Patch.com, editorial transparency, and monkeyfishing

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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Recently, The New York Times Magazine started using bylines not only for pieces’ writers but also for their editors. It’s a good idea, but it still comes up short: not only should journalists and their editors be identified, but their politics should be identified too.

Patch.com, the new chain of “hyperlocal” websites launched last year by AOL, has done just that (full disclosure: I have done some freelance photography for Patch). When you go to a Patch website and click on an editor’s name, you come to a page with a biography of the editor that reveals his or her personal views and prejudices.

This is how Patch explains its approach:

. . . our policy is to encourage our editors to reveal their beliefs to the extent they feel comfortable. This disclosure is not a license for you to inject your beliefs into stories or to dictate coverage according to them. In fact, the intent is the opposite: we hope that the knowledge that your beliefs are on the record will cause you to be ever mindful to write, report and edit in a fair, balanced way.

So, say you go to the Patch site for Georgetown, D.C. The editor is Shaun Courtney. As part of her bio, she explains her political beliefs and party affiliation:

Politically, I would call myself a progressive independent voter, though I would formerly have identified myself as a staunch Democrat. Once I stepped outside the world of campaigns and started observing politics, I developed a healthy skepticism for it. I am a registered Democrat in the District, but that is largely because I want to have a vote in the primary election.

She also explains her religious beliefs and practices:

Though it would pain the many wonderful teachers I had during my 13 years of Catholic schooling, I do not consider myself a religious person. Generally, I would say my moral compass is guided by Judeo-Christian values, but I do not subscribe to any one religion.

Why can’t The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, The Weekly Standard — and The Daily Caller — have such a simple, informative page? The editors of Patch are right — identifying their beliefs paradoxically makes them more trustworthy. You trust someone whose job it is to provide you with information and isn’t afraid to include their own prejudices in that information. As I have written many times before, in journalism the problem is not as much bias as honor. I would rather be edited by an honorable and open-minded liberal (if one exists) than by a mirthless, clenched and dishonest conservative. Too many editors in the liberal media are grinding axes behind the scenes, without any accountability. Identifying them and their politics can provide what journalists are always clamoring for: transparency.

It might also help editors avoid disasters. When the Times announced last week that feature articles in The New York Times Magazine would have bylines not only of writers but of editors, Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate, was not happy:

Not to go all Ed Anger on you, but editor credits make my bowels seize the same way the “letters from the editor” in some magazines do. Graydon Carter! Shut up and let me read my Vanity Fair in peace! I don’t want to know more about the writer of the story, how the story came together, and how wonderful it is. Just let me intuit all of that from reading the story itself.

I wish [The New York Times] all the luck in the world, but as they say in the business, the story isn’t about you. I see through your transparency.

The irony of this outburst is that a shared author-editor byline could have saved Shafer from one of the biggest journalistic disgraces of the last 20 years — the “monkeyfishing” hoax. In 2001, writer Jay Forman published a piece in Slate that was edited by Shafer. Called “Monkeyfishing,” it described the sport, supposedly popular in the Florida Keys, of fishing for monkeys by attaching fruit to a fishing line and then casting it from a boat onto a “monkey-infested island called Lois Key.” Almost instantly, other journalists called BS. James Taranto in The Wall Street Journal joked about the Ivy League naiveté of Slate top editor Michael Kinsley. The New York Times blew holes in the piece. Forman admitted getting some details wrong, but insisted on its overall accuracy. Kinsley defended him in Slate, while Shafer stayed mostly silent.

Then, in 2007 — six years later — Forman admitted that “Monkeyfishing” was entirely made up. He was prompted to do so by a phone call from two college students doing a project on journalistic ethics.

Now imagine that for those six years, from 2001 to 2007, it wasn’t just Forman’s name on “Monkeyfishing.” Imagine it was Shafer’s — and Kinsley’s. Would the editors have been so reluctant to interrogate Forman if their asses were hanging in the public breeze? Would the truth have been left to a couple college kids? If I were the editor and my name were on the piece, I would have driven to Jay Forman’s house and demanded three hours of his time to go over the piece eyeball to eyeball. That kind of accountability can only be good for journalism. It also prevents bowels from seizing up.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.