Bloggers Wife: Threat To Public (And Times Union)
Recently, my wife, Jane Weihe, wrote a letter to the editor of the Times Union newspaper in which she criticized their coverage of the proposed renovations for the city’s Finance Office. The newspaper responded that in order to publish her letter she would be required to make substantive changes.
The correspondence really speaks for itself but I would like to make several introductory observations regarding this controversy.
Jane’s letter criticized the Times Union Newspaper and the reporter, Wendy Liberatore by name. The newspaper responded that Ms. Liberatore’s name could not be used since, they asserted, all the stories are a collaborative effort. You will see in Jane’s letter that she addresses the significance of a byline. I would add to this (a bit snarkily) that using this logic, were a TU reporter awarded a Pulitizer Prize they would have to decline it since all published work in the paper is, according to them, a collaborative effort and cannot be attributed to any one person. For that matter, any letters congratulating the proposed awardee would have to be rejected.
As the readers will note, Rex Smith, editor of the TU, was copied on all correspondence. I would assume anyway that as editor this policy reflects his standards for journalism. As many will know, Mr. Smith opines on a radio program on WAMC called the Media Project. This program is supposed to analyze media coverage. I think the comedic character of the following letters raises some concern about Mr. Smith’s expertise on what constitutes good journalism.
From: Jane Weihe [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Monday, September 19, 2016 3:22 PM
To: TU Letters <TUletters@TimesUnion.com>
Subject: Saratoga Springs Finance Department renovations–letter to the editor
Shame on Wendy Liberatore and the TU editors for their front page treatment of proposed renovations to the Finance Office in Saratoga Springs. I’m not sure what source Ms. Liberatore used to conclude that the renovations to the office which include a bathroom and kitchenette were for Commissioner Madigan’s private use but I would suggest she use caution before trusting this source in the future. These and other proposed renovations are not for the Commissioner’s private use. Instead the plans call for a much needed upgrade to the rather dilapidated Finance office including public spaces, and improved facilities are for the use of the entire Finance Department staff. I would urge the folks at the TU and their readers to take advantage of Commissioner Madigan’s invitation to tour the space and see the renovation plans first hand for a more accurate view of what has been proposed. Tours will be given every Tuesday at 2PM from October 4 to November 1.
44 White Street
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
First Response From Times Union
From: Tyler, Tena On Behalf Of TU Letters
Sent: Tuesday, September 20, 2016 12:25 PM
To: ‘Jane Weihe’ < >
Subject: RE: Saratoga Springs Finance Department renovations–letter to the editor
Thank you for writing. I’m interested in the letter; however, a couple of issues would have to be addressed.
It’s fine to criticize the Times Union, but we don’t publish ad hominem statements against individuals including reporters. Stories that are published are the result of a collaborative process. So, if you want to say “Shame on the Times Union…,” I would consider that for publication.
Also, the article doesn’t say that the renovations are for the commissioner’s private use, and letters are used for commentary on print-published content. There is a link to the story and a copy of it below. It says the renovations are for the private use of that department, which includes the commissioner. And, unless these facilities are going to be open to the public, then it would be for the private use of that department. However, if you would like to say “…early online versions of this story made it unclear who would benefit from the restrooms and kitchenette…” then I would consider that phrasing.
If you’d like to edit the letter and resubmit, I’ll consider it.
Senior Editor, Engagement
News and Information Services Department
Albany, NY 12212
Fax: (518) 454-5628
Jane Weihe’s Response
From: Jane Weihe 
Sent: Wednesday, September 21, 2016 8:04 PM
To: Tyler, Tena <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Smith, Rex <RSmith@TimesUnion.com>; Jay Jochnowitz <email@example.com>
Subject: my letter to editor
Dear Ms. Tyler:
I found your response to my letter to the editor rather troubling. While I appreciate your generous effort to assist me in writing a letter that would be acceptable to your newspaper, you have raised a number of issues that I think are at odds with the tradition of American journalism.
The first, and in many ways most problematic issue, is your requirement that my letter not refer to the reporter by name. I understand that a reporter does not operate independently, and that their work is subject to the review by and consultation with at least their editor. The basic nature of a byline, though, is that it establishes who is accountable for the work. By placing their name as the author (byline) they are informing the public that they have researched the story and that they take responsibility for its accuracy and professional standards. One would assume that were an editor to insist on changes that the reporter believed undermined the honesty of a piece, the reporter would decline to have their name associated with the story. The “byline” in journalism is fundamental to the integrity of journalism. Knowing Ms. Liberatore, I would assume that she would share this sentiment and that she would be the first to take responsibility for a story to which her name was attached. If you are asserting that all the stories in the TU are ”the result of a collaborative process” and thus no one person is responsible for a story then perhaps the paper should do away with bylines and replace them with “written by staff” or better yet list the names of all those who were involved.
As to your characterization that my letter was an ad hominem attack on Ms. Liberatore this seems to me to be an abuse of the phrase. “Ad hominem” is defined as “an argument directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.” My comments certainly did not attack Ms. Liberatore’s character. I did not accuse her of being immoral, incompetent, or a bad person. In fact I believe Ms Liberatore was a very good dance critic for many years at the Gazette and is a person of integrity who takes her work seriously. Instead I took her to task for her position in an article that bore her name, that is, “a position that she was maintaining”. Ms. Liberatore’s original piece characterized a number of renovations as for the private use of the Commissioner. I pointed out that in fact the renovations were designed to serve the entire staff of the Finance Department. A front page story that would lead the public to believe that an elected official intended to spend many thousands of dollars of public money to frivolously indulge themselves is extremely damaging. The failure to accurately reflect the true nature of the project was to any reasonable person, reckless to say the least. I can fully understand that your paper might respond defensively to the word “shame”, but in this particular case it seems entirely appropriate.
There is also your direction that I should rewrite my letter to state that “…early online versions of this story made it unclear who would benefit from the restrooms and kitchenette…” “Unclear” is a rather Orwellian euphemism here for what is straightforward inaccuracy. The original version of the piece was quite clear and quite wrong in asserting that the restroom and kitchenette were for the Commissioner’s private use.
I must say that as problematic as Ms. Liberatore’s article was, the sensational and even more reckless headlines and captions were even worse. In many ways, Ms. Liberatore’s errors were radically exaggerated by the New York Post-like headlines. “Finance Chief Michele Madigan’s budget includes a private bathroom, a new ceiling and a kitchenette for her use” was the headline that went out on Twitter and Facebook. “Taxpayers on Hook for $750K” was the headline in the email sent out to the electronic subscribers (which we are). The photo caption in that version states “Work on City Hall office of Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan will include a private bathroom, kitchenette, and storage area as well as a private conference room” again suggesting this was for the Commissioner’s private use in “her “office not in the Finance Department’s office.
Your paper does deserve some credit for rewriting the story even though the headlines were not much of an improvement and continued to suggest the perspective of the earlier version. It would have been more honest, however, and more in keeping with journalistic standards had the paper indicated that this new story was not merely an “update” but in fact a correction.
Finally, I am struck by how threatened the Times Union appears to be by my letter. When I sent the letter I fully expected that you would probably simply publish it as a token gesture of your tolerance to criticism and acknowledgement of the problems with the article to which you had given such prominence. Of course I thought also that you might not publish it, but I never expected you to suggest I rewrite it to include a statement that “earlier on line versions of this story made it unclear who would benefit from the restroom and kitchenette” when it was unfortunately certainly not unclear. I do not intend to put my name on such a statement to help sanitize what the paper did. I am, though, rather amused that you should go to such lengths to have me craft it to your approval.
My short letter was never going to begin to mend the damage of the story your paper published. I consider the letter I wrote originally to be sharp in its criticism but fair and well within the bounds of good taste. If you feel that it threatens Ms. Liberatore and your newspaper, I expect you will exercise your power to simply not publish it. The world will go on.
44 White Street, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
518 573-1732 (cell)
Last Response From Times Union
From: Tyler, Tena On Behalf Of TU Letters
Sent: Tuesday, September 23, 2016 12:25 PM
To: ‘Jane Weihe’ < >
Subject: RE: Saratoga Springs Finance Department renovations–letter to the editor
Thank you for your note. As it happens, it is our standard guideline for letters criticizing articles that it is the Times Union that is identified, rather than individual writers, for the reasons I explained in my original response. I’ve re-included that email; the issues described in it remain unchanged. If you’d like to re-submit the letter tweaking in the ways described below, I will consider it. Otherwise, I understand that you don’t want the letter published.
5 thoughts on “Times Union Protects Public from Letter from Blogger’s Wife”
The problem here is that the lawyers have weighed in. Your ethics and integrity notwithstanding the paper will not accept this type of liability and you should not either. The reporter can sue you for slander if this were published in the TU. Oh wait you published it here so you are hooked. Be on the look out for a letter for an attorney that names you in damages.
Why would saying “shame on you” be libelous?
it isn’t. “Paula” often uses bogus legal sanctions as a means to get people to withhold information they might divulge. I am still waiting to hear from the city attorney for posting material showing the McTygues gave away water connection fees to developers, even though it was released at a city council meeting.
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Well written by Jane, but “the power of the press” usually wins.
Hi John, as a bylined journalist for several publications, I want to state emphatically that the TU’s policy, as detailed, does not speak for me.
Speaking for myself, I always make sure that when something goes out under my name – regardless of whether it is a political/crime story, or one about your child’s baseball team or dance troupe – is as thorough and accurate as possible. I believe journalists need to know that they enjoy quite a bit of power, and therefore – responsibility – primarily because they get to communicate with the reader in a mass, one-way format.
Lives can be affected, plain and simple. This journalist knows this – and I believe all responsible ones worry about it. I recall going to sleep on many occasions, with a story going to press in the morning – wondering if that story was as accurate as it could be. When I would finally sleep, it was because I could look myself in the mirror and feel I had done all I could do. But still, you worry. Because you care about what goes out under your name – nestled within a (ostensibly) credible publication.
And yet, mistakes are made. You’d be surprised – for instance, 15 sets of eyeballs could look over a story, and STILL miss a typo in a prominent place.
But, it is what you do in response to a mistake that makes all the difference. And this is where the TU’s attempted ‘management’ of reader responses is completely abhorrent.
They are embarrassing themselves, and I, for one, am ashamed of them. And the impact leads to the increasing distrust and disgust that people have about media today.
I may buy a TU subscription today, so I could cancel it. On the other hand, will they edit my cancellation if I put it in writing? Just saying…
Look, in today’s ‘wild west’ of the Internet / blogosphere, things are looser, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sticking my head in this arena, you have to play the game. Someone is free to call me an a–hole (and spell it out) and post it anonymously even. Perhaps I’ll get a few of these 10 minutes after John posts this. Fine.
But, speaking for myself, everything I put out under my name is thought about – a lot – sometimes to excess. But I can look you in the eye and say that it is the best it can be. So can many of my colleagues, but I invite them to speak for themselves, and/or call me an a–hole lol.
So far – no comment as to the merit(s) in Ms. Liberatore’s story. This, in my opinion, can be summarized in three words: sloppy, regrettable, and (since this is a blog) bullshit.
The only thing that I am enjoying about writing this is that I get to salute Ms. Jane Weihe. Jane, you are one of a small group of ‘go-to’ people I contact for an independent, thoughtful perspective on any issue facing the city. I endorse everything you wrote to the TU – 100%.
In fact, I like what you had to say so much, that I now offer to clean YOUR bathroom sometime!
Perhaps Ms. Liberatore will join me for an off-the-record convo about dance, and maybe, writing.
If so, I am sure we could learn from each other. But rest assured, John, not one word of that chat will reach this blog.
I take great pains to sign this note.