On its face, the argument advanced by a New York Times editor for the paper’s failure to dig deeper and deeper on the Flint, Mich., water crisis is compelling:
The Midwest is one of the busiest regions of the country in terms of news, from Ferguson to police shootings to political unrest in Chicago. If we had poured more of the valuable time of reporters into Flint, we would not have gotten other stories.
That’s the nub of the explanation offered by New York Times Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy when asked about the situation by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. As the ombudsperson explains, it’s not as if the New York Times did nothing on the crisis. In March 2015, for instance, the newspaper turned in a penetrating story on the water situation under the byline of Mitch Smith. It started with the story of 36-year-old Melissa Mays, who’d noticed creepy changes in the water and then herself: “[S]he started having rashes, and clumps of her hair fell out. When the city issued a boil order, she stopped using the water for drinking and cooking. Now her family spends roughly $400 a month on bottled water.”
After that, notes Sullivan, the Times failed to meet the public editor’s expectations. Sure, it did some work in October on the issue, but that wasn’t enough. “[T]here could have been, and should have been, much more. If — for example — the March article had been followed up with some serious digging, and if the resulting stories had been given prominent display, public officials might have been shamed into taking action long before they did.”
And as for the resource argument, well, let Margaret Sullivan tell you what she thinks about the resource argument:
After all, enough Times firepower somehow has been found to document Hillary Clinton’s every sneeze, Donald Trump’s latest bombast, and Marco Rubio’s shiny boots. There seem to be plenty of Times resources for such hit-seeking missives as “breadfacing,” or for the Magazine’s thorough exploration of buffalo plaid and “lumbersexuals.” And staff was available to produce this week’s dare-you-not-to-click video on the rising social movement known as “Free the Nipple.”
Does Sullivan point out that the New York Times has a newsroom staffing level of 1,300 people? Oh, yes, she does.
Public editors/ombudspeople/whatever exist to watchdog their own organizations, a terribly awkward professional setup. (The Washington Post used to have one.) We hear from them when an organization screws up in some high-profile fashion, as, for instance, when the New York Times last year messed up the story about the investigation referrals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s email during her tenure as secretary of state. Yet readers and the newspaper benefit more when the Sullivans of the world do what she did today — which is to focus on the journalism that their employer is not doing. Critiquing the omissions is always harder than critiquing the commissions.