October 4, 2007


QUESTIONS FOR THE QUESTIONER: Did Deborah Solomon of The New York Times break the paper’s strict code of ethics? In interviews with Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson, MATT ELZWEIG finds a troubling pattern. (Matt Elzweig, 10/04/07, manhattanmedia.com)

When I began my reporting three weeks ago, this story was slated to be a benign profile of an incisive, witty, cantankerous, high-profile-but-not-quite-famous, powerful, puzzling, playful, combative contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. Through Deborah Solomon’s weekly column, a Q-and-A interview that has become a popular staple of the Times’ Sunday magazine since its launch in 2003, the former art critic and author of two biographies has developed a voice easily as distinctive as the ones she features.

Most of my interviews with people in Solomon’s column over the years reflected positive overall experiences. (Several of those contacted either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) But after conversations with two prominent Solomon Q-and-A subjects—Ira Glass, the popular host of NPR’s “This American Life,” and Amy Dickinson, the nationally-syndicated advice columnist who replaced Ann Landers in 2003—the story became more complicated. Both Glass and Dickinson, without any prompting and in significant detail, told me that in the published versions of their interviews, Solomon had made up questions, after the fact, to match answers that, at least in one instance, she had taken out of their original context.

“[Solomon] rewrites her questions and then applies any question to any answer that a person says,” Glass told me in a tape-recorded telephone interview.

Both experienced journalists, Glass and Dickinson accused Solomon of violating basic ethical standards by making up dialogue never said during their conversations with her—conversations Solomon taped. Dickinson (in a tape-recorded telephone interview) described an exchange that she says “didn’t happen” during her interview, that she said Solomon put together using her quotes. Glass went even further; of one exchange, he said that “she never actually asked that question,” and added that Solomon “was changing context in a way that changed what I meant.” In Glass’s case, he told a fact-checker for the magazine about the distortion of the interview, in an attempt to have it corrected. “I made my case as forcefully as I knew how,” Glass said in an email to me last week, “but I guess he just disagreed with me.”

And so, the conversations I had with Glass and Dickinson transformed a human interest story into an examination of the questionable ethical choices one very prominent reporter made on behalf of the nation’s top newspaper—an institution itself ravaged by an ethics scandal only four years ago, when then-reporter Jayson Blair was caught falsifying information in his stories, leading to his resignation and the eventual resignation of the paper’s executive editor, Howell Raines.

Though Ira might not want to be heaving too many rocks from Eponymous House.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 4, 2007 10:43 AM

I know next to nothing about Ira Glass except that his voice practically gives me seizures and Lynda Barry hates his guts. Is he alleged to have changed the nature of the stories on "This American Life" or something?

Posted by: Bryan at October 4, 2007 11:34 AM

Solomon “was changing context in a way that changed what I meant.”

Hell's bells! Isn't what most of television news is all about? Heck, Slate's Bushisms wouldn't exist is they did take everything out of context.

Isn't this silly little dust-up about Rush and Senate Democrats all about taking what Rush said out of context?

Here is a great example from Spetember 21, 2007 of taking things out of context by that "respected" news source, Reuters:

Mandela still alive after embarrassing Bush remark

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Nelson Mandela is still very much alive despite an embarrassing gaffe by U.S. President George W. Bush, who alluded to the former South African leader's death in an attempt to explain sectarian violence in Iraq.

"It's out there. All we can do is reassure people, especially South Africans, that President Mandela is alive," Achmat Dangor, chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said as Bush's comments received worldwide coverage.

In a speech defending his administration's Iraq policy, Bush said former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's brutality had made it impossible for a unifying leader to emerge and stop the sectarian violence that has engulfed the Middle Eastern nation.

"I heard somebody say, Where's Mandela?' Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas," Bush, who has a reputation for verbal faux pas, said in a press conference in Washington on Thursday.

Jailed for 27 years for fighting white minority rule, Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for preaching racial harmony and guiding the nation peacefully into the post-apartheid era.

References to his death -- Mandela is now 89 and increasingly frail -- are seen as insensitive in South Africa.

The only thing embarassing is that Reuters and others are too stupid to understand President Bush's point.

Posted by: pchuck at October 4, 2007 2:33 PM

Is there anyone left in that paper that can ask a question, receive an answer, and publish both accurately?

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 4, 2007 3:49 PM

P.S. - I think it is "leeway".

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 4, 2007 3:51 PM