N.Y. Times investigates itself

Paper pulls back curtain on its celeb coverage

With a plummeting stock price, dividend cuts, and last week’s decision to mortgage its glimmering midtown headquarters, the New York Times is getting used to bad news.

But getting egg on your face for sloppy reporting in a page-one story? About a couple of celebrities? Criticized by one of your own editors? That’s gotta hurt.

The brouhaha began Nov. 21, when the Times ran a story by reporter Brooks Barnes headlined “Angelina Jolie’s Carefully Orchestrated Image,” which implied that the “Changeling” star and partner Brad Pitt had negotiated a contract with People magazine that not only netted the couple $14 million for photos of their newborn twins but also included an “editorial plan” ensuring positive coverage for them in future People stories.

Fast-forward to the Times of Dec. 7, which found the Gray Lady’s public editor Clark Hoyt eviscerating the piece. After consulting with official sources –among them People managing editor Larry Hackett and the contract itself, neither of which Barnes got access to — Hoyt heard abject denials of the piece’s claims and found no reference in the pact to any kind of editorial sweetheart deal.

Barnes, it turns out, relied on an unnamed third party for his “scoop.”

Then Hoyt put the hammer down: “I think that unless one of (Barnes’) sources is willing to come forward — on the record — and state firsthand knowledge (of the allegations), the paper needs to correct the impression of a deal it cannot prove.”

Barnes’ continued defense of the piece, said Hoyt, “leaves the Times relying on anonymous sources to dispute on-the-record sources, a questionable position over a story of less than world-shaking import.”

Translation: It’s one thing for Judith Miller to have bought the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMDs back in 2003, but punked by Brangelina? Come on.

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