'Times' Gets Faked Out on 'Diary' Entry
LUKE BURBANK, host:
This is DAY To DAY. I'm Luke Burbank.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
Hell hath no fury like the Gray Lady scorned, or lied to. NPR's Mike Pesca has the story of what happened after the New York Times published an item that it didn't realize was fake.
MIKE PESCA: The New York Times is called the Old Gray Lady, a holdover from the days when all the pictures were black and the writers hued to a more restrictive prose style. Or the phrase could refer to the target audience of a regular column the Times runs called Metropolitan Diary. Readers send in anecdotes of overheard conversations and funny signs, which are said to typify the New York experience. The style is arch and the milieu is decidedly bourgeois, like this.
Unidentified Woman: Ruth Stern's daughter, visited from Eastern Europe, was paying for her purchases at Loehman's. The cashier offered her a card that would give her discounts throughout the year. She refused, saying she didn't live here. Where do you live, the cashier asked? Bulgaria, the daughter replied. Isn't there a Loehman's there, the cashier responded?
PESCA: In the Metropolitan Diary, no one says anything; - they exclaim, remark or declaim. It just gets to Ken Freedman, a co-host of a radio show called Seven Second Delay on the community radio station WFMU. Each week Ken sits alongside Andy Breckman and they try to come up with something to do for an hour on the air. A few weeks ago, they decided the Metropolitan Diary was going down. They and their listeners would concoct the perfect fake Metropolitan Diary entry.
Mr. KEN FREEDMAN (Seven Second Delay): One listener called up and said there's got to be a child with a stock portfolio. And one of the other qualities that we had talked about was that it tends to be greatly overwritten. And another listener, actually one of our DJs, Irwin, called up and said, you've got to use the word consternation.
PESCA: And then Andy, a former writer for "Saturday Night Live," and the creator of the TV show "Monk," perfected the effort. This is their ideal entry as read on the air.
Mr. ANDY BRECKMAN (Seven Second Delay): Dear Diary, as I was heading out of my Upper East Side apartment building to a leisurely breakfast, I happened across a neighbor whose husband is a well known stock trader on Wall Street.
Already, alarms should have gone off.
Mr. BRECKMAN: Ah, happened upon a neighbor - who's a well known stock trader on - I don't know.
Her darling five-year-old son had overheard daddy on the phone with a client, and was quite concerned. Quote, I know daddy sells things at his job, he remarked with consternation. But why oh why did he say he would sell my shorts?
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: The paragraph was submitted to the Times by the radio show's volunteer blogger, a 21-year-old student at Wesleyan University named Andrea Silenzi. She put her name on the anecdote. An editor for the Times called and Andrea, somewhat hesitatingly, she says, confirmed that yes, she had overheard it. The piece ran the next week, prompting Ken to boast on the radio show blog, we snookered the New York Times. And that's when Andrea received this voice message.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLOCK (Metropolitan Diary, The New York Times): Andrea Silenzi, this is Michael Pollock for the Metropolitan Diary. There's a problem with the letter from you that I published. Please call me as soon as you can at 212…
Ms. ANDREA SILENZI (Student): I don't want him to yell at me. I was really worried that he was going to yell at me.
PESCA: That's Andrea.
Ms. SILENZI: And I like - that's me being 21 years old, but…
PESCA: But she figured she had to call.
Ms. SILENZI: The first thing he said to me was, what do you have to say for yourself? And the moment I began talking, I heard this typewriter going on behind me and I panicked. I turned really stumbly and he basically took this as a sign that he could harass me. He called me arrogant. He said there's so much about me on the Internet, I must be quite the arrogant little person. And he said that the Metropolitan Diary ran on a system of trust, and you people destroyed that trust.
PESCA: Up to this point, Andrea's worst fears were being admonished by an editor at the New York Times for her past actions. But then, Pollock in his consternation struck out at Andrea's aspirations.
Ms. SILENZI: He saw that I was interested in applying for a Fulbright Scholarship. He said, I wonder what the Fulbright committee would have to say about your behavior?
PESCA: It dawned on Andrea. The New York Times was trying to destroy her.
Mr. BRECKMAN: It seems kind of jerky to me.
PESCA: Andy couldn't believe that this incident could threaten Andrea's scholarship.
Mr. BRECKMAN: To say that to a girl, to come down - you know, a person in that kind - with that kind of authority and power, sitting in that chair, to make that phone call and say that to a young woman, it just made me furious. And so we did a second show about it.
PESCA: Andy struck back the only way he, a comedy writer, knows how. He hatched a hair-brained scheme, which though well intentioned, only served to make matters worse. A follow-up show ended with Andy phoning an unamused Michael Pollock.
Mr. POLLOCK: When I spoke with Ms. Silenzi, she was very proud of herself and thought that she had struck some kind of great blow for coolness.
PESCA: Pollock went on to note that the Times does not publish exclusively for young trendies, or for policy wonks, or anybody. And within this mix, Pollock explained, rests the Metropolitan Diary, a somewhat sentimental but genuine outpost of sincerity and light mirth.
Mr. POLLOCK: Its audience consists largely of elderly people who look on it as a kind of one bright spot in a week of otherwise gloomy news.
PESCA: Pollock's explanation really ruins the comedy script. This was shaping up to be the classic slobs versus snobs romp. But here the crusty old editor had turned the tables. He defended sincerity. He stood up for old ladies. He may have even turned the jesters into taunters. But Pollock didn't stop at the verbal defense, as Andrea soon discovered.
Ms. SILENZA: He sent a letter to the communications director at Wesleyan University, who apparently had a meeting with one of my deans last week to discuss the contents of the letter and decided what action Wesleyan wanted to take. And the dean I met with was the dean who oversees the judicial board.
PESCA: Andrea was left to wonder if the Metropolitan Diary prank would besmirch the rest of her undergraduate accomplishments.
Ms. SILENZA: I just pictured an interview with a dream job and them saying, and there seems to be a - we noticed something about - can you explain this New York Times situation? Did you lie to them? And me kind of just turning blank and saying, have you read the Metropolitan Diary? It's really silly.
PESCA: Wesleyan has decided not to pursue the matter at this time. Neither Michael Pollock nor the newspaper would comment for this story beyond a terse statement saying that it's their policy to correct fabrications. Left unanswered is if the Times defends the proportionality of the editor's response. He did file his complaint on official letterhead. Will we soon see the paper alerting co-op boards or grand juries? Be advised, the person before once lied to the New York Times.
It's all so troubling. Let's end on an up note.
Unidentified Woman #2: Museum of Natural History. Four-year-old Colin, greeted by a herd of elephants. Colin asked, are they real? No, his grandmother replied. They're stuffed. Finally a long silence, and Colin's next question, why did they eat too much?
PESCA: Kids, they sometimes make mistakes, a lesson the Times finds either amusing or infuriating, depending on just whose elephant is being stuffed.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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