Is the NYT "arrogant and hermetic"?

Reuters' Felix Salmon slams the Times' retelling of how the bin Laden story broke

Published May 8, 2011 5:09PM (EDT)

Official narratives about what really happened during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound have proven controversial and pretty unreliable in the past week. It seems now that narratives about how the news broke are proving controversial, too.

Reuters blogger Felix Salmon took the New York Times’ Arthur Brisbane to task Sunday for his retelling of how the bin Laden news broke.

Salmon writes:

Brisbane is the NYT’s ombudsman, and today he describes the way that the paper broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Well, he can’t do that, because the NYT didn’t break the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. But he ignores the people who did break the news, and just tells the story of how the official NYT machine worked.

In Brisbane’s account, the story broke when, at 10:40 pm on Sunday night, published the news, given to reporter Helene Cooper from a source at 10:34pm, that bin Laden has been killed. Brisbane then writes how the Twitter frenzy followed and Salmon particularly mocks how Brisbane does not even link to original Tweets in his story. All Brisbane's links go to other NYT stories (a move Salmon calls "arrogant and hermetic."

Salmon points out the narrative Brisbane missed:

As far as Twitter is concerned, the news was broken by Keith Urbahn at 10:24pm. But it really got momentum from being retweeted at 10:25pm by NYT media reporter Brian Stelter, who added the crucial information that Urbahn is Donald Rumsfeld’s chief of staff. Urbahn, here, gets the goal, but Stelter absolutely gets the assist…

How come Brisbane is ignoring all this? Stelter was way ahead of the rest of the NYT, but Brisbane incomprehensibly discounts his excellent work. That might be because he doesn’t consider tweeting to be part of a NYT reporter’s job.

Appropriately, Stelter responded to Salmon’s blog post on Twitter. "My tweets were the product of internal guidance, chats, common sensery, etc-- they weren't raw RTs,” he wrote, partly in response to a tweet from Jeff Jarvis, who suggested that Stelter’s tweets had contravened the NYT structure. Stelter’s tweeted response refutes this, but does little to counter Salmon’s charge that the Times is an hermetically sealed environment.

To an extent, this is just another media bust up, which comes down to an argument over minutes (whether the story broke at 10:24pm or 10:40pm seems of little import compared to almost every other aspect of the bin Laden death story). However, Salmon points to something bigger, that is, the Times -- which continues to set many of the fulcrums on which stories in the U.S. media hinge -- often fails to look outside of itself. To illustrate this, Salmon also points to  editor Bill Keller’s recent column in the publication’s magazine about war photographers.

Keller, Salmon notes, talks about the Times’ reporters and freelancers (mostly Western) and does not mention locals or fixers (despite a heated ongoing debate about the Times’ treatment of the fixers they use, which Salmon mentions). In this way, the New York Times is not just "arrogant" as Salmon charges, but risks a short-sighted,  all-too-Western focus.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Media Criticism Osama Bin Laden