Spotlight 2.0: Child Sexual Abuse and The New York Times

By Nancy Levine
June 23, 2016

If silence is the jet fuel of child sexual abuse, why would any media outlet keep mum on reporting related news? Why hasn't The New York Times reported on developments related to the Child Victims Act in New York State? Does the newspaper have a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict?

The proposed legislation, authored and long-championed by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.

In related news, the Forward reported that child sexual abuse survivor Sara Kabakov is working with Assemblywoman Markey to help champion the Child Victims Act. Ms. Kabakov came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward, identifying herself as the then-14-year old alleged victim of former rabbi Marc Gafni, as reported by The Times in December:

"Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love. He added, 'She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.'"

And this:

"A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni 'a bold visionary.' He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni's center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch."

As it happens, the wife of New York Times Publisher and Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Gabrielle Greene Sulzberger sits on the Whole Foods Market board of directors. According to 7/20/15 proxy statement, Mrs. Sulzberger's 2014 Whole Foods Market annual cash compensation was $422,049. According to 6/18/15 SEC reporting, Mrs. Sulzberger held 64,666 shares of Whole Foods Market stock.

Presumably there is no causal relationship between The Times' absence of reporting on the Child Victims Act and the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to quell any concern about conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict, given Ms. Kabakov's involvement with Assemblywoman Markey to champion the legislation, wouldn't The Times want to pay extra attention to reporting on the Child Victims Act?

The Times has also not followed up on its December story about Whole Foods' connection to Marc Gafni. The newspaper did not report on protests at Whole Foods in New York and at the the supermarket company's widely heralded first 365 store launch in Los Angeles.

The Washington Post covered the story: "Protesters' problem with new Whole Foods concept: An ex-rabbi's alleged sex scandal." The Post reported that Matthew Sandusky, founder of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and adopted son of convicted Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky, joined protesters in Manhattan, decrying Whole Foods' silence about its CEO's relationship with Mr. Gafni.

Update 6.20.16: Whole Foods co-CEO Mackey released a public statement last week about his relationship with Gafni, as reported by the Forward. The Times has not followed up on the story.

The Times wasn't shy, however, about covering Whole Foods' new 365 store launch. Neither was any other media outlet. Bloomberg reported Messrs. Mackey and Sulzberger fêting Whole Foods' 365 inaugural opening:

"At a recent party to celebrate 365 in New York, guests included Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who is also co-chief executive officer, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. They chatted with celebrity chef David Chang over Fuku sliders and noshed on vegan chocolate cookies from By Chloe with Samantha Wasser, one of the founders of the trendy vegan eatery in the West Village."

The New York Daily News, among other outlets, reported extensively on news related to the Child Victims Act. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he is backing the bill. The Catholic Church paid lobby firms $2 million to block the legislation. Hundreds of survivors and supporters, including New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 5.

The Times has published items related to the Child Victims Act in the past, including a 2014 opinion piece authored by the Editorial Board: "Justice Denied for Abused Children." In it, the Board noted that the bill "will continue to languish until Mr. Cuomo, who has been missing in action on the matter and is now seeking re-election, confronts intense lobbying by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents of reform." So why didn't The Times report news of Governor Cuomo's announcement and the Catholic Church's $2 million payout to lobby firms?

Given the spate of news items about sexual violence, e.g., the Stanford swimmer, Sandusky, Cosby, Hastert, Baylor University, etc., why isn't news about the Child Victims Act the focus of a "coverage cluster," as part of The Times' new editorial strategy?

On May 22, I emailed The Times executive editor Dean Baquet and asked him why the newspaper was not covering news related to the Child Victims Act, making this mention:

"I am not saying there is a causal relationship between The Times absence of reporting on the Child Victims Act and the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to assuage any remote concern about conflict of interest, I would like to invite The Times to closely consider what it deems newsworthy."

Mr. Baquet responded:

"Only someone quite paranoid would see such a connection."

Survivors of child sexual abuse are painfully familiar with Mr. Baquet's response. Rule No. 1 in the Gaslighter's Playbook: Respond to survivor's concern with "you're paranoid." Survivors of child sexual abuse have every good reason to be paranoid. Did you see the movie Spotlight about the systemic coverup of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church?

In the film, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, was the driving force behind the Spotlight team's investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Mr. Baron is now executive editor of The Washington Post and still shining a spotlight on the topic of child sexual abuse. Mr. Baquet slammed the door shut, keeping child sexual abuse in the dark closet.

Fortunately, the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse is shifting. When a survivor voices a concern, and is met with "you're paranoid," he or she can now turn to a growing community of survivors, supporters, and advocates for a reality check.

In this case, I asked professors of journalism for a reality check on The Times' reporting.

David S. Allen, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee emailed:

"I would argue the [Times] needs to be open and transparent about connections. If there was no conflict of interest, it should tell people why and what it is doing to make sure corporate connections do not interfere with news coverage."

Sandra Davidson, Professor, Curators' Teaching Professor, Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri, Adjunct Professor, School of Law emailed:

"How about full disclosure-transparency?  Then let the readers decide how to weigh the various factors in formulating their opinions."

I emailed this blog post to Mr. Baquet. Our dialogue followed:

DB: Dear Nancy, Can I be frank? I get tons of reader notes, and I try to respond. But I can't quite keep up with your various agendas. And I can't edit The Times for you personally. So forgive me if I don't actually check out every note you send. It is starting to feel just a tad like you are on a crusade. Best, Dean

NL: Thank you, Dean, I appreciate your candor and your response. I can assure you my only agendas are social justice and excellence in journalism, so we're on the same side. Best, Nancy

DB: Yes, but I think you're [sic] definition of excellence in journalism is coverage of issues you want covered as an advocate of particular causes. Mine is a little bit broader. My only point is forgive me if I don't respond to everything. Best, Dean

I am not asking Mr. Baquet to edit The Times for me personally. Rather, I am asking him to consider covering news that affects the one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys who are victims of child sexual abuse. I am asking on behalf of adult survivors, those who support them, and everyone who is interested in eradicating the pandemic. I am asking him to pay extra attention to breaking the culture of silence that allows child sexual abuse to continue, and prevents long-festering wounds from healing.

The Stanford swimmer's father reduced his son's rape of an unconscious woman to "20 minutes of action," a statement that has become a rallying cry, emblematic of rape culture. Doesn't "She was 14 going on 35" warrant equal outrage - and related news coverage?

Questions remain: Why isn't The Times covering news related to the Child Victims Act? By what criteria does The Times calibrate newsworthiness - and in what ways is news about the proposed legislation falling short of the hurdle, not qualifying for coverage? Does The Times have a conflict of interest or the appearance of one? Even if the question about conflict of interest is factored out of the equation, doesn't this matter call for discourse rather than dismissal?

According to their statement of Standards and Ethics, "The core purpose of The New York Times is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information." Is The Times' decision to bypass coverage of the Child Victims Act enhancing society - or harming it by material omission?

Former public editor Margaret Sullivan, now media columnist at The Washington Post, excoriated The Times in January for its scant reporting on the drinking water emergency in Flint, Michigan. Ms. Sullivan wrote:

"If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the 'trending' list - but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally."

In the midst of our boiling-over outrage about sexual violence, wouldn't The Times want to be a powerful ally to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse?

Sidebar: On December 29, I spoke with Mrs. Sulzberger on the phone. I asked if she had seen The Times story about Mackey's relationship with Gafni. She said she had not seen it, and gave me permission to email it to her. Mrs. Sulzberger said she was vacationing with her family in South Africa, and told me I was interrupting their dinner. I wonder if she mentioned the story to Mr. Sulzberger when she returned to their dinner table.

Update, 6.22.16: Last week, New York State lawmakers killed the legislation and failed "to help child sex abuse survivors." I wonder if the outcome might have been different had The New York Times chosen to cover news related to the Child Victims Act.

Update 6.23.16: Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication, posted this comment on his Facebook page: "I think if a newsroom covers the opening of a store, but not the related protests, that's a valid point of criticism, and I don't have a problem with activists such as Nancy pointing out relationships that they think might explain questionable news judgment."

I encourage survivors, their supporters, and anyone who cares about the crusade to eradicate child sexual abuse and the culture of silence that fuels it, to inquire about The Times' non-coverage of the Child Victims Act, Whole Foods CEO's relationship with Marc Gafni, and appearance of a conflict of interest. Contact incoming public editor Elizabeth Spayd at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . (Please note: several people have told me they received a reply from the office of the public editor, saying their office doesn't address coverage issues. So you will need to ask the public editor to address The Times' "appearance of a conflict of interest.")