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September 10, 2003

Flagship Turns : A Public Editor At the Times of New York

The ombudsman is here because the doctrine against it collapsed. But pride says the Times cannot copy the Post. What's Bill Keller to do?

The argument for why an ombudsman would never be needed at the New York Times went like this. Every editor should represent the interests of the reader. That’s what good editors do. No ombudsman.

Before you start poking at the logic, appreciate how long it stood and how well it served the authority of the Times. First ombudsman is 1967, Louisville Courier Journal. Thirty six years later, the New York Times agrees: maybe it’s a good idea. During those years, the paper prospered and its influence grew. Today it is the proud flagship of American journalism, and probably the strongest news franchise in the world. So they did alright editing the Times without an ombudsman.

It was the considered view of successive regimes that no one can represent the New York Times reader better than a New York Times editor. This includes the ombudsman who would waltz in and represent readers already well represented. But also: it is editors who should deal with serious complaints when their judgment goes awry, not some hired hand. No ombudsman.

This was elegant pressthink.

It also had a point to make about the key relationship in journalism: between editor and reporter. When that human transaction works, and the story gets sharper, it’s because the editor excelled at reading what the reporter wrote. (Reading with the Times Reader in mind.) In this sense, the editor is an ideal reader, representing the Times brand as it were, and by trying to please your editor you’re contributing to an ideal, what the Times would justifiably call its standards. Readers come to the Times for those standards. So this is not a trivial issue, who represents “the reader,” and when it gets done.

Yet the Times way of doing it solves some key problems in the simplest way possible: definition. By definition an ombudsman is the reader’s representative. By definition a good editor already does that. By definition the Times picks good editors. By definition no ombudsman needed. And by picking good editors, the editors reproduce themselves, so the argument was guaranteed into the future, as it were. (This can happen with problems solved by definition.) Only shocking evidence could have disturbed this system, enough to show that the editors’ oversight systematically failed— failed by definition, we might say.

Jason Blair provided only some of that. The Siegal committee confirmed it and elaborated, going well beyond Blair’s misdeeds to expose dubious practices that were allowed to become routine at the Times. This month, I wrote in CJR about the “toe touch,” leading to a phony out-of-town dateline. There were also deceptive bylines. Too many unnamed sources were allowed too much room, said the Siegal committee. These tricks may have “worked” for busy Times journalists, but it was impossible to say they served the interests of readers. More disturbing than Blair’s rogue behavior, which is hard to prevent, were small acts of deception that had become standard procedure.

Strangely, key editors were following different rules governing proper use of confidential sources. But no one could say where the rules came from. It turned out they didn’t exist. There was no codified Times policy, just the claim to be following one. It was the paper’s own standards maven, assistant managing editor Al Siegal, who presented these conclusions in his 58-page report. And that’s what toppled the edifice after 36 years. By the time the Siegal report was released everyone expected the paper to relent on the ombudsman. In July the official word came. The experimental position of “public editor” would be created by new boss Bill Keller, after Siegal and company recommended it.

Now the action (intellectually speaking) turns to how the position should operate. Geneva Overholser, former ombudsman at the Washington Post, former editor of the Des Moines Register, and a former Times-woman herself, argues for a Washington Post-style system, which has extra insulation. The ombudsman is an independent in-house critic, hired on a contract basis to eliminate salary negotiations. She does not report to the editor. She is given ready access to the publisher. She has a regular column in a visible place and she is guaranteed space when events warrant.

The Times has staked out a different position. The public editor will be hired for one year as an experiment, then evaluated. “A bad beginning,” Overholser says. There will be no regular column, but he can write for the Times whenever there’s a felt need. Overholser: “The ombudsman should write weekly (more if events call for it).” The public editor will report to Keller, who can hire and fire. Overholser disagrees: “A strong ombudsman (and they need all the strengthening they can get) is an independent contractor with no formal reporting relationship.” Critique of the press from inside is no picnic, she adds. “Journalists… don’t have thin skins, they have NO skins. If the Times wants its new ombudsmanship to amount to a hill of beans, it needs to amend the details before it begins.” Overholser’s experience makes this warning hard to discount.

Bill Keller, who will be hiring the first public editor, wrote her a revealing reply: “I don’t know that having a hard-writing ombudsman has significantly enhanced the Post’s credibility or accountability,” said Keller. “Maybe it has, but I’m hesitant to leap from my admiration for you and Michael Getler to the conclusion that the Post’s is the only right way to do this. Call it an occupational hazard, but I’m usually skeptical of assumptions that have so little reporting to back them up. I’d like to see for myself.” Thus, the one year trial period.

What really guarantees independence? Is it legal insulation from the politics of the newsroom, or does the politics itself offer protection? “I can render a tenured, ‘independent’ ombudsman’ ineffective simply by ignoring the advice, and who will really notice?” Keller wrote. “But if I fire my supposedly less independent ombudsman, I’m inviting a whale of a scandal.” Indeed. A contract grants independence; but the position also requires less tangible things like power, influence, gravitas. When the public editor has the clear support of the boss, (who could get rid of him but hasn’t) this “blessing carries some weight in a newsroom.” Keller’s theory: real power flows from moi, and who can say that he’s wrong? “Isn’t it possible that having a public editor who is appointed by me and has ready access to me may confer a greater ability to change our culture, to get us to live up to our own responsibilities to readers?” Yes, Bill Keller, possible. And I am glad you said change the culture. I wonder: will that change the news?

Three themes stand out for me:

1.) No one can understand this exchange without knowing that by definition, written in the minds of the people who run it, the New York Times does not sign on to innovations in journalism pioneered by others. Especially when they involve the Washington Post. So Keller says show me the evidence this thing even works. The Times pioneers when it is good and ready. (Like the op ed page introduced to journalism in 1970, according to local legend.) The rest of the press follows, if the rest of the press can. The Times does not do innovation under outside pressure. The likelihood of doing it the way the Post showed it should be done was, I think, zero at the start. The Times is hiring a “public editor,” not an ombudsman. The name change is a point of pride. Small maybe, but not necessarily a bad or petty thing. Rivalries at the high end are often good for journalism.

2.) But here we come upon an overlooked argument for why the Times should have made the decision long ago. By declining to develop an ombudsman, (the right way, the High Church’s more serious way, the we-have-the-smartest-people way) the editors deprived other journalists around America of their leading example. Now was this wise? Times-like? Understand the natural order of things in a New York Times universe. There’s the Sunday Book Review, the biggest and most influential, and then its thinner derivatives at the Post, and Los Angeles Times, down to the book page at the midwestern daily. That’s the flagship leading the fleet. From this angle, (institutional pride) it’s just unfortunate for the Times, for the public—and for journalism—that the newspaper didn’t claim a leadership position in testing and developing the public editor position from 1970 forward. We might be further along by now in press accountability if Times-pride—and all that talent—had gone into it. That course would have been equally Times-like. Alas, it contradicted pressthink within a particular priesthood. The original decision, Ombudsman Not Needed, was doctrinal, not empirical. Doctrine held for 36 years, then it blew up in 2003. Now it’s time for some hard evidence before we decide.

3.) The collegial argument between Post and Times suggests to me that the ghost of Watergate is in the house. More so at the Post, which makes sense. Back then, the natural order of things was reversed. The flagship of the press was parked in Washington and Ben Bradlee ran it for a while. The dramatic high point of the Nixon saga, as narrated by Big Jounalism, is the Saturday Night Massacre. The Attorney General, who has an ombudsman-like role in the government, is fired by Nixon in a classic abuse of political power. This is exactlly what the Post-style ombudsman is designed to prevent: a Saturday Night Massacre. The Post has been saying: learn the lesson of Elliot Richardson… fired. Keller of the Times is saying: look what happened to Nixon from that moment on… finished. These are two views of accountability, of newsroom politics, of Nixon, and of what happened on a dark Saturday night in the capital long ago.

If the New York Times says the public editor is only an experiment, that’s fine with me. I like experiments. And I hope Keller will report back to us in a year with his results. But it would have been an equally fine experiment in 1970.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 10, 2003 1:17 AM