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The Bush Paintings: Saltz and Smith as Hacker Flacks

Roberta Smith

Roberta Smith


Jerry Saltz










Where’s a culture editor when the NY Times really needs one?

Husband-and-wife art critics Jerry Saltz (NY Magazine) and Roberta Smith (NY Times) simultaneously got all excited about the fact that George W. Bush could actually paint a decent picture.

Saltz calls W’s paintings “‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways.” For Smith, they “might qualify as outsider art,” with “forms [that] are handled with care, but awkwardly, which is the source of their appeal.”

To the extent that you can judge a work from a digital image, they do look surprisingly accomplished and personally quirky (in a good way), making them legitimate subjects for art critics.

But in gushing over Bush, these arbiters of artistic standards have disregarded journalistic standards. As they both observed in their respective pieces, these images were believed to have been obtained by someone who hacked into Bush family computers and publicized not only the images, but also delicate personal information that the public has no need to know and no right to know.

Saltz, whose article included images of the paintings, certainly knows that publications need to get permission from the artist and/or copyright owner to reproduce artworks. There’s no credit line on those photos, and I strongly doubt that our 43rd President’s go-ahead was obtained.

But the more serious lapse was publishing links to outside articles that allowed readers easy access to Bush’s stolen personal information. Roberta directly linked to the offending article that published the hacker’s revelations; Jerry linked to a Gawker piece that linked to the same article.

Reputable news publications shouldn’t become a party to compounding a hacker’s crime by, in effect, disseminating stolen personal information, especially when there’s no benefit in the public’s having that information. I’m not the only one to think so. After my I tweeted my astonishment last Friday at this breach of journalistic ethics, I saw that Paul Farhi had written this on the same day for the Washington Post:

By the old rules of journalism, George W. Bush’s private e-mails to his family might never have been published or broadcast, certainly not without his permission. Most news organizations would have thought twice about publishing personal messages that were, in essence, stolen goods.

But that was then. The former president’s private communications and photos sent to family members went far and wide over the Internet on Friday after they were published by a Web site….Are there any standards left?

Saltz and Smith probably should have known better. But their editors definitely should have known better. On Jan. 28, the Romenesko media-news website published a memo from NY Times executive editor Jill Abramson, saying, “We will be naming a new culture editor in the next two weeks.” That would have been today. So far, nothing’s been announced.

I hope they’ll pick someone with strong cultural news-and-reviews credentials, rather than moving someone over from another editorial field. Whatever happens, high critical standards must always go hand-in-hand with high journalistic standards.

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