PLUS: Blistering blogosphere reaction for Hoyt's refusal to recommend corrections from 'paper of record'
ALSO: Online petition launched, calling for retractions...
By Brad Friedman on 2/24/2010, 2:56pm PT  

After not hearing from New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt for nearly a week --- during which I'd sent him more and more indisputable evidence that Andrew Breitbart employee James O'Keefe never played his infamous "pimp" character in the offices of ACORN --- he responded with a couple of blistering charges. The email was sent several hours after we'd published our article yesterday, detailing his various untenable justifications for not recommending retractions by the "paper of record" for multiple undeniably fallacious articles on O'Keefe and Breitbart's discredited hoax ACORN "pimp" videos.

Hoyt equated our use of offering independently verifiable and incontrovertible hard evidence, demonstrating the Times, their Senior Editor for Standards Greg Brock, and Hoyt himself were simply wrong, time and again, in falling for the rightwing hoax, and my attempt at seeing accountability for it, with a "political agenda" on par with the Rightwing propagandists who ran the dishonest partisan smear campaign to destroy ACORN.

The fall-out in the blogosphere has been quickly broadening since The BRAD BLOG's exclusive yesterday. Responses from a number of influential blogs and bloggers include a call for Hoyt to step down as the paper's ombudsman, a blistering description of this particular rationalization of his [emphasis Hoyt's]...

The story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time "unforgivable," and the charge that "the paper allowed its desire to seem 'fair' to the right trump its commitment to being fair to the facts." Also, an online petition calling for NYTimes retractions was just launched. (More details and fall-out below.)

Hoyt wrote back in response to the "Last Chance" note I'd sent him on Monday, offering a final opportunity to re-consider his previous assessments, in which he'd found that no correction was in order for the paper, "because that would require conclusive evidence that The Times was wrong, which I haven't seen"...

The "Last Chance" note (posted in full below along with his response) followed on a number of others I'd sent that had, indeed, offered "conclusive evidence that The Times was wrong," and included a link to pretend "prostitute" Hannah Giles' second on-the-record confirmation of the weekend (this one on video) that O'Keefe never wore his pimp costume into ACORN offices as both he and Breitbart (and the Times) had previously represented, and a link to Breitbart's most recent manic confirmation of same.

In response, Hoyt charged that I have "a political agenda" on par with the GOP hucksters who released their misleading, highly-edited, heavily-doctored, secretly taped videos which they still describe insidiously and deceptively as an "ACORN Child Prostitution Investigation."

He also disputes my argument (independently verifiable by simply reading the text transcripts released with the videos, if not from the doctored videos themselves) "that O'Keefe never wore his pimp costume into ACORN offices, where he instead represented himself as a conservatively dressed college student trying to save her from an evil pimp." Hoyt feels my characterization of O'Keefe is "not credible."

"I must say, as someone who watched the videos," (but apparently didn't bother to look at the transcripts?) Hoyt wrote, "your characterization of the way O'Keefe and Giles presented themselves to the Acorn employees --- as opposed to what he wore --- is not credible."

His full note, and my response to it, can be read at the bottom of this article.

Noteworthy related fall-out in the blogosphere since yesterday's report...

Popular blogger and well-respected economist Brad DeLong wrote:

The New York Times Needs a New Ombudsman... It looks as though Clark Hoyt doesn't understand what his job as New York Times ombudsman is. He needs to leave--preferably voluntarily.
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

The very popular centrist blog Ballon Juice noted:

As evidence mounts that James O’Keefe and did not actually go into the ACORN offices dressed as a pimp, the very liberal New York Times stands by its man:
Read the whole thing. It’s unbelievable.

Over at Think Progress, Matthew Yglesias wrote in "Ombudsmanfail":

I think it’s pretty striking what a spectacular failure the whole concept of having “ombudsmen” at newspapers has been. Rather than actually doing probing criticism of their employers’ work, they seem to see themselves as glorified PR departments who are supposed to spin for their masters. Consider Clark Hoyt.
When it was pointed out to Hoyt that [O'Keefe having dressed as a pimp in ACORN offices] is false, he replied—with emphasis in the original— that “The story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time.”

Look. The New York Times is a great newspaper. Its writers and editors are familiar with communication in the English language. So is Hoyt. The writers and editors who worked on that story screwed up. It’s bad to screw up. But it’s not the worst thing in the world. To have the error pointed out to you and somehow pretend that the error wasn’t made is, however, unforgivable. Nobody can seriously maintain that the sentence as written doesn’t convey simultaneity.

At the American Prospect's "Tapped" blog, Adam Serwer wrote in "That Non-Existent ACORN Correction":

Since the ACORN sting story broke back in the fall, the New York Times has erroneously and repeatedly suggested that Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe wore their prostitute and pimp costumes inside ACORN offices.
Shortly after the ACORN story broke, Hoyt wrote a sort of mea culpa suggesting that the paper's "slow reflexes [in covering the ACORN videos] suggested that it has trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs. The aftermath of the ACORN story was an opportunity for a paper with a liberal reputation to show that it felt conservatives' pain, that the liberal media had internalized conservative criticism about their coverage.

Correcting the story would be like admitting they felt conservatives' pain too much --- and that, shortly after the "realization" that conservative conspiracy theories needed to be given more credence, the paper allowed its desire to seem "fair" to the right trump its commitment to being fair to the facts. Ultimately, a public editor position is more about making the paper's critics feel as though they are being heard than it is about actually improving the paper's coverage. And in this context, refusing to correct a story in which the larger objective is to placate conservative critics makes total sense, and I suspect that's what this is really about.

Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, who has been doing a tremendous job in actually advancing details of this story since we first started covering it here after O'Keefe's preposterous explanation for his late January felony arrest for allegedly attempting to "malicously interfere" with Sen. Mary Landreu's (D-LA) phone system, has again helped to move the ball forward.

Boehlert's latest column yesterday, among other things, calls Hannah Giles out for for her recent statement that "We never claimed that he went in with a pimp costume."

Boehlert, as usual, goes to the video tape and written record to show that yes, O'Keefe, Breitbart, and even Giles herself, if not directly, then indirectly and willingly, "wanted the falsehood to flourish" and "helped plant it in the first place."

As Boehler writes after offering the evidence:

It was all part of a campaign, often fueled by winks and nods, to plant the indelible image of O'Keefe strolling into inner-city ACORN workplaces on summer afternoons decked out in his furry pimp costume and clueless employees not batting an eye.

It wasn't enough to uncover dubious practices inside the offices. Breitbart and his colleagues, consumed by hatred for an underfunded and somewhat adrift nonprofit, were determined to demonize ACORN (a "thug organization," as Giles put it) and paint its workers as immoral fools for not being able to spot the spoof a mile away. (In truth, O'Keefe was dressed rather conservatively --- slacks and dress shirt --- when he talked to ACORN staffers, and he often presented himself as an aspiring politician.)

In what should be an object lesson for the Times, Boehlert's column originally featured an error which I pointed out to him, and which he transparently corrected today. I explained that he too had fallen for the O'Keefe/Breitbart con job, as revealed in his description of "ACORN employees who were caught on tape giving Giles and her undercover partner, James O'Keefe, all kinds of misguided advice on how a prostitute could avoid paying taxes on her late-night income."

In fact, in every ACORN office seen in the Breitbart/O'Keefe vidoes --- as understood only by reviewing the text transcripts, since the videos are so purposely misleading on this point --- ACORN employees advised that Giles must pay taxes, even if the income was gained through illegal prostitution. No ACORN employee ever advised the pair to "avoid paying taxes" as so many who fell for the hoax have described.

Boehlert changed the phrase correctly to "...all kinds of misguided advice on how a prostitute could pay* taxes on her late-night income," and added a transparent update at the bottom which reads: "*Correction: I originally wrote that ACORN workers provided advice on how a prostitute could avoid paying her taxes. That's incorrect, and I regret the error."

There. That wasn't so hard was it, New York Times?

Boehlert has also been keeping up with the latest beats in the story, on the Media Matters blog. Yesterday, in "The NYT really, really doesn't want to run an ACORN pimp correction," following our publication of Hoyt's emails, which he describes as "a true eye-opener," he observed: it just me, or does it sometimes seem like the Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt, acts like his job is to figure out why the newspaper shouldn't post corrections? Especially when the requests come from the left.
Bottom line: Hoyt now agrees that, contrary to the Times' earlier reporting, there's no proof O'Keefe ever wore the pimp getup while meeting with ACORN employees. But --- and boy, this is a big "but" --- Hoyt doesn't think the Times needs to post corrections.
Please recall that this is same Clark Hoyt who devoted an entire column last year in order to scold the Times news team for not reacting fast enough to the all-important ACORN story. The failure was so severe that the Times assigned a staffer to monitor opinion media so the daily would never again be caught so flat footed when a hugely important story broke from the right-wing blogosphere.

But now, when we discover that ACORN story wasn't entirely what it appeared, Hoyt begs off.

And then again today, Boehlert followed up again with: "Faced with ACORN pimp hoax, right-wing blogosphere falls silent."

Perhaps this entire sorry affair to date is best summed up for the moment by a commenter at Balloon Juice this morning, who calls him/herself "bayville":

What Hoyt is saying:
“Okay, stories we have written about this incident were incorrect although some parts of those stories were probably accurate.
And sure we changed our editorial policy based solely on this story, like assigning reporters to specifically cover conservative media.
And I know the filmmaker is now under a felony indictment for allegedly trying to tamper with the phones of a U.S. Senator.
Of course Brad, the videotape of O’Keefe and Giles has been doctored and I know the duo won’t release the uncut, uncensored version of it. And I know Miss Giles recently admitted (twice) that the video of them in full Pimp & Ho attire was “B-roll.”

And Brad, I’ll give you that the U.S. Congress (attempted) to cut off funding for ACORN based entirely on these stories. And I know that ACORN, in effect, has been forced to disband as a result…
...But really, I fail to see what you are complaining about?’‘

Just as I was about to hit publish, a reader sent me a link to a just-created petition, calling on the Times to retract its inaccurate ACORN reportage. Please sign it!

* * *

Hoyt's latest email response to all of this follows below. First, here's the note I had written the day before, which Hoyt was responding to (the entire extraordinary series of prior notes to and from Hoyt can be read here in full)...

From: Brad Friedman
Sent: Monday, February 22, 2010 3:52 PM
To: 'Public/NYT/NYTIMES'
Subject: Last Chance for Reconsider: Breitbart & Giles (Again) Confrim Pimp Scam

Clark -

Have been holding off posting your emails, still, in hopes that you'd re-consider your previous positions, particularly in light of the Breitbart --- and now Hannah Giles confirmation (this time on video) --- that O'Keefe never wore his pimp costume into ACORN offices, where he instead represented himself as a conservatively dressed college student trying to save her from an evil pimp. All in direct contradiction to multiple reporting by the NYTimes.

Here are two more confirmation stories since I last contacted you:

Will be running your emails on Wednesday, unless I otherwise hear from you that you plan to change what has become an untenable position for the paper and for its Public Editor, in my opinion.


Hoyt responded the following day, after we went ahead and published his previous email...

From: Public/NYT/NYTIMES []
Sent: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 10:01 AM
Subject: Re: Last Chance for Reconsider: Breitbart & Giles (Again) Confrim Pimp Scam


Thank you for your courtesy. My position is that I would recommend a correction if one were warranted after The Times re-reported the question of O'Keefe's costume to determine the facts independently. Every person in this argument is pushing a political agenda, and The Times would need to find out for itself what actually happened at those Acorn offices. It is up to the paper to decide whether the investment of effort is worthwhile.

I could see a story about the fascinating effort to use the question of what O'Keefe wore to try to discredit everything about his sting videos. But that is a decision for The Times to make.

I must say, as someone who watched the videos, that your characterization of the way O'Keefe and Giles presented themselves to the Acorn employees --- as opposed to what he wore --- is not credible.


Note: The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.

Perhaps Hoyt has confused "political agenda" with "partisan agenda"? Or "political agenda" with pressing for truth and accuracy in the media? In any case, here is how I responded in kind:

From: Brad Friedman
Sent: Tuesday, February 23, 2010 10:32 AM
To: 'Public/NYT/NYTIMES'
Subject: RE: Last Chance for Reconsider: Breitbart & Giles (Again) Confrim Pimp Scam

You should have read the text transcripts, rather than rely on the deceptive videos before deciding who and what is "not credible".

My "political agenda", as you infer that I have one, is to fight to ensure that mainstream media tells the truth, reports on real issues that effect this nation and this world, and that when doing so, they independently verify information to assure it's accurate, and issue transparent correction when they've screwed up.

The other part of my "political agenda", the most important one, is to ensure that every legal voter who wishes to vote in their own democracy in this country is allowed to do so, and that their vote is counted accurately and transparently.

If that's what is now considered a "political agenda", then yeah, I guess I have one.

Your response has been incredible, revealing, and exceedingly disheartening.


I've not heard back since. Clark Hoyt can be reached at And again, the just-posted online petition calling for retractions from the New York Times for their inaccurate ACORN reportage, can be signed here.

UPDATE 2/26/10: More devastating critiques of Hoyt's position comes in from around the blogosphere, as well as interesting information on NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller's ironic 2005 position on accountability and corrections at the paper. Full details...

UPDATE 3/1/10: Exclusive Video: Breitbart offers manic admissions about O'Keefe ACORN hoax, says he "had no idea" O'Keefe not dressed as pimp, compares it to Borat. Details...

UPDATE 3/1/10: Brooklyn D.A. ends 5-month ACORN probe, finds "no criminality" in tapes, calls them "highly edited splice job". Full details...

UPDATE 3/2/10: NYT Public Editor Hoyt depicted "as weasel" in political cartoon for comments made to The BRAD BLOG. Details...

UPDATE 3/10/10: Another legal victory for ACORN. Federal judge rules Congressional funding ban 'unconstitutional'. Details...

UPDATE 3/11/10: Media watchdog FAIR slams 'wildly misleading' coverage by NYT. Details...

UPDATE 3/12/10: 'The Times Botched Story' says author, President of National Housing Inst. on Democracy Now!. Details, video...

UPDATE 3/20/10: NYT PUBLIC EDITOR FINALLY ADMITS ACORN 'PIMP' HOAX REPORTING FAILURE: 'TIMES WAS WRONG, I HAVE BEEN WRONG DEFENDING PAPER' ... Clark Hoyt says in Sunday column 'editors considering correction'. Full details here...

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