Failures in seeking truth are inherent to the job of journalism. But now the Times has rid itself of a powerful tool for learning from its previous mistakes and, maybe, preventing the next one.
The compact a free press has with the public is based on two fundamental pillars: truth and trust. To earn the latter isn’t easy, however, because the former rarely just lies around in plain sight, waiting to be typed up and published.
That’s why journalism is, in all honesty, a frustrating profession of daily failure, of falling short—a telling of some of the truth, a few of the facts, as best as a reporter and editor know them. Right now. Or until tomorrow, when they will try to add more to the story. For a news organization to pretend otherwise is to build that foundation with the public upon rotten timbers that, sooner or later, will collapse.
To combat this, professional news organizations, including the New York Times, put systems in place to address their daily shortfalls in the pursuit of truth: They check facts. They vet sources. They consult experts. They edit copy. And, when necessary, they run corrections.
But these tactical measures are basic, and mostly granular in scale. What these systems are not well-designed to catch are broad strategic failures, ones where ingrained institutional biases and groupthink slip unseen into corporate media coverage and distort it for weeks, months, even years. Until you wake up one day to find your newsroom helped to launch a war based on phony WMD claims, missed the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, or enabled an incompetent, narcissistic xenophobe to become president. Those are the kinds of events that sink the public’s trust in the mass media to record lows.
Again, there are (more complicated) systems that can be put in place to help avoid these more massive shortfalls: Hire a more diverse staff. Crowdsource information. Break out of beat bubbles frequently. Watch what other, local and specialized news organizations are covering.
But there’s another, more accessible way to build trust with the public, to show that your news organization cares enough about what it does to question itself: Have an ombud. And in the aftermath of its notoriously flawed coverage of the Bush administration’s rush to invade Iraq, the New York Times felt compelled to create its own ombud position, the public editor, in 2003.
In an age of back-to-back buyouts and constant cost-cutting, however, investing a full-time salary in someone whose primary job is criticizing your coverage and broadcasting your newsroom’s inadequacy can be a tough sell in corporate media boardrooms. And yesterday, the Times seemingly succumbed to these same parochial concerns when it abruptly announced it would kill off its public editor. (The current occupant, Liz Spayd, has her last day tomorrow, June 2.)
This move by the Times is tragically short-sighted, though admittedly not uncommon. (As of next week, among major outlets, only NPR and ESPN will have full-fledged ombuds on staff.) But for media organizations that shape our country’s discourse, to have a staff ombud offered a strong signal that they accept, own and take responsibility for that daily failure to arrive at the whole truth. Or, as I noted in The Nation (5/7/13) after the Washington Post killed off its longtime ombud four years ago:
If yours is a newspaper or TV network with a national or international reach and especially if you have aspirations of charting the nation’s policymaking and political process, then the cost of employing one person who can offer honest, real-time feedback on your reportage is an investment in your reputation that, if done right, more than pays for itself.
In 2013, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth tried to justify her decision to kill off its ombud by claiming the role was an anachronism, “created decades ago for a different era.” Media critics inside and outside the paper, she said, “will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers.” And to demonstrate her ongoing commitment to listening to these voices, she replaced the paper’s ombud with a “reader’s representative,” a new position, but one that was effectively neutered from the outset by being embedded into the Post’s newsroom hierarchy.
Yesterday’s executive memo from Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. that axed his paper’s public editor sounded eerily the same. He trotted out ambiguous corporate-speak about the job having “outgrown that one office.” Sulzberger also tried to blunt the impact by creating a “reader’s center” to supposedly better listen to complaints. And just like Weymouth, Sulzberger disingenuously cited the paper’s readers and many followers on social media, “who collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.”
These are rationalizations, not legitimate rationales. Times may change and platforms may evolve, but reporting the truth—and the many challenges that accompany that task—remains as fundamental to journalism as it was when the Republic first started. There is no “outgrowing” the intrinsic value of critically interrogating one’s own press coverage. And while more reader-focused attention is welcome, those efforts rarely last through the next organizational restructuring, as the Post’s experience attests—it quietly killed off its “reader’s representative” after just eight months, which proved to be no great loss.
As for the let-1,000-media-critics-bloom argument, it too is a canard, as Spayd’s predecessor Margaret Sullivan pointed out. The fact that an ombud or public editor is empowered and paid by the news org gives it a unique advantage over even a horde of external critics, whom the masthead is free to ignore. “The one thing an ombud or public editor can almost always do is hold feet to the fire, and get a real answer out of management,” Sullivan noted on Twitter.
Sullivan’s tenure as Times public editor is noteworthy because, among the six to hold the job, she embodied the broadest spirit and most intrepid approach to its possibilities for making the paper sharper and the public wiser for it. She was commendably responsive to valid critiques (FAIR.org, 8/21/14) and took it upon herself to initiate others—and she got results (New York Times, 3/15/16).
Those public editors who came before and after her in the role were admittedly more of a mixed bag, sometimes open-minded (FAIR.org, 10/3/09), other times less so (FAIR.org, 6/10/04). The nadir, perhaps, was when Arthur Brisbane (1/12/12) used his platform to ask a shockingly obtuse question for a news organization: “Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?”—only to answer, essentially: maybe?
Sadly, the current public editor, Spayd, seemed to have regressed to the mean as well, with an approach that often veered between being a glorified customer-service rep and marketing consultant—that is, when she wasn’t whiffing on a major issue like the paper’s many blindspots in covering the 2016 election.
Despite the public editor’s uneven history, the Times and its readers were still unquestionably better served by its presence and its potential. To lose this position means both the paper and the public will suffer in the long run. Corporate media, now more than ever, can only recapture the public’s trust by bringing more transparency and accountability to those people and institutions in power. And yet these news organizations are increasingly uninterested in applying those same principles to themselves.