The New York Times’ little censorship problem

The New York Times has a travel blog called “In Transit.”

On Thursday, January 3, 2013 the blog published a post called “Keep Your Shoes On, T.S.A. Tells Some Fliers.” It was written by Emily Brennan.

When I saw the post on Friday, January 4th, it had no comments. That cheery little “Be the first to comment!” exhortation beckoned.

So I did.

Here’s what I wrote:

Pre-Check isn’t new. Those of us who’ve been keeping tabs on the TSA have been writing about this boondoggle and extortion racket for over a year now.

Pre-Check isn’t a guarantee of anything. The TSA says so on its own website. TSA agents still have complete control, and whatever they decide to do or not do to you is according to whim.

You might not have to take your shoes off, you might not have to take your laptop out, you might not get scanned, you might not get groped.

More important, it’s ethically indefensible. It’s the very embodiment of All Animals Are Equal, But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others. Those who participate in it are saying, “Fine; whatever abuse you dish out to other people is okay, as long as you don’t dish it out to me.”

I comment often at the New York Times, always under my real name, at various articles about various subjects. The comment threads are moderated differently — by I know not whom — but they all have the usual rules about keeping it civil, don’t use vulgar language, don’t slander people, etc. When you comment, a little box pops up that tells you your comment will appear after it has been approved and that you will be notified by email when it does.

My comment never appeared.

Hmm, I thought, they must be swamped. Though that was unlikely, because the blog entry had been up since January 3rd and there were no comments at all. But ya never know. I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Articles and blog posts on the TSA usually elicit hundreds of comments at the NYT.

Saturday, January 5th. Still my comment didn’t appear. But I noticed that another comment, submitted after mine, did: by “Mark A” of Berkeley. He questioned the TSA’s competence.

Blogs are usually eager for reader comments, especially newspaper blogs. But sometimes things go wrong in cyberspace. God knows I don’t understand how the whole thing works. So I tried again. I re-submitted my comment on Saturday, January 5th, with this sentence at the beginning:

Trying to post this comment again, since it didn’t appear yesterday when I first typed it.

Saturday passed. It never appeared. Sunday came. Still not there.

On Sunday night, January 6th, I submitted this:

Hmmm. Is there a reason the comment I’ve been trying to post for the past 3 days hasn’t been allowed to post? This is perplexing. If someone is moderating this discussion, I would appreciate knowing why.

I didn’t use any vulgar language, didn’t make any slanderous statements, didn’t post any links, didn’t violate any of the community rules.

I also started asking friends to try posting comments. Several did, including “Susie R,” who submitted the entire text of my original, with my name at the end and a link to TSA News, under her own name.

That didn’t appear either — at first — though a comment by Bill Fisher, one of the writers here at TSA News, did. Bill, as you know, is as critical of the TSA as I am. His comment was allowed to post. So was a different comment by Susie R. Not so a comment by another TSA News writer, Deborah Newell Tornello. In the meantime, comments by other readers appeared. All but two were critical of the TSA and of Pre-Check.

Monday, January 7th arrived. Still no go. I gave up.

Then, at 2:18 pm today, this email appeared in my inbox:

From: [email protected]
To: Lisa Simeone
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2013 14:18:48 -0500
Subject: your comment

It has been approved. Thanks for your interest in our section.

Monica Drake
Deputy Travel Editor

I checked the NYT blog. And replied:

From: Lisa Simeone
To: [email protected]
CC: Susie R
Subject: RE: your comment
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2013 16:06:23 -0500

Thanks, Monica. But actually, it hasn’t. What has appeared is the reprint of my comment by someone else — “Susie R” — Susan R____, a friend of mine — attributed to me. She posted it because my original never appeared. So we thought, okay, let’s try this; let’s see if they post the same text under somebody else’s name. And so it happened.

I don’t pretend to understand all the vagaries of cyberspace, and I am sympathetic to websites that get swamped by comments and can’t keep up. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I’m thankful to Susie for getting my words out there, and for linking to TSA News to boot, which I didn’t do in my original. I’m just puzzled about why my original comment wasn’t allowed to appear on its own.

In the meantime, gentle reader, I saw that the comment by Deborah Newell Tornello had been allowed to post, as well as a second comment by Bill Fisher.

And here’s where the conversation with the NYT editor gets interesting:

Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2013 16:56:33 -0500
Subject: Re: your comment
From: [email protected]
To: Lisa Simeone
CC: Susie R

Hi Lisa –

After reviewing our comments, I see that you submitted one that seemed to suggest that our post was inaccurate. The later comment submitted by Susan does so as well and for that reason we should have rejected it. In these cases, we investigate whether a correction is warranted, and then publish one if it applies.

Thanks and best,

I saved the “wow” for myself and responded thus:

From: Lisa Simeone
To: [email protected]
Subject: RE: your comment
Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2013 17:48:02 -0500

Monica, now I’m even more confused than before. Suggested the NYT post was inaccurate? I don’t understand that. I just wrote my opinion about the TSA and about Pre-Check, didn’t suggest anything about the NYT piece.

Anyway, whatever. Not all things are meant to be understood.

That was a diplomatic way of my telling the NYT editor that I think she’s full of you-know-what.

What is Drake saying? That readers can’t disagree with the NYT? That they can disagree this way but not that way? Then what’s the point of soliciting reader input at all?

And even if I had “seemed to suggest that [their] post was inaccurate,” so what? The New York Times can’t take criticism? It’s that weak? When TSA News readers have pointed out where I’ve blundered in a post, I’ve apologized and issued a correction. I don’t censor their comments.

What is the NYT afraid of?

I don’t know. Several of the 25 comments, which obviously you can read at the link I provided at the top, directly contradict the NYT blog post. They were allowed to appear. So clearly the excuse of “seeming to suggest that a post is inaccurate” is baloney.

Oh, and just for the hell of it, I made one last stab at commenting, a very short reply to another reader elucidating something. I didn’t keep a copy of it. Of course, it hasn’t been allowed to appear.

Perhaps some TSA News readers can try posting at that NYT blog. Let’s see what happens. But be careful — the Times seems to have a delicate constitution. Wouldn’t want to upset it.

(Photo: Andréia Bohner/Flickr Creative Commons)

  • EgyptianLover23

    You’re right. NYT editor Monica Drake is full of you know what. Speaking from experience

  • Ted Chyn

    I posted this comments on NY times on the Billionaire help to finance Hulk Hogan against Gawker may 25 2016.
    ” Have we had enough reality TV? Here comes another episode
    – two gay men (Thiel and Denton) fought over their gayness with a straight man
    (Hogan) in between.Can we have more wholesome entertainment beside the reality TV?”
    It never appeared.
    The same comments I posted on WSJ and it appeared promply. This happened to me many times in the past. My thinking is that the liberal medium is more inclusive related different ideas but this is not the case for NYtimes. On the contrary that the more conservative media such as WSJ is more inclusive and acceptable to free speech and WSJ had proved that I was wrong in judgement.

    Ted Chyn Texas

  • RogerW

    Just posted an anti-obamacare response to one of their ‘editor’s picks’ comments praising the program. Big surprise. My comment never appeared. That only reinforces my opinion that you can’t trust anything the NYTimes publishes. They obviously have an agenda that trumps ‘balanced’ news.

  • Randy

    I’ve had comments approved and then disappear. It also seems that once you’ve had a comment censored, it’s far more likely for future comments to be censored. None of my censored comments (only a handful) have violated any of the Times stated rules/guidelines, not even close. They all, however, have been critical of the author’s article or blog post. It’s remarkable how petty and insecure the Times can be. I just assume that the moderators are unpaid, teenage interns suffering from severe inferiority complex.

    • Daisiemae

      Pretty much like the moderators on CNN’s website.

    • Susan Richart

      It’s interesting to note that recently my comment publication rate has been either “all or none.” Either all of my comments are published or none.

  • Kip Leitner

    My comment about Bill Keller’s promotion of the the National Security State was never printed.

  • dave

    I’ve liked the NY Times comments because they are moderated, so they don’t devolve into name-calling, but the censorship has gotten to be too much for me. There are no written standards, it’s whatever the particular censor wants to allow. I’ve had numerous comments never appear, even though they used no vulgarity, no personal attacks, etc. But I guess the censor found them ideologically objectionable.

  • cahdot

    the nyt is like the government and behaves the same way ..u must agree with them or u are their enemy . i have never had any of my comments to the editor(over years) ever published

  • Liricus

    There is no doubt, the readers comments on the NYT site are heavily censored in totally arbitrary ways. If the comment doesn’t agree with the editor point of view, or simply is not per his/her liking, it doesn’t get posted. Period. So much for a “liberal” and “democratic” source of news…

  • AR_Libertarian

    I too seem to be blocked from the NYDN for posting views contrary to their editorial position. I’ve always been civil, but when I see a blatent position taken, or demonstratively one-sided story reported, I think it should be challenged. So much easier to just block all other voices. Having said that, eventually the market responds, and all they do is diminish their own brand value, or appeal to a limited audience. Of course that has worked well for Faux News.

  • By the way, just reporting that I never heard back from the NYT Public Editor.

    • Susan Richart

      Neither did I when I wrote to her about why my comments were not being published.

  • Guggenheim Fellow and history prof emeritus Norman Pollack writes at Counterpunch:

    “. . . Times groupies, like myself, know the paper does not accept criticism kindly; for me, and perhaps others, failure to publish a Comment is a sure sign that I had struck a nerve, did something very right, which proved unassimilable, while routine acceptance seldom toppled any columns.”

  • I wrote to the NYT public editor yesterday; today I get an email notice that the comment I left last weekend in response to another reader suddenly posted. Quelle coincidence.

  • RB

    On the issue of censorship, a private business has every right to censor speech as they see fit. Doing so may not agree with our personal views and we then have the option to not trade with that business. If NYT censorship polices are offensive then make sure to not buy that paper nor any goods or services from their advertisers.

    A real case of illegal censorship can be viewed daily at the TSA blog, by the hand of Bob Burns and several other government employees who swore to defend the United States Constitution then turn around and work to destroy that document. Why no outcry about that censorship?

    When government makes it policy to stifle free speech without the public making a sound I don’t think we have much hope left.

    • RB, I, for one, have raised an “outcry” about Bloghdad Bob and the censorship on the TSA blog more than once. Here’s one example:

    • CelticWhisper

      This is one of those cases (and I realize I run the risk of starting a political debate on this – I apologize beforehand) where I think it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to apply certain Constitutional principles to private enterprise as well, at least in the case of journalist organizations providing what is purported to be a forum for discussion.

      It seems to me that every civilized nation in the world adheres to some interpretation or another of the principle of free speech. That is to say that in all civilized places, free speech is regarded as a human right.

      NYT can write fine print if they want to, to say “We own this discussion, not all ideas welcome, blah blah blah” but I think it’s worth raging against when even a private business gives the appearance of facilitating discussion but then picks and chooses which parts of the discussion get allowed through or not.

      By all means, they shouldn’t be forced to keep employees who write and publish articles, IN the Times itself, about how “NYT sucks big $ANATOMICAL_COMPONENT.” However, I think that once the Times opens articles up to public comment and discourse, it should be all-or-nothing. Obvious spam or unintelligible gibberish can be deleted, but if a post is on-topic, I would support legal restrictions against deleting or censoring it simply because it happens to disagree with the article’s or editors’ views.

      • Saul B

        I disagree. How is a government that forces privately run presses to publish pieces against their will any different than a government which forces presses to not publish certain items?

        There are numerous news outlets, perhaps more so now than ever before. if you don’t like a particular news outlet’s policies, you are more than welcome to not patronize it and instead turn to another outlet.

        I’ll again make the comparison with letters to the editor: should newspapers be forced to publish every letter they receive? (Ever see the tiny type used in old papers? That negates the “space limitation” argument.)

        • Saul, doesn’t negate the “space limitation” argument. It’s self-evident. I’m not going to get into all this again.

          • Saul B

            You seem to think that just because something is online, that storage is infinite. That managing an archive of thousands of comments per article has no more monetary cost than dozens of comments.

            Regardless: Why should the government have any role in legislating what reader comments a private press must publish? The answer is really simple: if you don’t like how the Times moderates its reader comments, then stop reading the Times.

          • As I already said, I don’t agree with Celtic Whisper’s proposition that private journalistic entities be forced to publish or not publish.

        • CelticWhisper

          Oh, no no no, I didn’t mean to give the impression I was talking about forcing publication. By all means, they should retain discretion over what does and does not get published.

          I only mean that in cases like this NYT article, with specific regard to the comments/feedback system, that they should be required to allow all comments. Disclaimers are more than welcome, so they’re free to say “Comments are not reflective of NYT or its owners, employees, subsidiaries, etc.” But it doesn’t sit right with me that news outlets should be allowed to publish a piece and then pick and choose which bits of public response get heard. I’d say all-or-nothing: You can allow comments or not, but if you allow them, you have to allow ALL of them.

          As for space and bandwidth, right now we’re talking about text, which requires such negligible amounts of data as to be effectively free.

          • Saul B

            “But it doesn’t sit right with me that news outlets should be allowed to publish a piece and then pick and choose which bits of public response get heard.”

            Then don’t patronize said news outlet. Problem solved.

      • CW, thanks. Agree with all but legal restrictions on private entities. No way.

    • Kip Leitner

      Agree — NY Times has the right to censor its reader comments, but they should state that they are doing this to stifle debate and to try to get the public to agree with a certain viewpoint.

  • Saul B

    One small nitpick: It’s only censorship when done by governments. Newspapers such as the Times are privately run, and their editors have full editorial discretion over what appears in their papers’ pages.

    Is an editor at the Times pushing an agenda by excluding certain comments? Perhaps. But it’s not censorship.

    (Full disclosure: I have several comments on the same article.)

    • Saul, I was waiting for this.

      First of all, yes, I saw your comments; I referred to one of them as directly contradicting the NYT blog post yet being allowed to appear. And hats off to you.

      Now for the censorship debate. I beg to differ. We all understand the concept of “self-censorship.” It’s a term we use freely, and correctly. Is it, therefore, impossible for someone to censor himself because censorship can only be done by the government?

      Nonsense. Words have denotations and connotations. And in this case, anyway, even the denotation of “censor” and “censorship” encompasses the deliberate stifling of speech by any person or entity.

    • Saul, you’re conflating “censorship” with “first amendment violation”. Anyone (or any entity) can censor–as Lisa points out, you can even censor yourself. However, only a government body–or an action engaged in by it, or a law enacted by it–violates the first amendment.

      • Saul B

        If you submit a letter to the editor to be published in the printed paper, and it is not chosen for publication, is that censorship?

        If not, then how is this any different?

        • Saul, your view is a narrow one. There is a tendency to assign to a word only the most sensational or controversial meaning. Censorship is merely an activity of controlling information, sometimes by suppression, others by alteration. It isn’t something else when the government doesn’t do it. It’s what it is. This, of course, is why it is illegal when done by the government.

          If I decide not to say or write something, I am exercising some self-restraint, but it is in the form of censorship. Of myself, that is.

          • Saul B

            All newspaper editors have a responsibility to dictate what appears on their papers’ (printed and web) pages. No editor has any obligation to print any particular reader’s words.

            Was there a misunderstanding or mixup in the initial decision to not print Lisa’s words, when other anti-TSA comments went through? Probably. But to cry CENSORSHIP and imply that the Times’ editors are part of a vast conspiracy to suppress anti-TSA comments is absurd.

          • Of course NYT has no obligation to print comments. And Lisa’s blog entry suggests she liberally gave benefit of the doubt that there was a misunderstanding or mixup.

            However, the appearance of numerous other posts critical of the TSA, along with Lisa’s repeated attempts to post her comments, and the same comments appearing under another’s name, etc., are highly suggestive evidence.

            It is in no way absurd to suggest attempts at personal censorship by editors in spite of whatever policy the NYT has. Or even that these people regularly conspire to censor based on political bias in certain cases. Unless, of course, you believe we have achieved human perfection and they would NEVER on the sly inject their own politics into the process. The NYT?? Heaven forbid!

          • Of course editors and newspapers have the right to censor, omit, obliterate, ignore, or do whatever they want with readers’ comments. I’m not contesting that. I’m pointing, for the benefit of people who might not know it, that newspapers do censor things. Things they don’t like. Things that make them uncomfortable. I think people should be aware of this.

            And the “vast conspiracy” charge is bullshit. It’s a cheap, rhetorically lazy way to cast aspersions on an argument without actually addressing the terms of the argument. There’s no conspiracy here that I’m aware of, and I never claimed there was.

          • Saul B

            Then other than a misunderstanding or a simple mistake that led to your comment not being published, why do you feel the editors declined to print your comment yet printed others of a similar vein?

          • I don’t know. That’s why I asked the editor. That’s why we exchanged emails. That’s why I reprinted those emails here. Perhaps you should ask her.

        • Saul, completely disingenuous argument. Of course the two aren’t the same. A hard copy of a newspaper has space limitations. Cyberspace has none. Both the implicit and explicit — as stated on the NYT’s site — understanding is that all comments on-line will appear on-line, unless they violate the community standards.

          Again, if the NYT or any other private enterprise wants to censor comments, that’s their right. But it speaks volumes, and people should know about it.

          • Saul B

            >> But it speaks volumes,
            >> and people should know about it.

            Then do something about it. Go to 8th Avenue and mount a protest so that the world knows that the NYT is a horrible publication because it moderates its comments section.

            Or try to continue to engage Ms. Drake and other editors about why your comment was not posted.

            Or alternatively, write to said editor — “Anyway, whatever. Not all things are meant to be understood.” — making it clear that a response from a NYT editor is not worth their effort.

          • Good grief. What do you think I’m doing? Why do you think I published this on a public blog? And I am writing to Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor.

            Edited to add: And perhaps the line “That was a diplomatic way of my telling the NYT editor that I think she’s full of you-know-what” escaped your notice.

          • Saul B

            Good, then. Keep us posted about the Times’ censorship problem.

          • Johnathane


            I have never had a comment I left at the NYT blocked, so this article allowed me to see what the NYT was not willing to put into their public forum. Or more specifically

            I understand that any private organization is allowed to censor their own property and publications, however the implied openness of a forum and their published rules suggest that all comments that meet their rules will be published. I was a little surprised to find that they did not allow Lisa’s post, and will keep that in mind when reading public comments.

            It may be naive of me to think that a public comment forum would not allow posts based on who wrote them or any other reason than what is listed in their terms of use, but I usually give people and organizations the benefit of the doubt until they prove that I am wrong. If the NYT’s terms of use stated that post may be blocked for any reason or no reason at all, then I would not care that Lisa’s post was not allowed.

      • All of this aside, though, the funny part is that Lisa is attempting to correct the statement that the revised screening procedures are new. That the NYT would *admittedly* censor her comments for THAT is far more ludicrous than doing it for any anti-TSA sentiment!

        • Aaron, other readers also pointed this out, including Saul, and their comments were allowed to appear. The whole thing is just bizarre.

  • mytimetotravel

    Have you contacted the Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan ([email protected])? If not, please do so.

  • atheo atheo

    Why anyone still takes the NYT as anything but a propaganda rag is beyond me.

    It seems that the primary purpose of the NYT is to waste its reader’s time with articles that take 2,000 words to say essentially what could be expressed in 1/5 the space.

    If one really wants the official voice of the state department one can get that at any other US media source anyhow.

    • atheo atheo, agreed. But millions of people do read the New York Times; therefore, they should know that it’s censoring comments.

    • The NY TIMES broke the “kill list”, and has published editorials critical of some of the “Father…I mean HomeLand” issues by the Obama administration. Just to be fair.

      As for this particular problem, I have no idea why they would censor Lisa’s remark. If it isn’t profane, libelous, or especially hateful (hate speech is speech too), then they should have let it go through without issue.

    • It is remarkable that the Times even has a travel blog, let alone the resources to screen comments on it. The NYT is hypersensitive about getting the story wrong, so it’s understandable that it would have a policy like this. I wish it would be a little more transparent about the rule, and more consistent in enforcing it.

      Seems to me that Lisa’s account has been red-flagged in some way, which is too bad. Her voice needs to be heard, if not in the comments, then in the editorial pages.

      (Disclosure: I am a former Times contributor. I now write for the competition. Invert salt shaker for several minutes before reading.)

  • I smell a rat. For one thing, they published Bill’s comment without a problem, despite my commenting much earlier in the day (no slight to you, Bill!) As for Lisa’s comment, that was *days* prior. And then, when they did publish my comment, it was as a stand-alone comment, when I had written it as a reply to another comment. Thus, I pasted what he’d said at the top of my comment. By modifying its location, it now made less sense–where did that quote come from, and who said it?

    I thought about it for a bit, and concluded that the moderator probably pasted it into an email to then send to a supervisor in order to get his or her OK before publishing. Because the NYT does censor–of that, I have no doubt. Especially when it comes to being on the side of Big Government (if you doubt that, I have some yellow cake and metal tubes to sell you). That would also explain why it took so long to appear: the combination of a) my strong criticism of the TSA and b) my name, which I’m guessing someone associated with this blog or mine, where I have been outspoken about that agency’s abuses and crimes. As such, someone felt it necessary to get approval before publishing.

    To a much, much greater extent, Lisa has been critical, too, and she is a public figure, especially since the whole NPR episode hat made the news everywhere: Ms. Simeone dared to publicly side with the peaceful Occupy protesters, and she has been a staunch critic of both the TSA and the burgeoning security state that threatens to morph into full-on corporo-fascism any day now.

  • Folks, it was just pointed out to me that for some reason the comments on this entry were closed when it posted. Showing my aforementioned cyber-incompetence, I have no idea why. It took me 5 minutes just to find the “Allow Comments” box in WordPress. I didn’t even know we had one. I thought comments automatically appeared. Anyway, sorry. Fixed now. (And no, the irony doesn’t escape me.)

    • marilyn

      Lisa…ha…that is rather ironic!
      NYT never printed my comment which was
      submitted twice.

      I didn’t copy it but it was similar to
      this….After 11 years and an $8+billion budget TSA hasn’t caught a
      terrorist but travelers younger than 12 years old and older than 75 no longer
      have to take off their shoes. What a deal!