paying attention."
"It never even occurred to me to mention it."
What do these two statements have in common? They were both uttered by New York Times journalists as they tried to explain away behavior for which they recently came under fire. The first was offered by uber-columnist Thomas Friedman in the public editor's (Clark Hoyt's) piece in Sunday's Times regarding Friedman's acceptance (and later return) of a $75,000 public speaking fee in a violation of the paper's policy. The second was included in reporter Edmund Andrews' explanation, e-mailed to PBS, of his decision to omit his wife's premarital bankruptcy from his (not quite) tell-all about his personal mortgage crisis.
Friedman's and Andrews' remarks are not only oddly similar, but totally Times-like in their haughty cluelessness. Innocuous at first blush, they become much more irritating as you think more deeply about them. Is Friedman so wealthy and so accustomed to attracting big fees and so disconnected from the Times and its policies that accepting $75,000 -- more than most journalists make in a year -- for a single speech doesn't even cause him to blink? And did Andrews, despite writing what's been described as a financial memoir, really never even think about mentioning his wife's earlier financial woes, if only to reject the idea of including them?
Let's deal with Friedman first. His admission of not "paying attention" becomes even more annoying when paired with this choice quote from him in The New Yorker's profile of Carlos Slim by Lawrence Wright, out this week:
"He told me that since taking his current post, in 1995, he has never been asked by [Arthur] Sulzberger what he was planning to write, or how high his travel expenses would be. 'To be able to say what I want to say and go where I want to go -- other than a Sulzberger-owned newspaper, you tell me where that exists today.' "
As Michael Roston writes on True/Slant, "Friedman is boasting that he can go wherever he want, write whatever occurs to him, and spend however much he wants to do those things without any attention to how his profligacy harms the paper's ability to survive." Noting the speaker-fee flap, Roston calls Friedman's boast "one of the worst-timed statements in the history of public relations." Or perhaps Friedman "just wasn't paying attention."
Like Friedman, Andrews also took a turn this week under the public editor's gaze. But, as Felix Salmon writes on his blog, Andrews gets off pretty easily as the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt deals with the real issue at hand -- the omissions of his wife's bankruptcies -- via a tacked-on paragraph at the end of his piece, while spilling much more ink on a comparative nonissue: whether a reporter covering the housing crisis should write about his own, personal housing crisis. Andrews tells Hoyt that he decided to write his book because he "was desperate" for cash.
That makes sense. As Friedman proves, Times journalists can rake in big bucks in the book business. But what doesn't make sense is that Andrews, a veteran Times reporter -- in Washington of all places -- didn't realize that once his "tell-all" hit the pages of the Times, it would become instant fodder for the fact-checking mill. That that didn't occur to him, or to anyone else at the Times, makes both Andrews and the paper appear as out of touch as Friedman. Or maybe they just weren't paying attention.
Yvette Kantrow is the executive editor of The Deal.
Follow Yvette Kantrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MediaManeuvers