A P.C. Lynching
August 18, 2001
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The business section of the New York Times today turns an interesting but silly Los Angeles magazine article on the editor of Variety, Peter Bart, into a vicious smear.
Let's take it from the top. The Times reports that Mr. Bart "was suspended today because of derogatory comments about blacks, Jews, and gays that were attributed to him in a magazine article." The article also reports that the Los Angeles magazine article says "according to more than a half-dozen people, Mr. Bart uses derogatory terms about other minorities, gays and women at meetings."
The New York Times never reports what exactly the "derogatory comments" were, allowing readers to imagine the worst. Here's what the "derogatory comments" about Jews and blacks consisted of, in the words of the Los Angeles magazine article:
Over several months he will volunteer that he has never once dated a Jewish girl, never attended a seder, and has been inside a synagogue only once, for the bar mitzvah of then-agent Michael Ovitz's son. ("I wanted to see what one was like.") "Listen, I got berated by the vice president in charge of business affairs at Paramount," he says, "because I did not take off Jewish holidays. And I was affronted. I basically told him to mind his own damned business."
At one point he tries to explain his discomfort by comparing himself to his longtime assistant, a light-skinned black woman: "She struggles with this, too. She feels she's a black person. But she's about as black as Felix [Bart's Siamese cat]. I feel she is a bit victimized by, again, that need to identify with some subculture that will help you. "You talk to a lot of the better-educated, wealthy black people. You know, they're not very black. The big distinction is between the people they call 'niggers'--who are the ghetto blacks, who can't even speak, can't get a job, and bury themselves in black-itude--and those people who are better looking, better educated, smarter, and who own the world: the black middle class," he says. "A lot of people in Hollywood--let's say if they happen to be Jewish people who come from Brooklyn--they are most comfortable with those people. Which is fine. It just doesn't happen to describe me."
These are clumsily worded overgeneralizations, but there may well be some truth to them. It's not derogatory to blacks or Jews to observe that there are differences between the black middle class and the ghetto poor, and that some Jews are more comfortable with the black middle class than with the ghetto poor.
As for Mr. Bart's supposedly derogatory comments about gays, here's what the Los Angeles article reported: "A gay man says that Bart asked him about his health during a job interview. Another former Variety reporter heard Bart say, 'I'm not hiring any more fags, because they get sick and die.'"
Again, a crude comment, but Mr. Bart's supposed anti-gay prejudice apparently hadn't kept him from hiring gays in the first place -- a fact the Times readers never learn. Also absent from the Times article is this information from the Los Angeles magazine article: "In contrast to the comments people attribute to him--which he denies making--staffers say he has treated ailing gay employees well. During his tenure Variety has begun acknowledging longtime companions in obituaries of gay people. Bart has promoted women and tried, with limited success, to diversify Variety's mostly white staff." It's unfair of the Times to report on Mr. Bart's supposed "derogatory comments" without including this information about his behavior.
The Times article is similarly silly in its discussion of Mr. Bart's supposed journalistic sins. The Times reports that Mr. Bart called his lawyer "a scrupulous New York practitioner" in print without disclosing that it was his lawyer. Well, while disclosure was probably warranted, it's hard to assess the magnitude of this sin without knowing if the lawyer was in fact scrupulous. If all Mr. Bart did was tell his readers the truth about his lawyer, what's to get excited about? If the Times, or Los Angeles magazine, for that matter, has any evidence that the lawyer in question is less than scrupulous, it should come forward with it. In the absence of such evidence, they should leave Mr. Bart alone on this point.
The same reasoning applies to Mr. Bart's "praising in print a film executive" who had bought the movie rights to one of his projects. Again, disclosure was probably warranted. But it's hard to assess the magnitude of this sin without knowing if the executive was in fact worthy of praise. If all Mr. Bart did was praise an executive who deserved praise, what's to get excited about? If the Times, or Los Angeles magazine, for that matter, has any evidence that the executive in question is less that praiseworthy, it should come forward with it. In the absence of such evidence, they should leave Mr. Bart alone on this point.
Mr. Bart's other supposed journalistic sin was to "call his friends and sources 'to vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments.'" Again, without knowing what the adjustments were, it's hard to say whether this is troubling. This, in part, is what editors do -- vet stories with their sources. If the vetting makes the stories more fair and more accurate, then it is a good practice. If the vetting makes the stories less fair and less accurate, then it is a bad practice. It's unlikely that Mr. Bart went along with every single adjustment that his friends and sources suggested -- more likely, he used his editorial judgment, which is exactly what he is paid to do.
The stunner here is for all his henpecking of Mr. Bart for his supposed lack of disclosure, the writer of the New York Times business section article today fails to disclose that he is married to an entertainment industry executive -- who is regularly covered by Mr. Bart and his publications. Nor does the writer of today's New York Times article disclose that he is mentioned by name in the Los Angeles magazine article and described as a "veteran reporter" -- and that Mr. Bart himself is quoted in the Los Angeles magazine article citing a previous article by this same New York Times reporter as an example of "the nastiness of journalists toward each other."
Smartertimes.com isn't suggesting that either the New York Times writer or Mr. Bart should have to disclose all this stuff always. But it does seem like a pretty brazen act of hypocrisy for the New York Times to write an article about a magazine article accusing Mr. Bart of failing to make enough disclosures -- and then for the New York Times writer to fail to disclose itself that in that very magazine article, Mr. Bart is quoted accusing the same New York Times writer of "nastiness."
Disclosure: In 1994 Peter Bart interviewed the editor of Smartertimes.com for a job at Variety. A pleasant conversation turned into an offer of freelance work that I never ended up pursuing. He didn't make any derogatory comments about anyone, so far as I can recall. We haven't spoken since.
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