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January 1, 2006

Times Public Editor: Bill Keller Stonewalled Me

Let's remember, as we contemplate public editor Barney Calame's stinging Jan. 1 column, "Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence," that Bill Keller hired Calame and he's the only one who can fire him...

Let’s remember, as we contemplate public editor Barney Calame’s stinging Jan. 1 column, Behind the Eavesdropping Story, a Loud Silence, that Bill Keller hired Calame and he’s the only one who can fire him. (His term runs to May, 2007.)

This is relevant because Calame has called Keller’s decision-making “woefully inadequate,” while charging that both Keller and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. have “stonewalled” him. Also because Steve Lovelady, editor of CJR Daily, has already suggested that Calame’s position may be tenuous. “Keller and Sulzberger have finally run head on into an honest man who will not bend; and he has the balls to tell both of them that they have come up wanting,” said Lovelady in the comments to my previous post, “Iím Not Going to Talk About the Back Story.” He added: “I think it’s time to start speculating who will be the Times’s next public editor.”

Keller anticipated this situation in an exchange in 2003 with Geneva Overholser, former ombudsman of the Washington Post. (I wrote about it here.) Overholser had criticized the Times’ decision to allow Keller to hire and fire the public editor. It would not guarantee the same kind of independence the Post ombudsman had by virtue of having a contract with the publisher, she said. I am going to quote his reply at some length because it has renewed meaning now that Calame has challenged Keller on the refusal to answer 28 questions about the Dec. 15 article revealing warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. Here’s what Keller wrote in 2003:

First, I’m not so sure that the critical guarantee of independence lies in the nature of the contract. I can readily imagine an ombudsman supplied with all the contractual assurances of independence — long tenure, a dimissal-proof contract, a weekly column — who would still be timid in criticizing the paper, because of lack of self-confidence or a desire to preserve relationships with colleagues or an ingratiating personality. I can also imagine a person of integrity and uncompromising judgment who would be independent even knowing that I had the power to fire him or her. Indeed, I could argue that the latter situation confers GREATER, not lesser, leverage. I can render a tenured, “independent” ombudsmen ineffective simply by ignoring the advice, and who will really notice? But If I fire my supposedly less independent ombudsman, I’m inviting a whale of a scandal. My point is, the independence rests mainly in the character of the person who holds the job. And it will be most evident in how he or she performs the job.

Second, the only power I will assert over the ombudsman is the power to hire and fire. I won’t be prescribing procedures or deciding when to publish and when not. As I’ve just said, I fire such a person at my peril. But by hiring such a person, I bestow a declaration of trust and authority that should enable the ombudsman to influence the internal workings of the paper on behalf of readers. A person who has the executive editor’s blessing carries some weight in a newsroom. Michael Getler’s internal memos are incisive. Do they carry any weight? Or do editors and reporters treat them as an annoyance? I don’t know. As you say, the internal role is, if anything, more important than the external role. 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?

One thing jumps out at me from this statement: Keller’s observation that “the internal role is, if anything, more important than the external role.” Meaning the public editor, acting on behalf of readers, ought to be able to influence the workings of the paper, and not just criticize it. His views should carry some weight. Reflecting on the newsroom committee report that recommended the new positon after the Jayson Blair mess, he told Overholser: “They preferred that the ombudsman be first and foremost the readers’ advocate for changes in and by the paper rather than a columnist whose subject happens to be The Times.”

I guess we’ll see if Calame’s advocacy is effective and carries any weight, but it’s clear that Keller thought it should in 2003. Of course now that there’s a Justice Department investigation of the leaks that led to the wiretapping story, the Times may be even less inclined to go into what Keller called “the back story.”

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a dismissive, snooty column about those who wondered why the Times held the story for more than a year, and—in the absence of explanations from the Times—took to forming their own theories. Only people who are clueless and paranoid about newspaper journalism would wail about that, he said:

Bill Keller, the Times’ executive editor, responded to all this with a statement saying that “publication was not timed to the Iraqi election, the Patriot Act debate, Jim’s forthcoming book or any other event. We published the story when we did because after much hard work it was fully reported, checked and ready, and because after listening respectfully to the administration’s objections, we were convinced there was no good reason not to publish it.”

Now that isn’t going to satisfy anybody, unless of course they’ve ever been around investigative reporting or newspapers. It is in the nature of investigative reporters to believe in their work and push to get it in the paper yesterday. It’s the job of editors to caution, restrain, rethink, second guess and demand more… Nothing about this should surprise anyone ó unless he or she is already convinced that the country’s major newspapers are biased participants in some vast and amorphous conspiracy or his or her brain has gone soft from watching too many reruns of “All the President’s Men.”

“The New York Times deserves thanks and admiration for the service it has done the nation,” Rutten wrote, and I strongly agree with that. (The service continues too.) “Instead, it’s getting bipartisan abuse and another round of endless demands for explanations and ‘transparency.’” That was absurd and misleading. Absurd because “transparency” is a demand that Times has been making on itself for several years. (Again, see my prior post for the details.) As Calame wrote, “I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper’s repeated pledges of greater transparency.”

Rutten’s column was misleading because it suggested that no one with experience, no one in the Big Journalism club, no one who’s “been around investigative reporting or newspapers” would find Keller’s communication with readers lacking. This is simply untrue. Rutten knows it’s untrue because he reads Romenesko.

Among those who were discomforted by the Times unwillingness to adequately explain itself were former Times-men Alex Jones and Bill Kovach, and Tom Kunkel, dean of the J-school at University of Maryland and a former newspaper editor. (For more see Editor and Publisher and CJR Daily.) Now we can add Calame and his 40 years of newspaper experience to that list. Rutten has expressed his skepticism in the past about various transparency demands— a defensible position. But he refuses to acknowledge that this is a live debate among his peers. It’s just easier to pretend that clueless outsiders and know-nothing bloggers are the ones who want more transparency from the Times.

Influenced by Rutten, Jason Zengerle wrote in the New Republic’s blog, The Plank, that “if the Times and most other media outlets actually abided by Rosen’s transparency prescription, they wouldn’t be able to produce first-rate stories like the one about the NSA’s warrantless surveillance. Rather, they’d be spending all their time working on meta stories.”

He said that it was my lack of newsroom experience that permitted me to make such absurd and impractical suggestions. But here’s Calame (20 years as an editor for the Wall Street Journal) criticizing the Times for failing to live up to its own transparency prescription, which was the whole point of offering mine.

It’s a cliche to end columns with the phrase “stay tuned.” But in this case it’s apt. Reporter James Risen’s book was scheduled for publication mid-month. But it’s been moved up to Tuesday, Jan. 3, according to Calame. He ends his piece with this:

“If Mr. Risen’s book or anything else of substance should open any cracks in the stone wall surrounding the handling of the eavesdropping article, I will have my list of 28 questions (35 now, actually) ready to e-mail again to Mr. Keller.”

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

“Hey, Atrios: When was the last time that you exposed such a big story?” That’s Franklin Foer at the New Republic’s blog, The Plank. (MSB=The Mainstream Blogosphere)

Thanks to the MSB’s sweeping, reckless criticisms, the Times has lost much of the credibility and authority that it needs to mount a robust defense. For this, the bloggers deserve some credit. Well done, guys.

Atrios replies: “The Left wants to the press to do a better job, the Right wants to undercut their credibility.” And Foer has a response to that. Also see Armando at Daily Kos who says it’s possible to give praise and support and to criticize.

Michelle Malkin: “Hey, speaking of transparency, why doesn’t Mr. Calame publish his 35 questions so the rest of us can see what his bosses refuse to answer?”

Jeff Jarvis:

Times public editor Byran Calame writes his first almost-tough column taking The Times to task, properly, for not revealing why they did not reveal what they know about warrantless NSA spying ó and why they did reveal it when they did.

At TPM Cafe, see Larry Johnson (ex-CIA) on the difference between “officially-sanctioned” leaks and leaks of the whistle blower variety.

While the Bush White House is certain that those responsible for these leaks are political partisans hell bent on damaging the President, it is really a sign that folks on the inside with a conscience finally decided to speak out.

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit:

The Times’ behavior on this story, and the Plame story, has undermined the unwritten “National Security Constitution” regarding leaks and classified information. Since the Pentagon Papers, at least, the rule has been that papers could publish classified information in a whistleblowing mode, but that they would be sensitive to national security concerns. In return, the federal government would tread lightly in investigating where the leaks came from. But the politicization of the coverage, and the outright partisanship of the Times, has put paid to that arrangement. It’s not clear to me that the country is better served by the new arrangement, but unwritten constitutions require a lot of self-discipline on the part of the various players, and that sort of discipline is no longer to be found in America’s leadership circles.

For bloggers reactions to the leak investigation the Justice Department will undertake, see Joe Gandelman’s round-up.

Bill Quick: “I hope they drag every time reporter, editor, and administrator who had anything to do with this story before a grand jury and if they refuse to reveal their sources or other knowledge about the leaks, they clap them in jail until they do.”

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair compare the opening paragraph of the Times Dec. 15 story with this graph from a Seymour Hersh story in the Times 31 years ago: “it’s been a steady run down hill for the New York Times.”

The Central Intelligence Agency, directly violating its charter, conducted a massive, illegal domestic intelligence operation during the Nixon Administration against the antiwar movement and other dissident groups in the United States, according to well-placed Government sources.

Their point: Then the Times directly stated that the operation was illegal. Today, they say, it would never do that.

Andrew Sullivan:

Calame’s Public Editor column today seemed weak to me. The only place the NYT obviously scrwed up was in not disclosing Risen’s forthcoming book. But taking a year to verify an important story, and getting the right sources to firm it up, is good journalism. I find the notion that this somehow undermines national security a little odd. Do we really think al Qaeda members previousloy believed all their calls to the U.S. were free from any surveillance?

Calame added an entry at his web journal re-printing Keller’s two statements to the news media (made in lieu of answering questions.) “Given the paucity of comment from The Times about the article, I think readers might find these statements interesting,” he writes. He also directed readers to other commentary, including PressThink and Rutten.

Katharine Seelye, New York Times: Answering Back to the News Media, Using the Internet.

Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts - taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations - and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented…

I am quoted by Seelye thusly: “The printing of transcripts, e-mail messages and conversations, and the ability to pull up information from search engines like Google, have empowered those whom Jay Rosen, a blogger and journalism professor at New York University, calls ‘the people formerly known as the audience.’”

Bill Kovach, a senior statesman of newspaper journalism, former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, was asked how he would characterize 2005 in journalism:

The year was yet another in a string of bad years for a journalism of real value to a self-governing democracy. The New York Times and The Washington Post, two of the world’s great newspapers, lost a great deal of respect from their readers when senior reporters were seen to be more concerned with their access to people and institutions of power than to their readers, and senior editors at both papers seemed unable to manage their reporters.

Kovach says he reads “Instapundit, LA Observed, Buzz Machine, Power Line, Press Think, RealClear Politics, Daily Kos, The Volokh Conspiracy, etc., etc.”

L.A. blogger Patterico published his third annual review of the Los Angeles Times news coverage. The theme is liberal bias. “This yearís installment will cover familiar topics, such as general anti-Republican and pro-Democrat bias, culture wars issues, and media coverage.”

It’s a new blogging year! My five favorite PressThink posts of 2005:

Your nominations (posts or comment threads)?

Many, many thanks to everyone who participated in PressThink comment threads—especially the regulars—and everyone who lurked. People continue to tell me that the comments are what make this weblog totally distinctive on the Net, and I believe that. So cheers and here’s hoping for a year with more truth.

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 1, 2006 1:03 AM