The goal of The New York Times is to cover the news as impartially as possible,” reads the NYT’s own Standards and Ethics policy for its reporters. “Few writers need to be reminded that we seek and publish a response from anyone criticized in our pages. But when the criticism is serious, we have a special obligation to describe the scope of the accusation and let the subject respond in detail.  No subject should be taken by surprise when the paper appears, or feel that there was no chance to respond.”  

NYT’s Roni Caryn Rabin could use a refresher course on her employer’s own journalism standards.  Because nowhere in her recent 1,350+ word abomination on phthalates [The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese] does she honor her duty-bound responsibility to provide readers any substantive countervailing viewpoints that would have provided critical perspective on this important issue.  What’s more, she bases her entire report on a non-peer-reviewed disgrace of a study concocted by a team of agenda-driven special interests – one that would have absolutely no chance of being published by any credible scientific publication.

We’ll be specific:

The study, which Ms. Rabin blindly promotes, falsely expects readers to accept that exposure to phthalates – at any level – is toxic to humans.  That’s important, because the study’s authors were unable to detect the presence of phthalates in the foods they examined when using the widely accepted, and scientifically proven, parts-per-million standard. That’s why they had to reset their scopes and apply a parts-per-billion threshold – a standard that is universally rejected for determining toxicity, as it is 1,000 times beyond what the vast scientific community uses to assess it.

But that wasn’t enough to stop Ms. Rabin from inciting mass hysteria – and enhancing her own profile, too, with a click-bait story hardly worthy of NYT-level exposure. Such conduct raises serious questions with respect to her journalistic integrity.

That’s the kindest explanation for Ms. Rabin’s actions. Because another possibility is that she might have knowingly played a part in advancing the hidden motives of the groups that commissioned the flawed research.  The organizations behind this study have been petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for years to de-authorize all phthalates from the marketplace.  But their efforts have stalled over the past five months, largely because their arguments lack any and all credibility.

The release of this baseless study is an obvious attempt to reinvigorate this campaign.  And what better way to gain the attention of policy makers than by scaring the public, with an assist from a friendly puppet at the NYT.

Ms. Rabin will no doubt defend her decision to cover this unverified, unsubstantiated study. But she can’t justify her decision to exclude any substantive response from industry or academia challenging the study’s conclusions.

Prior to publication, the Flexible Vinyl Alliance put Ms. Rabin in touch with William Carroll, Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Indiana University, who spent over 30 years in the vinyl industry. Dr. Carroll spoke with Ms. Rabin at length, where he explained to her that exposure levels matter – and that extremely small exposure to phthalates are insignificant. But there’s no reference to this interview in her story.

(In fairness, Ms. Rabin’s article does indirectly cite an attorney who noted that phthalates are being phased out of foods.  It constitutes 37 words of her 1,372-word story.  A generous 2.6 percent of her entire article.)

Mr. Rabin denies readers any balance to the study’s claims – so they might decide, for themselves, whether the study could be trusted on the merits.  Instead, she gives a group of special interests an open microphone to push a set of distortions that even ninth grade chemistry students would find laughable.

We at Vinyl Verified are accustomed to confronting stories where reporters at least attempt to convey a modicum of objectivity when covering industry.  They typically bury a few corporate spokesperson quotes at the end, so they can check the box and claim industry’s side has been fairly represented.

But Ms. Rabin fails even that low expectation.

“It is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to ensure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns,” the NYT’s Standards and Ethics reporter policy states. “This means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.”  

This self-described commitment to upholding “the highest possible standards” compelled us to reach out to the paper’s Public Editor, Liz Spayd.  We wanted to point out Ms. Rabin’s indiscretions to the outlet’s internal police force – so that the paper would live up to its word, and hopefully take action and hold her publicly accountable.

But we discovered that Ms. Spayd was terminated last month, reportedly because others at the paper didn’t like her criticism of their coverage. And it seems the NYT has little interest in holding its reporters publicly accountable to its own standards anymore, because the paper announced that it has eliminated the Public Editor position altogether.

Without this last line of defense, it appears reporters like Ms. Rabin are now free and clear to erode reader confidence at will – and mislead them with impunity.