The New York Times Goes to the Dogs

Canine-centric stories skyrocket during early months of Abramson’s reign

There’s really no other way to say this: The New York Times is going to the dogs.

Dogs have been appearing in the paper 45 percent more frequently since Jill Abramson took over as executive editor last November.

How do I know this? I recently did some research in the LexisNexis database, where I found that the number of Times entries (articles, columns, letters to the editor, et cetera) containing three or more words with “dog” as the root (such as “dog,” “dogs,” and “doggie”) increased from 230 in a four-month span from November 1, 2010 though February 28, 2011 to 337 from November 1, 2011 though February 28, 2012 (the first four months of Abramson’s time as boss).

I started smelling something funny several months ago, when Abramson was celebrating her appointment as the first female chief at The Times. I listened to her on WNYC, speaking in that singularly nasal New York-cum-Harvard accent. And what was the topic? Puppies!

Abramson’s book, you see, is not about politics or poverty or even the worrisome condition of modern journalism. No, it’s about the dogs she has loved in her adult life, the dogs she has spent the large part of her off-hours admiring and contemplating. It’s titled The Puppy Diaries, and it recounts every experience she’s had with her late pet, Buddy, and her current one, Scout, and every insight she’s ever had about them. Before Scout came into the picture she felt Buddy was “my one perfect relationship in life.”

Let me say now that I love dogs. One of the saddest days of my life was in August of 1997, when I held my 14-year-old German Shepherd, Reina, as a veterinarian injected her ailing body into its final rest.

This topic of loving dogs is a very personal one. But I believe we, as New Yorkers, have crossed over to the far side in our obsession with dogs. And I worry that this canine obsession is creeping intrusively into the pages of The Times, one of our few remaining daily newspapers.

I say this as one who becomes enraged when I see important local stories lazily reported or ignored, especially stories from the Central Brooklyn communities that I love. Quite bluntly, in black and in white progressive communities of the city, The Times has a reputation of being a paper of the gentry, arguably a good thing when it comes to vocbaulary expansion, but a questionable attribute when it comes to covering people on the racial or social margins. Last year I ranted ( in The Amsterdam News, in Voices That Must be Heard, in Our Times Press, and on my blog BrooklynRon) about how consistently The Times either ignored or misrepresented Bedford Stuyvesant (the historically black Brooklyn neighborhood in which I was raised and that I love so much).

The paper’s “Crime Scene” column had previously given prominence to Bed-Stuy on two notable occasions, drawing attention to white crime victims, with a one-sidedness that struck me as a throwback to the 1950s, when city papers did not give a hoot if a black person was murdered.

In the very same two-block area where “Crime Scene” obsessively covered the robbery and beatings of a group of young men (all but one of them white), I knew of older pillars of the community, both black men, who had also been beaten and robbed. The crimes against them were greeted with a 1950s-style silence.

As I vented about this galling disparity to a friend of mine, Gayle Williams (a 1986 graduate of Columbia’s journalism school who has worked over two decades at newspapers through the East Coast), she told me she had been thinking about this subject for quite a while herself. And then she said something that gave me pause, but sounded more and more reasonable as I pondered it. “Maybe they [The Times] just ought to give up local reporting and let the bloggers and the community newspapers who really care about those communities do the job.”

This is the backdrop when I read Times articles like one on Feb. 26, headlined “A New Breed of Ring Bearers Trot Down the Aisle.” In it I learned about a furry wedding guest named Major and the barking and growling that “served as background music” to the wedding vows.

A few days before that article, on Feb. 23, there was another one headlined “Play Dead, Act Coy, Roll Over and Upstage the Humans,” which informed us that while “dog stars do not compare with human actors … they can give camera-hogging performances.”

A 45 percent jump in precious newspaper space given to dogs is significant. But check this out. Fifteen years ago, before Abramson had any clout at The Times, there were only 167 references to dogs during a four-month time-frame that I checked. That indicates an increase of more than 100 percent in the attention given to dogs between then and now!

One defense of the Times’s dog proclivities might be that there are more dogs in the city (and nation) now, and that more coverage is warranted. Hmm. Cute. But I don’t buy it.

A Lexis check of The Daily News indicates that its coverage of dogs remained the same over the past 15 years. Back then there were 84 multiple references to dogs (i.e., stories that mentioned dogs at least three times) during a four-month period. There were 89 during an equivalent period recently. (Disclosure: I once was a reporter for The Daily News, and today I read both The News and The Times faithfully.)

Reading Abramson’s book, I learned that her predecessor as editor, Bill Keller, susupected that Abramson was using her position as managing editor to push dogs to the top of the stories list. Keller “told me that he noticed a sudden rise in the number of stories being pitched for the front page,” she wrote.

“To curb the trend,” she continued, “he urged me to recuse myself from any discussion about a proposed story.”

So now the question is this: With Keller no longer the boss, who will watch the watch-dog?

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Ron Howell is an associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. A former reporter for Newsday, The New York Daily News, the Associated Press, and the (late) Baltimore Evening Sun, he has spent much of his career covering Latin America and the Caribbean. Tags: , , , , ,