New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane will leave his position on Sept. 1 of this year, completing a two-year term as in-house watchdog for the paper. The departure means that Brisbane will not serve the one-year option on his contract, an extension to which both parties must agree. “I made the decision that I was going to do two years, not three,” says Brisbane, hastening to note that his bosses hadn’t asked him to. He reached the decision last fall, he says. New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy confirmed Brisbane’s assertions.
Brisbane will turn 62 just after his stint as public editor ends and says he wants to chill out a bit. Unless he writes something dramatic this summer, his time at the New York Times will be remembered for the viral piece he wrote on Jan. 12: Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? The Internet heaved and convulsed with long answers to this question, most of which could be summed up in two words: Um, yes. The furor over the item, Brisbane responded, misunderstood the question he was raising.
Executive Editor Jill Abramson, stung by the suggestion that the New York Times wasn’t already acting as a truth vigilante, sent Brisbane a note saying, among other things: “We do it every day, in a variety of ways.” The public editor also drew a pointed response from the newsroom last summer, when he criticized a New York Times project on the prospects for shale gas energy.
Making friends among editors and reporters, of course, is not the job of a public editor/ombudsperson. Al contrario, in fact: A good public ombudsperson should exchange nasty correspondence with top editors.
What they shouldn’t do, however, is quote other experts in reaching their informed judgments — that’s where this public editor drove me into private fits of insanity. Just this past weekend, in a column on whether the New York Times should have credited smaller papers that had done some good work on a topic that the Times addressed in bold fashion, Brisbane announced:
I polled four veteran journalists who specialize in ethics, and all agreed that The Times should have provided some form of credit for previous reporting.
Now there’s a headline for you: Media ethicists wag finger at news outlet.
A March 24 Brisbane piece cast judgment on a New York Times story titled “Firm Romney Founded Is Tied to Chinese Surveillance.” But that judgment didn’t come without an assist or several:
Because the issue, in my mind, concerned how the facts were handled and not the facts themselves, I sought out the views of seven veteran journalists and academics to test my judgment.
And then he proceeded to quote them in the column, sparking one of the few moments in my adult life when I dared think that my Sunday New York Times wasn’t justifying its price.
A public editor or ombusdperson is already an expert and therefore barred from quoting other experts. Plus, quoting experts is boring, and anyone can crowdsource them. Brisbane, though, makes no apologies: “A point of view is always strengthened by some reporting. A point of view articulated strictly as an opinion is weaker than a reported opinion,” he says.