Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thanks (I suppose) Emily Rueb of The New York Times, for calling attention to The New York Crank. And therein lies a tale.

A few years short of five decades ago, when the New York Post was still a liberal-left newspaper, the editor there believed in the infallibility of his far more distinguished rival, The New York Times.

So when a respected Times reporter ran an article “revealing” a city-owned “slum” in lower Manhattan, a very young reporter was dispatched by the Post’s editors to write a feature story about life and misery on city property. I was the reporter.

Charles Dickens
where were you
I needed you?

My bosses were confident I’d come back to the city room with a tale of Dickensian horrors — aged pensioners huddled in freezing apartments, wind whistling through broken windows, rats biting babies, cockroaches feeding on everything else, Social Security checks pilfered from broken mailboxes, tearful widows, crippled orphans…you get the idea.

Instead, I found some tenement buildings that most certainly contained a few violations. They ranged from a missing doorknob on the outside of one building’s front door to a kitchen ceiling that needed painting after an already-repaired leak had been plastered over. All the same, the apartments were a long way from horrid slum hovels. In fact, they were a considerable improvement over some of the dumps that I and a few of my young reporter friends were living in at the time for roughly twice the rent charged to the city’s tenants.

“As you sure of this?” one of the guys on the Post city desk asked nervously when I told him there was no story. And then, referring to the editor, he said, “Jimmy Wechsler will never believe the Times got it wrong.”

Semi-fallible bloggery

Having believed in the fallibility of Times reporters since late 1960 when I visited the little slum that wasn’t there, I’m not surprised by the semi-fallibility of a notably brief piece about The New York Crank that popped up yesterday in the New York Times City Room blog.

To quote the relevant text in full:

Apparently there’s some hate going around about New York City’s taxi industry. [The New York Crank]
I am pleased and grateful, of course, that the Times, or at least Times reporter-blogger Emily S. Rueb, chose to notice, mention and link to my own cranky cranny of the Internet.

In fact, I would have e-mailed a private thank you note to her, if only the Times blog contained a mechanism to do this, or an indication of a Times e-mail address at which she can be reached. Who knows? One of these days someone might even stumble across a news tip that might interest her. Some of the best news stories occasionally fly in over the transom.

All the fits we print are news

Flattered although I am to have caught the attention of the Times, I’m a trifle miffed that Ms. Rueb demonsrated how the Times is still fallible. In this case the fallibility has to do with detecting the point of what you're reporting on.

Yes, I was having a hissy fit. But the fit is not the message. If anything, the admittedly cranky headline was simply a loud linguistic horn to call the attention to the content of the post. I submit:
A) From the headline on, The New York Crank taxi piece was clearly at least as critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg as it was of the taxi industry. Scroll down and see for yourself.

B) One point of the post was that the Bloomberg administration is doing a horrendous job of properly regulating the taxi industry, with quotations concerning that point from a legal brief filed by the industry's own lawyers.

C) Another (possibly useful) point was a list of cranky suggestions concerning how some changed regulations might improve not only taxi transportation, but also fuel conservation efforts, pollution and the city’s clogged streets.
Having said that, I do believe Ms. Rueb may have a great career ahead of her. Getting it wrong — or at least getting it not quite right — would appear to be a path to institutional sainthood at The New York Times. The celebrated reporter whose 1960 slum story proved a bit...shall we say overblown?...was none other than the late Edith Evans Asbury.

P.S. (November 20th): Turns out that if you hunt around hard enough (which I evidently did not when I wrote and posted this piece yesterday) somewhere way, way down on the bottom of the City Room blog there is a section called "Boilerplate" which indeed does provide a way to communicate with the staff there. So I sincerely apologize to the Times and my own readers for having stated otherwise. 

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