That’ll fix it

Posted by lex, on January 3, 2007


Hands up who likes criticism – even the constructive kind?

But who thinks criticism – especially the constructive kind – is important to prevent stagnation, stultification and terminal self-satisfaction?

Not the New York Times, apparently.

After the Jayson Blair fiasco, the Times hired Dan Okrent as its “Public Editor,” essentially an ombudsman role. In that role, Okrent is chiefly remembered for answering the question, “Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper?” with, “Of course it is.” Even though he went on to say that it didn’t matter, Okrent was respected, but not much loved at the paper.

His replacement at Public Editor, one Byron Calame? Not even so much. A four decade veteran of the Wall Steet Journal before signing on with the Times, he earned the enmity of editor-in-chief Bill Keller by initially supporting, and then reconsidering his support, for the story outing the overseas SWIFT banking surveillance program: It turns out that Bush made him do it * – support the story that is. He rowed back away from it all by his lonesome.

Calame also wrote questions to the papers editor and publisher – Pinch Sulzberger – on their decision to publish the story about NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. Questions they declined to answer, being busy men the both of them. So we remain largely unilluminated on the decision process leading to publicly revealing a highly classified and admittedly effective tool against terrorism. I didn’t at the time agree with the paper’s decision to air these stories, and argued – vehemently – against it. I never argued however that they couldn’t have made these decisions or that they broke the law in doing so. Just that they shouldn’t have.

But there’s a profound difference between choosing to reveal inconvenient facts and making them up, or letting falsehoods go uncorrected. Recently the paper published a lurid and – for those of us living in the modern theocracy that is Amerika, cautionary tale – about a Salvadoran woman who had been sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime of aborting her pregnancy. Calame had the temerity to point out that this was not, strictly speaking, an entirely accurate representation of what had occurred. It was, em, actually untrue. Translations of the court documents and autopsy report – which the Times fact checkers couldn’t much be bothered with even after the story had been exposed – revealed that instead of an abortion, the woman had been found guilty of post-natal infanticide. Murder of a living, breathing child in any other language. Which would get you prison time even in Manhattan, if I’m not too much mistaken.

If you had anticipated that, faced with the realization that they had published such an inflamatory and grossly inaccurate story, the Paper of Record would swiftly follow up on their mistake by a issuing a prominent recantation – or even a brief note in the “corrections” page – you anticipate in vain.

Silly you.

So, say you’re the editor-in-chief of the New York Times and you’re faced with all of these intractable issues about editorial responsibility and journalistic accuracy. What do you do?

Well, you could always wait out the balance of the Public Editor’s term and then redefine the position:

The two-year term of the current public editor, Byron (Barney) Calame, will conclude in May. There may, or may not, be another.

“Over the next couple of months, as Barney’s term enters the home stretch, I’ll be taking soundings from the staff, talking it over with the masthead, and consulting with Arthur,” meaning publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., wrote Bill Keller, The Times’ executive editor, in an e-mail to The Observer.

Mr. Keller wrote in his e-mail that “some of my colleagues believe the greater accessibility afforded by features like ‘Talk to the Newsroom’ has diminished the need for an autonomous ombudsman, or at least has opened the way for a somewhat different definition of the job.”

Talk to the Newsroom” is a forum for reader questions. Some of which might even get answered. By the same people who made the initial journalistic and editorial decisions being questioned. So that might work.

The point here is not that the paper is biased, nor that people shouldn’t make mistakes – they’re human. The point that the New York Times is a still-important news organization with a well-earned reputation for greatness and a fundamentally critical role in the protection of the American democratic experiment. The paper’s reputation and its ability to carry out its responsibilities are damaged in the eyes of the public by blindly accepting advocacy reporting because the story is too good to fact-check. They are further damaged by editorial mulishness when faced with concrete evidence of organizational sloppiness.

Good organizations learn from their mistakes. Great organizations look at failure as an opportunity for self-examination, professional growth and ever-greater excellence. The Times is an American institution, and far too important to be sacrificed on the altar of editorial ego – theirs is not a sinecure, but a trusteeship. Both the paper and the people it serve deserve better.

** 09-21-20 – Original link gone; substitute found – Ed.

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Filed under Carroll LeFon, Lex, Media, Politics and Culture

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