Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gray Lady Down

I have often made reference to my thinking that I am a bit of a Luddite. I guess what I mean is that I am a selective Luddite. I have embraced the iPod, for example, over discs (though I still bemoan the long-ago sale of most of my vinyl). I shoot with digital cameras and can't really bear the thought of shooting film. Hell, I even use a computer. But I have been slow to abandon print media. Reading a newspaper is ingrained in me. I seem to have AADD (acquired attention deficit disorder) when I try to read the news on the internet. I'v also noticed it's affected my regular reading. I'm skipping sentences in books, and magazine articles. I need to hit the mental REBOOT button and get properly rewired for the time before the Information superhighway. Does anyone call it that anymore?

One of my other quirks is--and here is a case of biting the hand that is allowing me this forum-- I don't trust everything I read on the internet. Anyone can blog. Not everyone can be a journalist. There are blogs that have real live journalists with credentials. But a lot don't. I have always accepted as a given that those that write for a newspaper have not only the credentials but a code of ethics to be fair, accurate and as objective as possible. Not quite a Hippocratic oath but an adherence and belief in honesty and comprehensiveness. Alas, it is not the case. Now, along with questioning the existence of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, I must question what I read in The New York Times... the Gray Lady.

Now I know that in recent years there have been charges and admissions of plagiarism, sloppiness and unchecked sources at the Times. But what I found in Sunday's Times was tantamount to omissions and indifference. Not punishable offenses, certainly, but enough to make me question what I read in the paper and whether or not I should save my sheckels for a more reliable source of news. Is Mad Magazine still being published?

Some may think I am making much out of nothing, but an article on the front page of the Sunday Times' Business Section doesn't seem like nothing to me.

The article in question is "Where the Hotel is the Hub-- In Hollywood, the Big Names are Opting for Class, Not Flash." (10/4/2009)

It is (ostensibly) an article about the Sunset Tower hotel in Los Angeles, its policy of protecting its superstar guests from reporters, the papparazzi and so on, and its owner Jeff Klein.

Jeff Klein–"New York society brat turned serious hotelier and restaurateur."

The article, written by Brooks Barnes, states that, "The Sunset Tower, perched on the Sunset Strip, has oscillated between a well-heeled apartment building and a hotel — of various names — since opening in 1929. It was not an immediate hit in its latest form. People didn’t quite know how to take its quiet elegance. And by the way, who was this bubbly but neurotic New Yorker running it?"

Mr. Barnes answers that compelling question after a bit of background on the hotel's history: "As Mr. Klein likes to say, the property has “good bones.” Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Howard Hughes and Bugsy Siegel have all called it home at various times. Legend has it that John Wayne kept a cow on his balcony.

But by the 1980s, the 15-story building had fallen into disrepair. Mr. Klein and a business partner, the developer Peter Krulewitch, bought it for $18.5 million and spent about $15 million redecorating."

Now, would you assume that Mr. Klein and his business partner bought the property for $18.5 million in the '80's? If you did, I think it is quite understandable. But for those who know, know that about twenty years' worth of history was omitted. It was the last paragraph that prompted me to write to the New York Times.

"I was more than a little taken aback at reading the article "Where the Hotel is the Hub" in the Sunday New York Times' Business section. Either Brooks Barnes, the author was misinformed, got dazzled by the “New York society brat” who “owns” the Sunset Tower Hotel, or he just didn’t do his research."

I quoted the paragraph, verbatim, and then finished by writing, "In the mid-80’s the Sunset Tower did indeed go through a major renovation/restoration, but not under the auspices of Mr. Klein. It opened as the St. James’s Club. I know— I designed all the printed materials, from menus to matchbooks while a freelance graphic designer in Los Angeles. It changed hands and names in the 90’s when it became the Argyle. It was under that name and ownership that Tim Robbins was seen on the outdoor cafĂ© in the film, “The Player.” The photograph of Mr. Klein in the article shows him resting on a railing... installed when the hotel was the St. James’s Club."

I concluded by writing, "Mr. Barnes might do well to go to for a very brief history of the building. And the Times might do well to do a bit more fact-checking."

Lo and behold, I received a reply from Mr. Barnes:

pipsqueak celebrity profiler, Brooks Barnes

Dear Mr. Shapiro,

Thank you for your letter about the Sunset Tower article (10-4-09). We take claims of inaccuracy extremely seriously.

The facts of the article are correct. By the 1980s, the hotel had fallen into disrepair; Mr. Klein and a business partner bought it in 2004 for $18.5 million and spent $15 million redecorating.

As you point out, the 80-year-old property has gone through multiple renovations over the years, including the one involving the St. James name. In weighing whether to include this information, we looked at length and focus. This was a story about Jeff Klein and the hotel’s current form, and a decision was ultimately made: We had to live without paragraphs recounting more details of the property’s construction history.

It would certainly have been nice to include the information – we try very hard to give readers a full accounting of the subject matter – and we probably would have given unlimited space.

Thank you again for your careful reading.

The "dilapidated" Sunset Tower apartment building in the process of becoming the St. James's Club, Los Angeles.

Which entry is The Sunset Tower and which is The Argyle?

So, the article on the front page of The New York Sunday Times was a fluff piece on "socialite" Jeff Klein. It wasn't about the hotel at all. I started thinking I missed something.

Maybe I'm living in Gotham and Jeff Klein is the Jewish Bruce Wayne. He may not be cut or talk in a whisper like Christian Bale, but I can almost see him in a Batman outfit. But shouldn't this piece have been in the Style Section, along with wedding announcements and hip bars?

Not like I thought it would do any good, but I wrote back to Mr. Barnes: Thank you for your response.

While the facts of the article may indeed be correct, they do not give readers a “full accounting of the subject matter.”

I am still a bit troubled by the inference that “By the 1980s, the hotel had fallen into disrepair; Mr. Klein and a business partner bought it in 2004 for $18.5 million” gives. It implies the building lay dormant for twenty odd years and Mr. Klein and Mr. Krulewitch salvaged it and restored it from its state of “disrepair.” This is simply a false and misleading inference. I don’t know the cost of the St. James’s Club investment in the property, but it was they that brought the building back from the shambles it was in, reducing it to a skeleton so that it could be both structurally reinforced and reconfigured from an apartment building to a hotel.

As you say, the article was about Jeff Klein and the hotel in its current form. If that is/was the case, all references to costs and history should have been excluded. By mentioning dates and costs, however, the omission of the St. James’s Club and the Argyle distorts the role of Mr. Klein, making his investment and contribution to the current condition of the building somewhat less impressive. The fact remains that he and his partner would have had to spend much more had St. James’s Club never existed, or for that matter, the Argyle. An additional line or two would have sufficed."

And there it sits. A trivial matter, perhaps, but less has caused me undue strife. T?here have been times when I have been reading a crime novel and the protagonist takes the safety off his revolver. I have stopped reading at that point. The author simply has such little regard for his reader that he has chosen not to be accurate. There was one book, by Robert Ferrigno, that I stopped reading after finding a half dozen such inaccuracies. I wrote him an email. Oddly, I never heard from him. Learning that Mr. Barnes wrote a piece about Brangelina's twins for People Magazine didn't surprise me. Nor that, according to the New York Observer (who's tagline is "Nothing Sacred but the Truth.") Mr. Barnes "offered a hard-hitting A1 investigative report on how Angelina Jolie manipulates the press... "

Where are the Pulitzers when you need them?

I found a couple other celebrity profiles Mr. Barnes has written.

And so it goes, yet another example that we are blithely plunging into a cultural abyss, led by the likes of Harvey Levin and TMZ, the fetid interest in Jon and Kate and God knows who else... and the New York Times seems to be picking up the rear. Cue REM... again.