NYT on Why It Ignored Libya Debacle: 'There Were Six Better Stories'

In a surprise, New York Times' Public Editor Margaret Sullivan criticized her paper in a Thursday afternoon blog post for downplaying the congressional hearings into the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya. The Times made the interesting decision to put the second day of hearings on page 3 Thursday, in the International section, as opposed to the National section, which begins in the middle of the paper. In contrast, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal both put the hearings on the front page, while the Los Angeles Times carried original reporting from Libya (not the hearings) on the front page.

Sullivan asked the Times's editors why they chose to ignore the story in their main section and soon got a response: "there were six better stories."

As the public editor noted:

...The New York Times was not among [the papers giving significant coverage]. The six stories on The Times’s front page included one on affirmative action at universities, one on Lance Armstrong’s drug allegations, two related to the presidential election, one on taped phone calls at JPMorgan Chase, and one on a Tennessee woman who died of meningitis. The major artwork on Page A1 was from Syria, and the only mention of the hearing on Libya came in a one-paragraph summary at the bottom, leading readers to a well-displayed story on Page A3.

Sullivan asked Executive Editor Jill Abramson and Managing Editor Dean Baquet about the placement:

“I said that I wanted us to weigh the news value against the reality that Congressional hearings are not all about fact-finding,” she said. In other words, they are often deeply politicized.


[Managing Editor Dean] Baquet, who ran the afternoon news meeting at which the decision was made, said the reasoning was simple enough: “I didn’t think there was anything significantly new in it,” he said.

Like Ms. Abramson, he was wary of the political nature of the hearing, noting that “It’s three weeks before the election and it’s a politicized thing, but if they had made significant news, we would have put it on the front.”

And, he added, “There were six better stories.

The paper's readers didn't agree, questioning the paper's news judgment: "The lead story in today’s paper is about Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong!" Another reader fault the paper portraying the hearings through a partisan prism.

The hearings, which made major revelations, are presented as simply partisan wrangling. The major elements on the story this morning are not brought up until the end of the story."

Times Watch also found that the Times buried the first day of hearings on Page A10, while their rivals at the Washington Post put the hearings on the front page.

The Public Editor concluded:

I believe that the Libya hearing story belonged on The Times’s front page. It had significant news value, regardless of the political maneuvering that is inevitable with less than four weeks to go until the election. And more broadly, there is a great deal of substance on this subject that warrants further scrutiny.

I can’t think of many journalistic subjects that are more important right now, or more deserving of aggressive reporting.

TimesWatch 2012 Presidential Libya New York Times
Clay Waters's picture

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