Times Editor: Lack Of Disclosure On Merkin Op-Ed Is No Big Deal

April 7, 2009 8:25 am

Here’s another one to add to the growing list of “newspapers acting badly”…

Late last month, the New York Times published an op-ed by Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer to the Times Magazine, on the Bernie Madoff mess. The curious premise of the piece seemed to be that Madoff’s “victims” (the quote marks are Merkin’s) aren’t really blameless, since “no one was holding a gun to anyone’s head, saying sign up with Mr. Madoff or else.”The argument seemed tendentious at best — but there was a bigger problem. As numerous bloggers quickly pointed out, Merkin’s parenthetical disclosure — “I did not know Mr. Madoff nor did I invest with his firm, but have a sibling who did business with him” — didn’t come anywhere close to fully informing readers about her personal tie to the case.

That sibling is Ezra Merkin, the financier and former chairman of GMAC, who was the second-largest institutional investor in Madoff’s funds, losing billions of other people’s money. In a civil suit filed this week by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Ezra Merkin, who collected over $40 million from Madoff’s funds, was charged with “betraying hundreds of investors” by lying to them about how much of their money he had invested with Madoff, and by failing to disclose conflicts of interest.

But the Times doesn’t appear to agree that the disclosure was inadequate enough to fix — even now that Ezra Merkin has been formally charged by state authorities in connection with Madoff’s scheme. In a brief phone interview, editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told TPMmuckraker that he had no plans to revisit the issue, even to edit the online version of the now-17-day-old article to offer readers fuller disclosure.

Indeed, Rosenthal appeared dismissive. “I answered this call against my better judgment,” he said. “I thought you had something more substantive you wanted to talk about.”

Pressed as to whether or not he viewed the issue of disclosure in the Merkin op-ed as substantive, Rosenthal replied: “I’m just not interested in discussing it.”

Rosenthal’s view seems to run counter to that of the paper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt, who told TPMmuckraker in an email sent this morning that he plans to address the issue in this Sunday’s column. But as the tagline of Hoyt’s email makes clear: “The public editor’s opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.”

Rosenthal’s and the Times‘ siege mentality strategy is doubly puzzling given that initially he appeared to agree that there should have been more disclosure. Two days after the op-ed appeared, Gawker posted an email from Hoyt to a reader, in which the public editor wrote that “much more needed to be spelled out” about Daphne Merkin’s conflict, and added that Rosenthal “agrees that there should have been greater disclosure,” but “does not contemplate an editor’s note.”

Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment on the op-ed.

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