photo by John Wisniewski
The calendar says June, but the snowflakes are accumulating on the West Side of Manhattan – specifically in the newsroom of The New York Times.
Reporters, editors, columnists and pooh-bahs at that once-august institution evidently cannot withstand even the mildest heat applied by an in-house critic second-guessing the paper’s editorial decisions. Thus the Times no longer sees the need for its ombudsman (or, as the paper calls it, a “public editor”) and is eliminating the position.
Ombudsmen and public editors once played an important role in restoring trust at leading news outlets after serious breaches damaged credibility almost beyond repair. The first American news ombudsman was appointed in 1967, serving readers of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. The idea had existed in other institutions, such as government agencies and universities, since the early 19th century and had been applied to journalism in Japan as early as the 1920s. In the U.S., just a few decades ago an ombudsman was a crucial link between a news organization’s staff and the public it served, especially when something went badly awry in the newsroom.
At The Washington Post, the paper’s ombudsman was called upon to provide an accounting for a fabricated 1980 story about an 8-year-old heroin addict who never existed – a story which, most embarrassingly, won a Pulitzer Prize (which the paper later returned). Bill Green, who was the Post’s ombudsman at the time, became nationally known for writing “one of the most damning and thorough critiques of malfeasance in modern journalism” explaining how the Post came to run Cooke’s fabrication. Green’s 18,000-word story became a model for journalistic accountability.
Another scandal was responsible for the creation of the Times’ public editor position in 2003. Jayson Blair, a 27-year-old reporter for the paper, resigned as it became increasingly obvious he had engaged in widespread plagiarism and fabrication during his four-year tenure with the Times. In a lengthy post-mortem of the Blair debacle, the paper reported problems in 36 of the 73 articles Blair wrote on national reporting assignments, and many more in the articles he wrote prior.
“Every newspaper, like every bank and every police department, trusts its employees to uphold central principles, and the inquiry found that Mr. Blair repeatedly violated the cardinal tenet of journalism, which is simply truth,” the Times said. The report made clear that, while Blair’s audacity was unique, other Times employees shared blame for the communication and management failures that allowed his deception to go so long undiscovered. The paper’s two top editors stepped down as a result of the scandal. A few months later, the Times announced the appointment of its first public editor, Daniel Okrent.
Ombudsmen were hit hard by the economic realities ushered in by the internet age and the 2008 recession. In 2013, The Washington Post eliminated its ombudsman in favor of a “reader representative.” That year, the Organization of News Ombudsmen reported that about 20 of its members worked at American news outlets, about half as many as when the Times appointed its public editor in 2003. When news outlets looked to reduce headcount, it seems the ombudsman was an easy target.
Not that the remaining public editors or ombudsmen have done much to stop the decay, which has accelerated into collapse, of standards of journalistic fairness that were the industry norm 30 or 40 years ago. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post points out to readers that their staff is among the mere 6 percent of private-sector American workers who belong to labor unions. Nor has there been any serious attention to the lack of political or educational diversity in these newsrooms, or to the short shrift frequently given to right-of-center business or political viewpoints in their news columns. The Times’ current public editor, Liz Spayd, has garnered criticism even from other left-leaning news outlets. Will Oremus, writing for Slate, recently took Spayd to task for ignoring the structural biases shaping the newspaper’s coverage in favor of facile responses to reader emails, regardless of the particular complaints’ merit (or lack thereof).
Blatant hypocrisy is frequently not called to account, either. Within weeks of excoriating President Trump for reportedly revealing classified allied intelligence sources in discussing terrorist threats with the Russians, the Times published forensic photographs gathered by British investigators after the Manchester bomb blast, shared with and promptly leaked by American intelligence. Rather than point out the double standard, Spayd offered a mealy-mouthed justification for the decision, saying that the photos deserved to be published because nobody in the intelligence community asked the Times to withhold them.
But other than providing potential clues for would-be future bombers and alerting the parties involved in the Manchester atrocity to what authorities already knew, the photos offered no useful information to the public. Unlike other disclosures of classified material – for example, the leaks about domestic spying sourced to Edward Snowden – the photos told us nothing we didn’t already know about what happed in Manchester. The photos were not news, and their disclosure was not journalism; it was pure click-bait.
So ultimately, the loss of the public editor at The New York Times is not a very big deal – just not for the reasons the Times offered. The Times would have readers believe that standards of fairness and accuracy can be maintained via other avenues, such as reader comments and alternative news sources on social media. But what the decision actually means is that the standards that the public editor was supposed to uphold no longer apply, at least at The New York Times.
Margaret Sullivan, Spayd’s predecessor as the Times’ public editor, noted on Twitter that when functioning properly, a public editor can “hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management.” Reader comments and social media can’t replace that function, but evidence (including Sullivan’s own unimpressive tenure in the post) suggests that it has already been lost. As with much of American journalism today, the governing principle at the Times is: “All the news that fits our views.” The public editor was at best a minor impediment and at worst redundant.