Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Kramer vs. Keller

Kramer to Keller (and others):


Mr. Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
The New York Times
229 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Dear Mr. Sulzberger,

I am writing to protest the Times' ridiculous dismissal of Jay Blotcher, who was an upstate stringer for you, because he had once been a member of ACT UP. According to reporting on this incident in the Gay City News of February 26th, Susan Edgerley, the Times' metropolitan editor said, "I am setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of
nterest that might result through the hiring of stringers and leg-people. My motivation is expediency as well as ethics." What kind of gobbledegook is this? Both Ms. Estridge and Jay's editor, Lew Serviss, stated under questioning by Jay and Duncan Osborne who wrote the Gay City News piece:, [Jay's] name was recognized as someone in ACT UP." What kind of McCarthy-type of blacklisting is this?

Blotcher is a well-known writer for gay publications. He is a fine and honorable man, much loved by those who know him, without a mean or spiteful or vindictive or vengeful bone in his body. Jay was praised by his Times editors and given increasingly more assignments. The stories he did write had nothing to do with AIDS or gay. Please explain to me where the conflict of interest lies? He has no current political or activist affiliations. So where is the conflict of interest? Or unethical behavior?

Indeed, what kind of conflict of interest is being a member of ACT UP so many years ago? ACT UP was an activist organization that excited the participation of many many people, both gay and straight, at a time when gay men were literally dying like flies. There are still a number of
members of your staff who fall into this catetgory of early ACT UP participants. Perhaps Ms. Edgerley would like me to provide her with the names of these Times staffers so she can fire them too for conflict of interest, providing they are still alive, which one of the best-known Times ACT UPpers, Jeffrey Schmalz, is not. You do not dismiss Larry Altman from writing for you because of conflict of interest; he writes about the CDC all the time and he once worked for them. Bernard Weinraub writes about Hollywood and his wife heads Columbia Pictures. Talk about conflict of interest. Indeed I have written for your newspaper and your magazine a number of times and no one appeared to find my contributions unethical.
Indeed, just what kind of "ethics" is Ms. Edgerley referring to? I would sincerely like to know. And so should you. Yes, it all smacks very much of McCarthy-type blacklisting to me.

It is a goodly number of years since gay people considered, quite rightly, the New York Times our enemy, for your unconscionable refusal to write about us in any but the most hateful of ways, and for so long, and for your wretched, shameful early lack of coverage of AIDS. And, yes, among other actions, we marched on your father's Fifth Avenue apartment. Since then the world has changed and the Times, thank goodness, has changed, much of this due to your own fine self. To punish now, at this late date, a member of an organization that is now almost moribund strikes me as unconscionable behavior on the part of the Times, all over again.

Perhaps you could investigate and enlighten me on just what is going on here. We are not talking about a full-time or staff writer here. We are talking about an upstate stringer! If the budget of the Times could no longer support his meager income from you, then surely someone should just have fired him and said, "we can't afford you anymore." But to go through this "conflict of interest" and "ethics" stuff is a rather insensitive and possibly, if not defamatory, if not homophobic, if not discriminatory, then perhaps a little bit of each all rolled together into a rather stupid and inexplicable act on the part of someone on your paper.

If past, or indeed current, political affiliations are cause for dismissal, then perhaps you should revise your Times Code of Ethics accordingly or summarily dismiss the scores of NYT staffers who no doubt fit this bill.

And yes, I founded ACT UP. A long time ago. When we were all very young. No conflict of interest on this end.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Larry Kramer

Keller to Kramer:

Dear Mr. Kramer,

Arthur sent me your letter about Jay Blotcher for a reply.
As you undoubtedly know, this paper went through some misery last year that has caused us to undertake a conscientious review of our standards and practices. In keeping with that, our new Metro editor began a review of our stringer list to make sure our policies on conflicts of interest were in force. We employ dozens of stringers at Metro -- although "employ" exaggerates the nature of the relationship, since most of them work only occasionally. (Mr. Blotcher, since joining the list in 2001, has filed four stories and contributed legwork on three others.)
In the review of the stringer list, Mr. Blotcher attracted attention not because of his membership in anti-AIDS organizations, but because of his work as a press spokesman and a public relations consultant. He was, for a time, the public face of Act Up. Although he is no longer in that role, his work was recent enough that we worry he is identified in the public mind as an advocate. (He is certainly remembered as such by editors and reporters at The Times.) Please understand, I have no problem with Mr. Blotcher working for Act Up, and intend no suggestion that he is anything but an honorable man. But we try to avoid employing people who are identified with a cause, because it creates the possibility that readers may wonder if their copy is written in pursuit of that cause. That would be true if he had been a spokesman for the N.R.A., the N.R.D.C., or the A.A.R.P.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the problem created by a history of public advocacy is somewhat easier to avoid in the case of a full-time staffer. Reporters on staff get a lot of management attention, and we get pretty much all of their attention. We can steer reporters away from subjects that may be problematic. But we don't have sufficient editing staff to keep such close tabs on stringers, so our best opportunity to vet them is when we decide whether or not to include them on our stringer list. Particularly after the experience of last year, we are trying to err on the side of caution.
You may argue that we are being excessively fastidious. But the notion that this is some kind of homophobic witch hunt is just wrong.

Regards, Bill Keller

Kramer to Keller:

to bill keller:

dear mr keller. thank you for such a swift response to my letter of concern over the firing of jay blotcher, one of your stringers, for supposed conflict of interest. while i hear your concern for due diligence over your employees' mindsets, i must say that i find the exercise of them in this particular case to have been amazingly petty.

it is difficult to recognize or believe that you exercise much attention to your full time staff as you suggest. to cite but one example, here are a few details about your chief medical correspondent Lawrence Altman's past and current relationships with the Centers for Disease Control, among others. It should be pointed out tha the CDC is never criticized in your paper. It should be pointed out that it is irrefutable that the CDC is eminently worthy of extreme criticism. It is a sorry place and the public heath of this country suffers mightily because of it, and has done for decades:

Altman graduated from the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, class of '63, and then served as an EIS investigator for the agency.

In 2001 he recounted in an article for the Times, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the EIS, of his time in 1963 investigating, as an EIS officer, an outbreak of botulism in Tennessee. [4]

Altman also served as editor of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for three years in the 1960s. [5]

After leaving the CDC, he eventually became chief of the U.S. Public Health Service's Division of Epidemiology and Immunization in Washington. [6]

Altman has for several years also served as an advisor to the National Foundation for the CDC, a nonprofit advocacy organization created by Congress in 1992 that began operating in 1995 with a $500,000 grant from the federal government. The foundation receives $500,000 annually from Congress to carry out its mission, while the bulk of its operating budget comes from public and corporate donations. [7]

The 2001 annual report for the foundation reveals Altman made a donation to the organization, though the amount was not disclosed in the report. [8]

Currently, Altman is on the CDC foundation's journalism fellowship advisory board. He receives no compensation from this foundation. His colleagues include representatives from ABC News, CNN and the Los Angeles Times. [9]

Altman presently sits on the board of directors of the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation of New York, a philanthropic health care and education charity that owns substantial shares of stock in pharmaceutical and medical technology firms, such as Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Pfizer and Schering Plough. [10]

According to the IRS 990 return for the Macy Foundation, part of Altman's contact information is the Times' address and his direct phone number at the paper. [11]

Altman has been a member of the Macy Foundation board since 1985.

Why does your paper not view any of this as a conflict of interest and yet fire an upstate stringer just because he places a few press releases for some gay organizations? it doesn't sound as if Dr. Altman gets any "management attention" at all.

as far as being identified with a cause, as jay is certainly and honorably identified with gay causes, it seems to me i have seen various sulzberger names on many appeals from a number of jewish organzations.