Okay so let me get this straight: Maureen Dowd wrote a column that was datelined "DERRY, N.H." but was filed from Jerusalem, and it turned out that she wasn't at the event she wrote about. Media critics think that smells funny. Is it a big deal, or not?
Let's start with the definition of "dateline." What does it mean to put the name of a place at the head of your story? According to Merriam-Webster, a dateline is "a line in a written document or a printed publication giving the date and place of composition or issue." Okay, so: We know that "issue" is a high standard here because of the lag time between filing and printing, so let's focus on the more flexible version, "composition." Was the article composed in Derry, N.H.? Because according to this definition, if it wasn't, then the dateline is not correct. According to these reports, it wasn't. So in that case, the dateline must be incorrect and a misrepresentation.
Right? Isn't journalism supposed to be about transparency and strict, almost wonkish accuracy?
Well, apparently not, according to NYT editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, who finds all these calls for accuracy to be irritating and nettlesome. Dowd reported her column in N.H. — isn't that what matters? Here's what Rosenthal had to say to the NYO's John Koblin on Friday:
"The fact of the matter is, particularly when covering a campaign which is a very high-speed story, it's incredibly unusual for the reporter to be in the same place as the dateline when the story is filed. What do you do, stay in Des Moines while a candidate travels to New Hampshire? Oh, don't go to Ramallah with the President because you have a Jerusalem dateline on your story! I mean this is just ridiculous! This is a complete invention, this controversy."
Wow, you can really read the sputter in his voice. Okay, well, let's answer his question: What DO you do? I don't know, I guess it depends if you want to have a dateline on your story — because the definition of dateline sure seems to require that a story have been written in that place. Rosenthal's logic here is incredibly inverted: He's blaming the stupid definition of dateline for holding his poor columnist hostage.
Let's return for a moment to what Rosenthal says is his priority: The reader. "We forget often that everything we do is really about the reader," he told Koblin. Okay then, let's return to that reader. What does the reader assume by seeing "DERRY N.H." in all caps and bold type at the top of the column? Well, obviously, that the story was written there, that the reporter had written his or her thoughts right at the scene. And why are datelines important? Well, for one they maximize information provided to the reader, but there's another: The dateline puts the reporter at the scene, which makes a statement about the publication's resources, level of reporting, and commitment to the story. Upshot: Datelines are selling points. So a misleading, not-quite-correct dateline is a bit like false advertising.
Rosenthal isn't acting alone here, incidentally — apparently this reflects the NYT's dateline policy, per the legwork of Greg Sargent at TPM: "Times dateline policy dictates that the reporter spend some time in the place identified, and doesn't require the reporter to be there all the time or file the piece from that location." That's a gray sort of area, a little slippery. How much time needs to be spent, and how recently? And if the time is spent, then what determines whether a piece ought to be datelined? For example, according to his recent column Bob Herbert was in Derry last week, too, but there's no dateline on his piece. Actually, we know more about what Herbert did in Derry (attended an Obama rally) than Dowd did (other than apparently not file a story), because she doesn't actually mention Derry in her piece. She mentions Hillary's victory party in Manchester (where apparently an assistant collected the quotes used), and herself watching Hillary's on-air tear-up on TV from the comfort of her office. She refers to an event in Salem, to Bill Clinton in Henniker. Otherwise, that's it. Derry is not mentioned.
"Datelines are kind of an anachronism," Rosethnal told the NYO dismissively. "It's a little bit of an affectation." That may be true, but it's an affectation Dowd and Rosenthal slapped knowingly on her column. In so doing, they were making a choice, and a statement: Maureen Dowd was here, our reporter was on the scene and in the mix. She's not just reporting on the same stuff we all saw on TV, she was there. Well, maybe she was, but barely, and, by the looks of it, with a little uncredited help. How to credit writers and denote datelines may be matters of internal Times policy, but insofar as they give a false impression of what that columnist actually did, it becomes an issue of greater journalistic import. Unless Rosenthal thinks being accurate and transparent is an anachronism, too.
p.s. Rosenthal, when you're finished responding to this I actually would like to hear your position on whether all the reporters from the New York Times are Martians. Will that affect how they'll cover the presidential campaign?