It’s hardly surprising when someone fires back at a harsh critic of his or her employer’s competence and/or ethics. But when that someone is superstar New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and the return fire takes the form, in part, of “Fuck you,” it raises a few eyebrows — and makes you wonder about a broader hubris.

The exchange in question came yesterday at the Freedom to Connect conference, a gathering in suburban Washington where people discuss issues related to data networking and the information revolution. Friedman’s keynote talk was all about his latest book and touched on the conference theme only briefly during the Q&A.

He’d already dropped the F-bomb at the start of his talk (in a WTF mode) when he noticed the conference back-channel discussion scrolling by on a stage-monitor screen. Later, during the Q&A, he was asked to comment on a question posted there that challenged the Times’ credibility in a fairly general and nasty way.

He began, appropriately, by saying that yes, the paper makes mistakes. But then he offered what sounded like a more heart-felt response, the above-noted “fuck you,” winning applause from some but certainly not all or (by my estimate) even a majority of the audience.

Friedman had my sympathy in some ways. It’s hard to sit there and take abuse, even though pundits dish it out for a living to people who have thicker skins than all but a tiny minority of journalists. (I’ve fired back at some folks on my various blogs over the years, even ones written as part of newspaper gigs, but always remembered that there were lines I wouldn’t cross in that professional venue or, short of the most extreme provocation, in any situation.)

Yes, the question he’d been asked was shallow and accusatory — and yet absolutely reasonable in several key respects. The Times (I own stock in the company) is a great institution that does absolutely vital work. But it has had to answer, and not always persuasively, for its own grotesque lapses — not least, in recent history, the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals — and Friedman himself has hardly been a pundit whose pronouncements are infallible or, on some issues, even mostly correct in retrospect. His self-involvement isn’t off the charts, meanwhile, but it’s plainly strong.

So while understandable, his arrogant retort reflected more than merely the self-assurance of a pundit who’s won multiple Pulitzer prizes, has penned best-selling books and gives speeches around the globe promoting his viewpoints. It was entirely illustrative of his newspaper’s famous confidence, which more often than it should bleeds into hubris and outright arrogance.

Saying “Fuck you” didn’t make him more authoritative. It diminished him.

UPDATE: Friedman sent the following (very slightly edited) to a Freedom-to-Connect mail list, and gave me permission to repost it here:

To those who understood where I was coming from, thanks. To those who didn’t, thanks also. We should all learn from our critics.

I believe passionately in the New York Times, a place I have worked at my whole adult life. Lord knows, it has made its mistakes. Which newspaper or blogger hasn’t? But I believe that when it is at its best it plays a vitally important role in our democracy, and flippant, denigrating remarks about it, at a time when it is in economic peril and our country desperately needs serious journalism to sort through this crisis, struck me as deeply unserious.

That said, when I’m trying to make a point, especially a heartfelt one, and my choice of words ends up getting in the way of that point — even if for just one person — then I chose the wrong words. So thanks to all for a great discussion and a learning afternoon.

The Washington Post does an excellent story on torture during the Bush administration but, in the cowardly way that the paper has done all along, refuses to use the word “torture” forthrightly. It is not “harsh interrogation methods,” as the Post insists on saying, along with so many all other media organizations that are equally cowardly.

It is torture. Period.

In two weeks it’ll be 10 years since Andy Grove’s on-stage conversation at an annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in which he warned the industry of its impending financial meltdown. He wasn’t the first to warn, and hardly the last. But the degree to which he was ignored remains instructive, and sad.

Anyway, here’s what he said (excerpted from the transcript):

You’re where Intel was three years before the roof fell in on us. You’re heading toward a strategic inflection point, and three years from now, maybe, it’s going to be obvious. Things like newsprint giving you a little bit of a lift, a little bit of a hand, are going to run their course. You’re going to be in a profit squeeze, and it’s going to be a very, very difficult time, more difficult to adjust later. All of this sets up what to do. You have to ask what your microprocessor is in the Intel analogy. What is it that you can do for me as a reader that the Web pages or online coverage can’t do? I indicated what my preference is. I’m looking for depth. I’m looking for interpretation, and please don’t give me length instead of depth. A lot of magazine coverage does that. They think they’re deep when they give you a six-page article, and they’re just long.

From a publisher’s standpoint, there’s going to be huge push and pull. This requires more money at a time when margins are going to be under attack. Interpretation requires time and requires research and requires feet on the street, people on the phones calling, studying, going to the library, probably at a time when you’re financially being pulled in the other direction. And my history of the technology industry is you cannot save yourself out of a strategic inflection point. You can save yourself deeper into the morass that you’re heading to, but you can only invest your way out of it, and I really wonder how many people who are in charge of the business processes of journalism understand that.

Two notes:

1. ASNE asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt to keynote this year’s meeting.

2. I don’t know if he accepted, but the meeting was canceled.

Google TB.png

Google is pointing from its home page today to a page about World Tuberculosis Day and that, in turn, points to the Stop TB Partnership, a nonprofit organization. A worthy cause, and good for Google for pointing to it.

Consider the power of this endorsement. I suspect that with this single link, Google is channeling more money to the organizations that want to end TB than the sum of all their previous campaigns. This is power of a breathtaking kind.

Today, on Ada Lovelace Day, I’m supposed to write about a woman in technology. I’m breaking this rule a bit, to write about my mother. She was not a technologist, though she was certainly an avid user and early adopter of technology in her career as a film translator (subtitles and dubbing).

We grew up with the tools of her trade in the house: film projectors, editing systems and more. All this was before personal computers and the rest of the increasingly ubiquitous digital technologies arrived. There’s no question, however, that she would have instantly grasped the value of what came later and would have adopted it long before most others, because she understood how good tools help make good work.

But her influence on me, which has been powerful, has more to do with her other qualities. She laughed at limits, and frequently at rules. She was a perfectionist and a rebel, with a powerful and stubborn intellect.

Her subtitles were poetry when the film in its native language (or languages, as was often the case with European films) was poetic. They were hard prose when that was the tone of the original. Her faith to the director, and to the audience, was paramount.

She revolutionized dubbing in her day. She literally wiped away a movie’s soundtrack and then rebuilt it from scratch, adding voices, background and music to recreate the original in English, and with such precision that many American viewers, who’d been taught to disdain subtitles and properly disdained the crappy voiceovers that had passed for dubbing, didn’t realize they were watching a foreign film.

I can remember her spending several days on a single line of dialog, running a clip of film back and forth (and back and forth and back and forth…) in the Moviola (and later KEM) editing machine. She’d test one idea after another until she’d found a translation that was faithful to the meaning of the original and which an actor could speak in a way that would provide such accurate lip synchronization that the words would seem as though they’d been spoken in the native language.

I’m pretty tough on myself when it comes to getting things right. But I don’t begin to have that kind of persistence.

When I was playing music for a living, years before I went into journalism and tech, she visited the studio on Vermont where we were recording our first album. She was a musician herself, and must have been tempted to offer detailed advice. She didn’t. She offered, instead, her presence — and a jug of staggeringly smooth and powerful apple-based liquor she and a neighbor had distilled back in Woodstock, N.Y., where I’d spent much of my childhood. I suspect Ada Lovelace would have approved.