Smirnoff Rebuts and Rebukes the New York Times

A TIRESOME FIGHT WITH THE NEW YORK TIMES

After being misquoted, distorted, and dishonestly portrayed in a New York Times August 8, 2012 piece by Julie Bosman, I soon stopped my fight with them because of fatigue—battle fatigue. Bosman’s article was crushing in itself, but when I complained of that treatment to New York Times offices, I was condescended to, and then ignored, and so in exhaustion I laid down my lance.

(Notice I have left out the name of Carol Ann Fitzgerald from the above. Even though Carol Ann, the immensely talented managing editor of The Oxford American for nine years, was fired on the very same day as me (July 15)—and because of me—the New York Times ignored her in their coverage. Ignored her! I will bring up their weird, cruel slight later.)

There are times when I keep a dictum of Eleanor Roosevelt’s at the uppermost in my mind: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll criticized anyway.” In an era of Internet commentary that is aggressively fueled by a mob-like anonymity and bloodlust, such advice feels even wiser.

Just the same, this business still pains us—as I think it would you, if you were us. Just as I am sure your burdens would overwhelm and dishearten and crush us. 

But there is no need to be polite to the lies that go after you—or the ones that go after us. So, even at the risk of sharing too much, I’ve finally decided to write this follow-up and to share the critique of Julie Bosman and the New York Times that I wrote up in August and sent to the New York Times, but which was denied by them.

WHO THE HELL IS JULIE BOSMAN?

Near the last stages of editing this rebuke, Carol Ann shared with me a blog entry she had found regarding Julie Bosman called “Who the Hell Is Julie Bosman?,” which had appeared on Corrente on May 15, 2008. 

Prior to meeting Bosman in August of 2012, I Googled her name and read a few articles by her. I remember thinking her writing was flat but innocuous. Ha, ha, silly me. 

I now regret, naturally, that I had missed the Corrente post. 

Some of the comments include: 

“[A]nother feather in the cap of ace protector of free speech and degreed professional journalist Julie. Surely, having taken down the human target to whom she was assigned, she would be brought back to the Home Office [of the New York Times] in triumph.... [A] little hit piece; a classic of the genre, in which Bosman once more takes a collection of small and large facts and warps them into slander.... ‘Not only do incompetent people reach incompetent conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.’.... Incompetent people have risen to the top.... [T]he point of the post is that the New York Times has become infested by political operatives hiding behind the skirts of the First Amendment.... Julie Bosman and other infestations like her are agents of change....” 

And so on. 

To read the Corrente critique of Julie Bosman for yourself, please visit this link: “Who the Hell Is Julie Bosman?” 
SMIRNOFF V. NEW YORK TIMES

Many people, like me, routinely, or uncritically, expect much of the New York Times. We not only trust and rely on it, we sort of believe in it. 

Because of its worldwide power and impact, the New York Times is always consequential so my advice to anyone fated to be the subject of a New York Times article is: Be Lucky. If your story contains nuances and complexities, “your” writer must be attuned and equal to them or the result could be devastating—for you, at least. So, yes, pray that the media gods of the New York Times assign a caring, smart reporter—and diligent editors—to your story.

I’m actually confident, or hopeful, that most of the people who are written about in the New York Times are treated fairly, evenly, justly.

But I do not believe that any person, let alone any big corporation, is perfect. It follows then that mistakes—even absurd, lopsided mistakes—must sometimes happen in any human environment.

IMPERFECTION AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

That is why when I say Carol Ann and I were portrayed (or neglected) unfairly, inaccurately, and untruthfully in Julie Bosman’s August 8 Times article, my argument shouldn’t be dismissed just because many people—whether general readers or media insiders—are in the habit of thinking that, all things being equal, the New York Times is mostly reliable.

Labels like “mostly reliable” and “better than average” do not guarantee perfection or protect people from mistakes. These labels merely suggest that you should have been treated fairly and honorably by them, not that you were.

JULIE BOSMAN AND HER SLANT OF CHOICE

Julie Bosman, the reporter of the Times article, had three possible slants available to her.

Slant 1: She, Julie Bosman, could believe that The Oxford American Board of Directors, which is run by OA Publisher Warwick Sabin and his buddy OA Chairman of the Board Rick Massey, was right to fire managing editor/art editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald and me. (Massey and family were the largest donors to Sabin’s recent political campaign, see: http://votesmart.org/candidate/campaign-finance/136638/warwick-sabin.)

Slant 2: She, Julie Bosman, could believe that Sabin and The Oxford American Board of Directors made a mistake in firing us. 

Slant 3: She, Julie Bosman, could have been impartial about the firing of Carol Ann and me. She could have attempted the slant of non-slanting and tried her sincerest to give space to equally relevant and coherent arguments and counter-arguments about the matter. She could have left her “literary” devices—such as melodramatic scene-setting and jaunty mischaracterizations of real human beings—in the trash.

Bosman chose Slant 1. 

With as much bias and force as the mediocre Bosman, the very best reporters slant things. But those greats know they must be right in their slanting and bias or nothing else in their articles can live.

Such people are thinkers and writers as much as they are reporters and they lean on their slants only after an honest, diligent search—only after using every power within their grasp and brains and, in Nabokov’s beautiful phrase, only after caressing the details, the divine details.

Like the best artists or the best human beings, they doggedly link their professional standing and personal self-worth to every choice they make. Reporters of the caliber I am speaking about don’t rush their work and steam-roll over actual human beings simply because the New York Times has given them space and a deadline—and a reputation to hide under. You could even say that beyond being anti-lazy, anti-stupid, anti-uncaring, the best reporters are deeply moral.

A LONG BUT TRUTHFUL VERSION OF OUR FIRINGS

To read our (long but truthful) account of our firings, please see “Our Story of Losing The Oxford American” at editorsinlove.com.

JULIE BOSMAN’S INEPTITUDE CAN BE FOUND IN HER OWN WORDS

Carol Ann and I contend that reporter Bosman not only took the side of the three very disgruntled employees (two of whom I had just fired) who lied about us, but that she very basely pretended there was only one side to this story—theirs.

To try to prove the charge of Bosman’s bias—and unlike her, I, at least, know the difference between a charge and a proven, verifiable truth—I will remind you that, even though Carol Ann and I have not been found guilty in a court of law, Bosman does not even once use the word “alleged” in her article.

Instead, she treated the closed-door kangaroo court of Warwick Sabin and his OA Board of Directors as if they had, if not celestial, at least federal powers. Her implications throughout seem to be that Sabin’s proceedings against us were similar to what can be found in our Constitution—which promises that everyone accused of a crime in the United States of America is allowed:

a. to face his or her accuser(s)

b. to respond to the charges

c. to be presumed innocent until proven guilty

and

d. to be judged by an “impartial jury.”

WHAT JULIE BOSMAN KNEW

As Carol Ann and I told Bosman repeatedly and emphatically, we were:

a. never informed of the specific charges against us (we had to infer those from questions that were posed to us a few days before we were fired)

b. never allowed to face our accusers

c. never allowed to see the “report” of the case that was delivered to the OA Board of Directors and prepared against us by “investigators” (i.e. lawyers) hired and personally paid for by OA Chairman/Sabin Political Supporter Rick Massey 

d. given a total of 24 hours to submit “proof” of our innocence even though our access to all proof (our computers, phone-texts, office documents, etc.) had been confiscated and withheld from us by Warwick Sabin

and 

e. not “allowed” to say one word in our defense to the body, “the court,”—i.e. the Oxford Board of Directors—that so glibly and superficially, and with emphatic bias, decided our guilt

WARWICK SABIN’S USE OF POWER BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

In a Smithsonian magazine article of Sept. 2012 about the Chinese artist and dissident (and Nobel Prize winner) Ai Weiwei, I was struck by this detail:

The [Chinese] authorities keep him [Weiwei] in the news by, for example, hounding him for tax evasion. This past summer, during a hearing on his tax case—which he was never allowed to attend [emphasis added]—his studio was surrounded by about 30 police cars.

Those words suddenly prompted me to understand that Warwick Sabin’s idea of behind-closed-doors justice is comically totalitarian. Like any over-polished politician, he cynically mouths platitudes. Given an opportunity to go power-mad behind closed doors, he snatches it hungrily. 

IS WARWICK SABIN AN HONORABLE MAN?

In the state of Arkansas, employees can be fired for any reason—even for the color of his shirt or shoes as two different lawyers told us. This is called the “at will” law. 

Carol Ann and I recognize that our Arkansas “at will” law gives Warwick Sabin all the loopholes he needs to behave cowardly and cravenly.

But we also know that it doesn’t COMMAND him to behave cowardly and cravenly. The law merely provides him that option. 

That is, there is still the matter of free will and we contend that OA Publisher/State Representative (D-Ark.) Warwick Sabin had a moral obligation to treat the founder of the magazine and the magazine’s second most crucial editor with much more fairness and transparency than he obviously demonstrated.

We also contend that Sabin’s OA Board had the same free will and moral obligation. For them to be uninterested, for example, in hearing from us directly before deciding our fates showed a complete lack of integrity and goodness.

WARWICK SABIN COULD BECOME AN EFFECTIVE POLITICIAN, BUT WHAT KIND OF HUMAN IS HE?

For four years, Sabin and I ran the magazine this way: He was 100% in charge of all business matters; I was 100% in charge of all editorial matters. Sabin had zero involvement in the editorial operations of the magazine, though he increasingly acted as if he resented this. To my last breath on this fine planet, I will maintain that after hearing the claims of three disgruntled employees, Warwick Sabin owed me a phone call or some other direct confrontation. He needed to man up and say something like this to me:

“Smirnoff, I know we are friends and long-standing colleagues, but I have just received serious complaints about you from the three people you either fired or threatened to fire yesterday. If you are guilty of what they say you did, there will be hell to pay for you and I will not support you. So there must and will be a serious investigation. Because I have already heard their version of events, I must now hear your version of events. And you’d better be straight and transparent with me—if I detect one iota of bullshit from you, you’d be well-advised to consider me your enemy.”

But nope. I didn’t get a call or any kind of message like that from Sabin. He made up his mind immediately and decided to use this opportunity to take over the magazine.

ALL OF THIS I TOLD TO JULIE BOSMAN OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

With the exception of the anecdote about Ai Weiwei, all of the above, and much, much else, was conveyed to Julia Bosman of the New York Times in a three-hour interview she conducted with us in Conway, Arkansas, in July of 2012.

Our story was imparted to her in no uncertain terms—with no fudging or fogginess. We denied in detail every charge or insinuation Bosman asked about. She heard clearly that we did not agree with the disgruntled trio’s accusations—we called their allegations “false charges”—and she heard us say that we considered Sabin’s upholding them as truth-tellers to be grotesque and cynical. 

Yet a person reading Bosman’s August 8 Times piece could possibly think the firings of Smirnoff and Fitzgerald were an open-and-shut case whose details and verdict were agreed upon by all—including Smirnoff and Fitzgerald.

By not ONCE using the word “alleged,” and instead treating every charge against us as truths already established in a genuine city, state, or federal court of law, Julie Bosman somewhere forgot a most basic legal and moral truth—the idea that accused people are considered innocent until proven guilty in a real courtroom. 

By confusing charges with facts, and by deciding that we were guilty as charged, reporter Bosman somewhere along the way joined Warwick Sabin’s kangaroo court and turned into...Judge Julie!

DECIDE FOR YOURSELF. JULIE BOSMAN LINK IN THIS PARAGRAPH

Since you do not lead our lives, you will not remember the false details of Bosman’s article (if you did read it when it came out, you will just remember feeling that we must have been guilty of whatever we were charged with….). 

To replenish your memory, you may click here to find Bosman’s unedited article as it ran in the Times on August 8, 2012.

MY E-MAILED RESPONSES TO THE NEW YORK TIMES ABOUT JULIE BOSMAN’S ARTICLE OF AUGUST 8, 2012

Below, please find my e-mailed responses to Bosman’s New York Times article, which I sent off just a few days after reading Bosman’s creation. 

My letter of complaint against Bosman was not printed in the Times’ letter section nor was any retraction or apology granted even in those instances where incontestable factual inaccuracies were pointed out.

VITAL POINTS IN MY LETTERS OF COMPLAINT TO THE NEW YORK TIMES 

In my critique of Bosman’s article, I had to note a large number of errors but I emphasized three main points: 

MAIN POINT 1: Julie Bosman’s assertion that I agreed with a fired intern’s “version of events” is false (and, to my veteran eyes, libelous). I did not. To Bosman’s face, I called the fired intern—over and over—a liar. There was no way for me to be clearer on this point—yet Bosman “missed” it? Really? Really, truly? 

MAIN POINT 2: Julie Bosman’s inhumane reduction of Managing Editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald to “girlfriend.” By turning Carol Ann’s nine years of first-rate professionalism into a nasty one-liner, Bosman (a supposed feminist!) can also skip over the main flaw and hypocrisy in Team Sabin’s campaign (which she does): The firing of Carol Ann Fitzgerald.

Our contention: The only reason Carol Ann was fired was that she was my ally.

Bosman’s implication: That because she is my girlfriend, Carol Ann doesn’t count. Beyond the mere ugliness of her thinking there is disturbing hypocrisy at play: as she well knew, two of the three people who lied about us were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time (ex-Senior Editor Wes Enzinna and current OA staffer Amy Ellingson). Bosman also knew that Warwick Sabin himself had hired his girlfriend (now wife) to work at The OA (from which perch, she might also have helped run his political campaign).

If Bosman is implying—as I think she was—that it was improper for me to have a girlfriend working for me, why does she pick on me and Carol Ann alone and ignore the boyfriend/girlfriend relationships of other people implicated in this mess?

Bias?

For the record, in my twenty years at The OA, I have worked with some amazing editorial talent (and some fools too) and for nine long, tough years, Carol Ann Fitzgerald was the best managing editor and art editor in the magazine’s history. There are many people who worked very, very closely with her who will believe and support this statement. (They aren’t named anywhere here, by the way.) 

MAIN POINT 3: The fact that Bosman did not mention the all-important, utterly relevant name of OA ex-Senior Editor Wes Enzinna in her piece. The VERY day after I fired Enzinna on July 6 is precisely the first time he ever cobbled together the absurd claim that Carol Ann had sexually harassed him nine months previous.

We have surmised that the only reason Carol Ann was fired was because of Enzinna’s absurd and unbelievably tardy complaint.  

The very rulebook that Sabin and The OA Board claimed to be adhering to in firing us, “THE OXFORD AMERICAN EMPLOYEE HANDBOOK,” twice emphasizes, in writing, that all complaints against colleagues must be made “immediately.” 

Question a: In whose rational and untainted mind does the timeframe of “nine-months old” equal “immediately”?

Question b: In whose rational and untainted mind does a nine-months-late charge that is only mentioned the very day after somebody has been fired not raise suspicions?

Answer to both questions: In Warwick Sabin’s! In The OA Board’s! In Julie Bosman’s!

BOSMAN’S BIASED SILENCE TOWARD A COLLEAGUE?

At the time of her article, Enzinna had recently contributed a story to...you are not going to guess this, right?...the New York Times Magazine.

NEW YORK TIMES GAMESMANSHIP

Instead of addressing any of these serious and troubling three main points, the New York Times representatives/ethicists who responded to me each chose instead to reply to just one slighter, much less consequential charge. Such trickery has been termed the “Red Herring Fallacy.” To quote Mark B. Woodhouse from A Preface to Philosophy (Wadsworth, 2000): “Logical red herrings...are deliberately introduced into arguments in order to divert the attention of the audience from the real point.”

WHAT I’LL NAME “THE REPORTER’S NOTES FALLACY”....

In their responses to me, as you will see, both Times authorities treat Bosman’s “memory” and “notes” as sacrosanct.

But if somebody’s honesty is being questioned should we allow that specific person’s own words and “memory” be the end-all and be-all of an “investigation”?

Of course I knew the Times would talk to Bosman, but I didn’t think they’d stop there and allow her to be the judge of her own case. (Remember: I think Judge Julie sucks as a judge.)

To investigate a person accused of wrongdoing, sources and checkpoints separate and beyond the person in question are clearly needed.

Instead, the Times ethicists want us to swallow the tale that a New York Times writer is always right and true and always beyond reproach.

The Reporter’s Notes Fallacy: If you ask a thief if he stole your watch, he will say no. If you ask him if his memory is correct on that issue, he will say yes. If he happens to have notes that touch on the crime in question and he is asked about them, he will say his notes confirm his innocence.


WHY THIS IS A BIG ISSUE BEYOND THE PARTICULARS OF WHAT HAPPENED TO SMIRNOFF AND FITZGERALD IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

Anybody remember Jayson Blair and his long career at the New York Times fabricating facts and stories?

One reason he got away with his con for so long is that whenever Blair’s reporting was called into question, Times authorities merely asked him if his memory and notes were in order and when he replied with yes, they let him be.

Only in the sloppy world of newspaper journalism is relying on the testimony of a reporter considered “thorough” factchecking.

In the more arduous world of magazine fact-checking, the writer is considered just one source whose facts and quotes and interpretations must jibe with logic and with the facts of other independent and reputable sources.

Until the newspaper world gets serious about fact-checking, frauds and distorters will continue to run amuck in their pages.

Yes, such foolishness happens in the magazine world (see Stephen Glass), but the serious factchecking that attends the better magazines should make it harder to abuse people and truths in print—and that’s at least something. 

REAL-LIFE FACTCHECKING VS. THE NEW YORK TIMES JAYSON BLAIR SYSTEM OF ALWAYS TRUSTING-THE-REPORTER

Why the New York Times, with its embarrassing history of publishing frauds, isn’t more serious about fact-checking is an important question. Will someone, other than myself, please ask them about it?

(By the way, the knee-jerk argument that serious fact-checking is “not feasible” or “too expensive” for daily newspapers does not mean it would have no affect there. The kind of fact-checking that I support would affect the slant and meaning of many published stories. You will notice that the excuses for not having better fact-checking at newspapers never touch on the related subject of whether money spent in promotions or CEO salaries shouldn’t be re-prioritized or whether such pieces would improve the quality and fairness of coverage.) 

NEAR THE END OF THIS MESSAGE

Because New York Times articles are treated as The Last Word on the Truth by other media outlets, Bosman’s distortions have sprung up as the basis for many other articles on us. None of these writers and bloggers (I have not read all the commentary about our “case”) called or e-mailed us with questions or interest in our perspective; they just run with, and toy with, what they read in the Times.

Well, it still repulses me that New York Times should be smug and condescending in their treatment of real people. As a very powerful newspaper, the Times should strive, without exception, to be honorable and fair when they are accused of error. If they are sent a list of 10 or 100 thoughtful complaints, they should answer each one thoughtfully. They should not try to distract their audience with insincere or petty replies or by addressing only the lesser of many charges.

BY THE WAY....

Carol Ann and I have never pretended to be perfect. One day I might compile a list of mistakes I made at The Oxford American and I’m sure the final word count would exhaust this one, but my mistakes (and Carol Ann’s) never included sexual harassment—and I (and she) will not accept responsibility for deeds or crimes that we did not commit. 

And that’s why, even though we find the business of defending oneself very taxing, I have decided to pop up again to chide and taunt, with truthful arguments, the smug abusers of power who think they can’t or shouldn’t be criticized. 

I will express what I feel I must and as best I can, and even if I am mocked or ignored (and I will be, po’ me), I will still imagine the possibility that the goons themselves might read what I write here (because their egos can’t resist) and that they might feel a surge of fear and embarrassment and realize that somebody else, even somebody they can easily mock, has detected the darkness in their hearts that they thought would be forgotten or overlooked. And I can hope that insight, that fear, affects them; causes them to pause before doing something like this again to someone else. 

THE GOOD STUFF

Some people might have endured such dishonest and public firings as Carol Ann and I experienced with more forgiveness, serenity, class, love—and fewer words! I can only salute such superiority.

But if we get to a place where what we experienced doesn’t hurt so much, we think it will be through the kindness of friends and strangers.

The people with heart and soul who did not run from us, who listened to us—not uncritically, not stupidly, but humanely and honorably—have given us our hope.

Some people we didn’t expect anything from warmed us with their miraculous ability to understand or be kind. In a globe flowing with millions and millions of bodies, my private little tragedy has renewed my awareness of the power that belongs to each individual. The mob is powerless. Only you and I have power.

We give thanks from our hearts to those real-life friends who wanted to hear from us before they passed judgment on us. 

We are also grateful for the minority who sensed something wrong in the New York Times hatchet-job or in Warwick Sabin’s slippery tongue (or in the sycophantic inertia of his OA Board of Directors).

May we be as good to others in their times of need as those friends and strangers have been to us.

Thank you, good people!

Had enough?

And now, below my signature, you can find the words that went from me to the New York Times authorities and how they replied. Just the uncut raw stuff! You can decide for yourselves whether their defense of Julie Bosman is more penetrating than my critique. And may you caress the details in judging these statements and find peace in your judgments.

Thank you,

Marc Smirnoff