NYTimes: Truth in labeling?

By Christopher B. Daly

When I was reading the NYTimes front page this morning, I started reading the paper’s Pg. 1 story about Pete Seeger. As I read, I had a growing sense that something was bugging me. The piece carried the byline of Jon Pareles, the paper’s longtime music critic, which I thought was appropriate. But the piece kept bugging me, until I realized what the problem was: I was not reading the paper’s obituary (also written by Pareles). Instead, I was reading something more like a critical appraisal of Pete’s musical career. Here’s part of it:

That put him at the center of the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, in all its idealism, earnestness and contradictions. Collectors found songs that had archetypal resonance, sung in unpretty voices and played with regional quirks, and transcribed them to be learned from sheet music. The folk revival prized authenticity — the work song recorded in prison, the fiddle tune recorded on a back porch — and then diluted it as the making of amateur collegiate strum-alongs.

That’s fine, of course, (although a bit tart for a story about his death) but it should have been labeled as such. There should have been some kind of banner or emblem that says AN APPRECIATION or CRITICISM or something like that which would signal that this is not a factual news story. (Online, the Pg. 1 piece carries the slug MUSIC: AN APPRAISAL, which is just what it needed.)

Inside the paper was Pete’s obit, which had a classical opening:

Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 94.

His death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was confirmed by his grandson Kitama Cahill Jackson.

Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10, from college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.

Recently, I had a similar experience with the Times’ coverage. After Obama gave his “big speech” about the NSA scandal back on Jan 17, the Times ran a page 1 story the next day. Actually, the paper ran two stories: one a straightforward factual account of the president’s speech by Mark Landler and Charlie Savage headlined “Obama Outlines Calibrated Curbs on Phone Spying.” Then, there was another story, also on Pg. 1, written by David Sander and Claire Cain Miller headlined “In Keeping Grip on Data Pipeline, Obama Does Little to Reassure Industry.” My problem was that the second story was clearly more analytical, and the authors drew several important conclusions on their own authority — not by quoting experts but by being experts.

Again, that’s fine. But it should be labeled ANALYSIS.

And here’s the kicker. I was staying in a hotel that weekend, and on Sunday I could only get hold of the International New York Times. There were the Saturday stories, recycled a day late, and when I looked at the Sanger and Miller piece, it carried a label that said ANALYSIS.



Filed under Journalism, New York Times

3 responses to “NYTimes: Truth in labeling?

  1. David

    A more difficult question to ponder amid the Seeger tributes and obits is why is unflinching support for Stalin regarded by most journalists as above criticism, while past supporters of Nazism, the Klan, Apartheid, etc are not granted such free passes? Opposing the war in Vietnam ou of sincere belief is vey different from supporting Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, invasions of Poland and Finland, mass executions and imprisonments, etc.

    How can someone be recalled as a noble dissenter when they slavishly supported such evil acts?


    • profdaly

      I’m not sure his support was “unflinching.” But in any case, I do not condone it — except, of course, from 1941-45, when Stalin was our ally.
      It is also worth considering that over a lifetime of actions that took the side of the people against the powerful, Seeger earned his credentials as an anti-authoritarian.
      I think a lot depends on what people do after they dis-associate themselves from affiliations they come to regret.


      • David

        Those are worthy points, but can you identify one left wing authoritarian government he opposed on behalf of the people? Did he support the people of Hungary in 1956? The Czechs in 1968? The prisoners in the Gulags over half a century? The Afghans in 1980? The millions killed by Mao’s Cultural Revolution? The gays persecuted by Castro?

        How is that different from a Cheyney, who proclaimed himself a warrior for freedom, but supported Apartheid and every other brutal, but not Communist. regime?

        I agree that many idealistic young people develop “affiliations they come to regret”, but why are journalists so less forgiving of those like Elia Kazan who disassociated themselves from Communism than those like Lillian Hellman who didn’t, but had the good fortune of being hounded by an evil scoundrel, Joe McCarthy?


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