‘NY Times’ Public Editor Backs Geraldo in Dispute

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By: E&P Staff

In an unusually harsh column, Byron Calame, public editor at The New York Times, has criticized the paper?s refusal to offer a correction to Fox News? Geraldo Rivera in a now-famous episode during the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. He singled out Bill Keller, executive editor, for special fault.

In Calame?s mind, it?s a slam-dunk: ?I have been involved in scores of correction disputes over the years at another newspaper, but this one is unusual in that there is very little to argue about.? This is true, even though in his mind Rivera normally deserves little sympathy: ?One of the real tests of journalistic integrity is being fair to someone who might be best described by a four-letter word.? The Times flunked such the test in rejecting a demand by Rivera for a correction, he added.

Rivera has said he’ll sue if he doesn’t get his correction. “No one is fairer game than me,” he told the Los Angeles Times last week. “But you still have to be accurate about me.”

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times have defended Rivera–at least in this episode. Rutten pointed to the many corrections the writer of the Katrina article in question, chief TV critic Alessandra Stanley, has inspired in recent years.

The incident arose from a paragraph in Stanley’s piece on Sept. 5 about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina: “Some reporters helped stranded victims because no police officers or rescue workers were around. (Fox’s Geraldo Rivera did his rivals one better: yesterday, he nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety.)”

Rivera denied that he had “nudged” anyone and made public the videotape of the segment that Stanley had used as her source. He then called Stanley “Jayson Blair in a cocktail dress” and said he?d probably sock her if she were a he.

But The Times informed Fox on Sept. 7 that no correction would be published. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, personally made the final decision, he told Calame, after “multiple viewings of the videotape in question.”

But Calame looked at the same tape and reports today: ?My viewings of the videotape – at least a dozen times, including one time frame by frame – simply doesn’t show me any ?nudge? of any Air Force rescuer by Mr. Rivera.?

Stanley, he writes, declined his invitation to watch the tape with him. Calame also looked at outtakes and found no nudging.

Then Calame quotes from Keller?s explanation: “It was a semi-close call, in that the video does not literally show how Mr. Rivera insinuated himself between the wheelchair-bound storm victim and the Air Force rescuers who were waiting to carry her from the building. Whether Mr. Rivera gently edged the airman out of the way with an elbow (literally ‘nudged’), or told him to step aside, or threw a body block, or just barged into an opening – it’s hard to tell, since it happened just off-camera.”

But Calame comments, with palpable scorn: ?So if Ms. Stanley couldn’t have seen the nudge, why not publish a correction? Mr. Keller’s message unfortunately turns to a line of reasoning that raises, for me, a basic question of journalistic fairness. He suggests, ?frankly,? that in light of Mr. Rivera’s reaction to the review, Ms. Stanley ?would have been justified in assuming? – and therefore writing, apparently – that Mr. Rivera used ?brute force? rather than merely a ?nudge? on Sept. 4. ?I find it disturbing that any Times editor would come so close to implying – almost in a tit-for-tat sense – that Mr. Rivera’s bad behavior essentially entitles the paper to rely on assumptions and refuse to correct an unsupported fact.”

He also slammed Keller for saying that as TV critic Stanley had special license, when ?even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions.?

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