Columbia Spectator 1, New York Times 0

Behind every story is another story, the story of how the reporter got the story. Occasionally the veil is lifted on that process, and sometimes it sheds some light on how the news is really made.

One such story has been developing in our backyard for a few days now. On March 31, the New York Times published an exclusive about a then-unreleased report from Columbia University investigating complaints that pro-Israel Jewish students had been harassed by pro-Palestinian professors.

The problems with the piece in question are not factual — the specifics appear to be in order — but revolve around the more elemental issues of what the Times agreed to in order to get its “exclusive” from the university.

The New York Sun was the first to investigate that issue, writing on March 31 that “In an effort to manage favorable coverage of its investigation into the complaints, the university disclosed a summary of the committee’s report only to the Columbia Spectator, the campus newspaper, and the New York Times. Those newspapers, sources indicated to the New York Sun last night, made an agreement with the central administration that they would not speak to the students who made the complaints against the professors.” (The Times had initially agreed not to seek any outside comment, but later revised the deal in order to include a response from a professor who had been a target of complaints.)

As for the Spectator, the Web site CampusJ (which has been on top of the story since the beginning) reported that the independent campus paper was shown the report and offered the same deal as the Times, but editors never agreed to it and pushed ahead with student interviews. (In the interest of full disclosure: A Spectator staffer works as an intern at CJR.)

The mighty Times, however, kept its word. Unfortunately, that involved a promise that should never have been made (or maybe, for that matter, offered by Columbia in the first place. PR is PR, we concede, but Columbia is the home of the Pulitzers, a top journalism school, and CJR itself. It should know better. Even its flacks should know better.)

If you’re looking for an example of irresponsible journalism, this is about as cut and dried as it gets. The Times itself admitted as much in an editor’s note on April 6, saying that “Under the Times’ policy on unidentified sources, writers are not permitted to forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information. In this case, editors and the writer did not recall the policy and agreed to delay additional reporting until the document had become public … Without a response from the complainants, the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form.”

This is no deep, dark secret hidden away in a rulebook for reporters. Heck, the Times spells its policy out on its corporate Web site, which reads in part:

We do not promise sources that we will refrain from additional reporting or efforts to verify the information being reported.

We do not promise sources that we will refrain from seeking comment from others on the subject of the story. (We may, however, agree to a limited delay in further inquiries — until the close of stock trading, for example.)

The Times reporter, Karen Arenson, did file another story the following day, April 1, which included quotes from students critical of the report.

The paper’s follow-up article and correction earn it some points for forthrightness. But the story behind the story is still dismaying. The fact that some at the Times decided to subvert their own reporting by agreeing to ignore one side of a debate is disturbing, if not wholly insulting, to the paper’s readership. And given that in this case, student journalists on a campus newspaper upheld a higher standard of journalistic integrity than the “paper of record,” the Times is right to be embarrassed.

Paul McLeary

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.