That Times-Journal Feud, and the Two-Year-Old Story Behind It

The slugfest between The New York Times (NYT) and The Wall Street Journal (NWS) is getting nasty -- or as nasty as a feud between two newspapers that still insist on using honorifics on second reference can get, anyway.

On Monday, we brought you news that the managing editor of the Journal, Robert Thomson, had accused his counterpart at the Times, Bill Keller, of trying to influence a journalism prize judging committee with a letter that cast "aspersions" on the Journal and one or more of its employees.

Neither Thomson nor Keller would discuss the incident in detail, but the New York Observer's John Koblin did the legwork and learned that the letter in question was sent in March 2008 to the committee that administers the George Polk Awards and addressed what Keller saw as a misrepresentation of a report by the Journal's Shai Oster on China's Three Gorges Dam. Keller wanted the Polk committee to retract a claim that the Chinese government planned to relocate 4 million people in response to the problems with the dam that Oster had brought to light; in fact, he says, the resettlement plan was only tangentially related to the dam.

Brauchli Letter Revealed

Now the Journal is responding to the disclosure of Keller's nearly two-year-old missive by making public the response that its then-editor, Marcus Brauchli, sent to the Polk committee after learning of Keller's objection. Brauchli, now executive editor of The Washington Post (WPO), says, in part, that the Times, in its own reporting, also linked the relocations to the dam's problems. A Journal spokesman says Keller's letter was aimed at tarnishing the Journal in the eyes of the Pulitzer Prize committee, which hands out its awards a few weeks after the Polks.

We here at DailyFinance are all in favor of newspaper wars. But could you two find something more recent and less snoozy to bicker about?

Here's the full text of Brauchli's letter.

March 6, 2008

Dr. Robert D. Spector, Chairman
The George Polk Award
Long Island University
1 University Plaza
Brooklyn, New York, 11201-5372

Dear Dr. Spector:

Rebecca Blumenstein has sent me word of a complaint by Bill Keller about the language in a press release about the Polk awarded to Shai Oster.

Mr. Keller's claim is a surprise to us, and we believe it is without merit. He bases his assertion on a government news-agency report that conflicts with other government news-agency reports he could as easily have cited. Our articles, which your press release describes, rest on our reporting.

In his letter, Mr. Keller challenges the accuracy of your press release and, by implication, our reporting. He asserts that the relocation of four million people has "only an indirect relationship to the dam itself." He goes on to say that "any claim that China plans to move so many people as a result of the problems, much less as the result of any newspaper story, is false."

We have never claimed that China announced the relocations as the result of our articles. But China is planning relocations and they are connected to the environmental situation surrounding the Three Gorges. "Some local officials say the new relocation is purely about spurring economic growth," Shai Oster's article of Nov. 6 says, "but the government's own researchers recommended millions of relocations to respond to the environmental hazard."

Mr. Keller should know this: his newspaper followed the Journal's lead in writing about relocations connected to the troubles at the dam. "The Chinese government has announced that it will relocate an additional three million to four million people from the banks of the Yangtze River because of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam," Howard French wrote in the Times. The New York Times hasn't published a correction, as far as we know.

Mr. Keller also suggests that he is unable to determine "the pedigree" of the claim that China hopes to relocate more people as a result of problems surrounding the building of the dam. Our sourcing is crystal clear in the article. We relied on interviews with government officials, China's official Xinhua News Agency-the same agency Mr. Keller cites in his letter-scholars and members of government-backed think tanks who provided the research for resettlement plans.

On Nov. 27, several weeks after our story ran, Chinese cabinet officials held a press conference in which they defended the dam, even as they acknowledged rising costs to address its environmental impact. The Wall Street Journal and the Times both filed pieces on the government response. The Journal included the official's assertion that the additional relocations were not related to the dam. The Times chose not to include that denial in its story, or to address the issue of the resettlements at all.

In our articles last year, we acknowledged that there are several factors at play behind the relocations, which we cited in our coverage. But there is no question that the paramount reason for the pending relocation lies in the environmental problems triggered by the dam, which were known to government officials long before we first reported them.

For years, the subject of the Three Gorges Dam was so sensitive that discussion of it was virtually banned in China, despite growing evidence of problems as the water level rose. Journal reporter Shai Oster's story on the unforeseen environmental problems at the dam on Aug. 29, along with his subsequent coverage, finally broke that silence and spurred vital reporting and questioning of the project that continues today.

We take great pride that your committee found our coverage worthy of a Polk, and we stand by our reporting.

Sincerely,

Marcus W. Brauchli
Managing Editor
The Wall Street Journal

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