What a crappy paper - The New York Times and ethics

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Our friend Jay Blotcher, a freelance writer, has been sacked as a stringer for the New York Times because he was involved with ACT UP over ten years ago.

Blotcher, who has been involved with gay and AIDS groups in the past, joined the newspaper as a stringer––a freelance reporter––in 2001 after he left New York City for the Hudson Valley. For much of his employment he contributed stories or reporting without ever getting a byline in the paper.

In late 2003, Blotcher published two stories and, under a new Times policy, his name appeared on those pieces. One story dealt with the trial of a woman who was accused of killing her three children. The second concerned some vandalism on a college campus.

“I never dealt with gay issues or AIDS issues,” Blotcher said.

Someone, an editor, another reporter, or a reader noted Blotcher’s name and recalled that he was once a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.

“There was no complaint,” wrote Susan Edgerley, the Times metropolitan editor, in response to a Gay City News e-mail query. “We recognized the name from his work with ACT UP.”

That was it for Blotcher. On January 12, Lew Serviss, a Times editor, told him the paper would no longer use him in any section. When he appealed to Edgerley she responded, “I am setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest that might result through the hiring of stringers and leg-people. My motivation is expediency as well as ethics––we simply do not spend as much time checking into the backgrounds of independent contractors as we do of fulltime staff people.”


The real problem here is that The Times isn’t committed to its own ethics policy. Let’s look at just two Times reporters.

Lawrence K. Altman is a former employee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and he regularly reports on that agency. Altman also sits on an advisory board that administers a CDC fellowship program. In other words, his relationship with the CDC continues. That would be an actual conflict of interest.

Bernard Weinraub covers the film industry in Los Angeles and his wife heads Columbia Pictures. A portion of their household income, probably the majority, comes from a major player in the industry Weinraub covers. That would also be an actual conflict of interest.

If The Times believed in its ethics policy then it would defend a Jay Blotcher when he follows that policy, but then the newspaper would have to do something about Weinraub and Altman. Neither man returned a phone call seeking comment.

The Times isn’t serious about ethics. The paper, to use Edgerley’s word, is concerned with “expediency.”

Updated: Atrios has more information on The Times's idea of ethics. Also, I see that this was mentioned in the Washington Post last week in Howard Kurtz's column.

3 TrackBacks

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Blocher is still an activist. He got married in New Paltz yesterday as part of a gay marriage protest. Would you feel the same way if a reporter was a member of Operation Rescue? Or campaigning for Bush? Get some perspective. Anyway, reading between the lines, it sounds like the real problem here is he wasn't upfront about his background as an activist. Or the Times didn't even check his background. Didn't they learn anything after Jason Blair?

Question to the poster called Captain Truth --- since when is getting married to your life partner considered activism?

Active in what, life?

Captain Truth,

Did he report on AIDS activism? Gay rights?


You see, that MIGHT be a conflict of interest.

Get some perspective.

getting married is activism? that seems to be setting the bar a little low. what else counts as activism these days? dating? eating? breathing?

personally i think i'm a bit apathetic, but if some of those are activism these days i'll feel a bit more proud of my political activism. heck, i've breathed a few dozen times just typing this puppy! i'm a seriously involved citizen here!

Pretty shocking story. You can write to the NY Times Public Editor at public@nytimes.com. Share your outrage.

Judith Miller lets that nice Mr. Pipes book speeches for her, and reported what Chalabi told her as fact. I think the bar is a little higher than would you object if it were someone who belonged to Operation Rescue (and yes, I would seriously object if someone who disclosed their membership in Operation Rescue reported on issues unrelated to abortion and was fired).

Just emailed the Times ombudsman (public editor on this) -- public@nytimes.com

"Blocher is still an activist. He got married in New Paltz yesterday as part of a gay marriage protest. Would you feel the same way if a reporter was a member of Operation Rescue?"

One expects a journalist (especially one for NYT) to be intelligent, intellectually involved and to have an innate curiosity in the worlds events. It is virtually impossible that such a person would be a political cypher or a static presence in his or her community.

NYT is dangerously engaging in a "scorch-the-staff" policy to eradicate anyone involved in anything other than writing for NYT... whose car sports a bumpersticker with a full, thoughtful sentence... or who wears a lapel pin with anything more startling than "I am a blood donor".

Journalists are professionals. As any professional they should be subject to considerations that face doctors or lawyers... the mandate to perform without interference of bias. Daily, doctors save and maintain the lives of persons who would be political or social adveraries. Ditto lawyers.

Jay Blocher is a sterling journalist. Sorry to see this befall him.

That's insane - I'm on my way to write a letter now.

And I suspect 'Captain Truth' has been smoking some serious crack.

Might I add an update to this discussion? It's from Larry Kramer himself, longtime critic of NY Times reporting on AIDS, and the founder of ACT UP. This was sent to the Times on Feb 29:


Mr. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Mr. Sulzberger,

I am writing to protest the Times’ ridiculous dismissal of Jay Blotcher, who was an upstate stringer for you, because he had once been a member of ACT UP. According to reporting on this incident in the Gay City News of February 26th, Susan Edgerley, the Times’ metropolitan editor said, “I am setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest that might result through the hiring of stringers and leg-people. My motivation is expediency as well as ethics…” What kind of gobbledegook is this? Both Ms. Estridge and Jay’s editor, Lew Serviss, stated under questioning by Jay and Duncan Osborne who wrote the Gay City News piece:, “[Jay’s] name was recognized as someone in ACT UP.” What kind of McCarthy-type of blacklisting is this?

Blotcher is a well-known writer for gay publications. He is a fine and honorable man, much loved by those who know him, without a mean or spiteful or vindictive or vengeful bone in his body. Jay was praised by his Times editors and given increasingly more assignments. The stories he did write had nothing to do with AIDS or gay. Please explain to me where the conflict of interest lies? He has no current political or activist affiliations. So where is the conflict of interest? Or unethical behavior?

Indeed, what kind of conflict of interest is being a member of ACT UP so many years ago? ACT UP was an activist organization that excited the participation of many many people, both gay and straight, at a time when gay men were literally dying like flies. There are still a number of members of your staff who fall into this catetgory of early ACT UP participants. Perhaps Ms. Edgerley would like me to provide her with the names of these Times staffers so she can fire them too for conflict of interest, providing they are still alive, which one of the best-known Times ACT UPpers, Jeffrey Schmalz, is not. You do not dismiss Larry Altman from writing for you because of conflict of interest; he writes about the CDC all the time and he once worked for them. Bernard Weinraub writes about Hollywood and his wife heads Columbia Pictures. Talk about conflict of interest. Indeed I have written for your newspaper and your magazine a number of times and no one appeared to find my contributions unethical. Indeed, just what kind of “ethics” is Ms. Edgerley referring to? I would sincerely like to know. And so should you. Yes, it all smacks very much of McCarthy-type blacklisting to me.

It is a goodly number of years since gay people considered, quite rightly, the New York Times our enemy, for your unconscionable refusal to write about us in any but the most hateful of ways, and for so long, and for your wretched, shameful early lack of coverage of AIDS. And, yes, among other actions, we marched on your father’s Fifth Avenue apartment. Since then the world has changed and the Times, thank goodness, has changed, much of this due to your own fine self. To punish now, at this late date, a member of an organization that is now almost moribund strikes me as unconscionable behavior on the part of the Times, all over again.

Perhaps you could investigate and enlighten me on just what is going on here. We are not talking about a full-time or staff writer here. We are talking about an upstate stringer! If the budget of the Times could no longer support his meager income from you, then surely someone should just have fired him and said, “we can’t afford you anymore.” But to go through this “conflict of interest” and “ethics” stuff is a rather insensitive and possibly, if not defamatory, if not homophobic, if not discriminatory, then perhaps a little bit of each all rolled together into a rather stupid and inexplicable act on the part of someone on your paper.

If past, or indeed current, political affiliations are cause for dismissal, then perhaps you should revise your Times Code of Ethics accordingly or summarily dismiss the scores of NYT staffers who no doubt fit this bill.

And yes, I founded ACT UP. A long time ago. When we were all very young. No conflict of interest on this end.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Larry Kramer

March 1, 2004

Mr. Daniel Okrent
Public Editor
The New York Times
New York, NY
Email: public@nytimes.com

Dear Mr. Okrent:

As you must know by now, a controversy has arisen over The New York Times’ decision to fire freelancer Jay Blotcher, who covered the Hudson Valley for the paper.

The Washington Post’s widely respected media critic, Howard Kurtz, reported in his February 23 column that the Times pushed Blotcher out of a job because of his past affiliation with the AIDS protest group ACT UP. [1]

Following on the heels of the Post’s column was an opinion piece in Gay City News on February 26, which pointed out that Lawrence K. Altman, medical correspondent for the Times, “is a former employee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and he regularly reports on that agency. Altman also sits on an advisory board that administers a CDC fellowship program. In other words, his relationship with the CDC continues. That would be an actual conflict of interest.” [2]

Gay playwright and AIDS community leader Larry Kramer, in a February 29 letter to Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., protested to the publisher about the paper’s “ridiculous dismissal” of Blotcher. Kramer also raised the matter of Altman’s inherent conflict of interest in covering the federal health agency. [3]

Here are a few details about Altman’s past and current relationships with the CDC, which you may not be aware of.

He graduated from the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, class of ’63, and then served as an EIS investigator for the agency.

In 2001 he recounted in an article for the Times, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the EIS, of his time in 1963 investigating, as an EIS officer, an outbreak of botulism in Tennessee. [4]

Altman also served as editor of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for three years in the 1960s. [5]

After leaving the CDC, he eventually became chief of the U.S. Public Health Service's Division of Epidemiology and Immunization in Washington. [6]

Altman has for several years has also served as an advisor to the National Foundation for the CDC, a nonprofit advocacy organization created by Congress in 1992 that began operating in 1995 with a $500,000 grant from the federal government. The foundation receives $500,000 annually from Congress to carry out its mission, while the bulk of its operating budget comes from public and corporate donations. [7]

The 2001 annual report for the foundation reveals Altman made a donation to the organization, though the amount was not disclosed in the report. [8]

Currently, Altman is on the CDC foundation’s journalism fellowship advisory board. He receives no compensation from this foundation. His colleagues include representatives from ABC News, CNN and the Los Angeles Times. [9]

Not only that, Altman presently sits on the board of directors of the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation of New York, a philanthropic health care and education charity that owns substantial shares of stock in pharmaceutical and medical technology firms, such as Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer and Schering Plough. [10]

According to the IRS 990 return for the Macy Foundation, part of Altman’s contact information is the Times’ address and his direct phone number at the paper. [11]

By the way, the foundation reports more than $140 million in assets in the IRS return.

After reading this IRS return, I phoned the foundation and was told that Altman has been a member of the board since 1985.

Additionally, he is a longstanding clinical professor at New York University’s Medical Center’s School of Medicine, and his contact information in this capacity lists the Times as the place where students and teaching colleagues can reach him. He joined the NYU staff in 1970. [12, 13]

Why is it Altman is allowed by the Times to have past and current associations with federal health agencies, serve as a professor at a major university, sit on the board of a nonprofit organization, and the paper does not view any of this as a conflict of interest?

While at the same time, Blotcher’s prior connection to ACT UP is reason for dismissal?

(Full disclosure: I am a friend of Blotcher’s and have been since we met at an ACT UP meeting in 1987.)

I would appreciate a prompt reply.

Michael Petrelis


1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63872-2004Feb23.html
2. http://www.gaycitynews.com/gcn_309/expediencydressed.html
3. http://www.mpetrelis.blogspot.com/
4. http://www.epimonitor.net/EpiMonday/PreviousIssues/01-04-23.htm
5. http://www.uiowa.edu/~ournews/2000/march/0323med_reporter.html
6. http://www.molbio.princeton.edu/courses/mb427/1999/bios/altman_sketch.html
7. http://documents.guidestar.org/2002/582/106/2002-582106707-1-9.pdf
8. http://www.cdcfoundation.org/pdfs/annualreport_2001.pdf, P. 16
9. http://www.cdcfoundation.org/fellowships/knight_leadership.html
10. http://www.josiahmacyfoundation.org/board.html
11. http://documents.guidestar.org/2002/135/596/2002-135596895-1-F.pdf
12. http://www.outreach.psu.edu/C&I/HealthReporting/default.asp?WhichPage=agenda
13. http://www.med.nyu.edu/clinicians/altmal01.html

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