The public editor position at the New York Times is not surviving Liz Spayd. Having taken over from the highly regarded Margaret Sullivan in mid-2016, Spayd proceeded to issue dubious analyses of the New York Times sports coverage; of its approach to Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign; and of the tweets posted by its reporters. In one really dubious scene, she allowed Fox News host Tucker Carlson to blindside her — an experience that she and the Erik Wemple Blog have in common.
On Wednesday, the New York Times announced the end of the public editor position, which was created in 2003 in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. As reported by Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post, the official explanation as delivered in a staff memo from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. cites considerations far larger than Spayd’s work for the change: “The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office,” reads the Sulzberger memo. “Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.”
Toward that end, the New York Times has just announced the establishment of a “Reader Center,” an initiative anchored by staffer Hanna Ingber to harness the power of New York Times readers, as well as to “make sure that we are as transparent as possible in how we explain our coverage.” That approach doesn’t sound quite like a replacement for the public editor job, which, at its best, served as an internal-affairs division for the newspaper. During Sullivan’s term, for instance, she’d commonly interview several levels of staffers to get to the bottom of some screw-up. They couldn’t ignore her as easily as they could ignore exterior critics like the Erik Wemple Blog. “I could go back at them because I was there,” says Sullivan, now a Post media columnist, in a chat with this blog. “They couldn’t be done with me because I’d be, like, standing outside the glass door.”
Masthead masters at the New York Times, recalls Sullivan, generally appreciated the public editor’s mission. “I often felt that in a big-picture way that the criticism and commentary and chance to explain yourself, and even the notion of having accountability, was appreciated. It certainly was appreciated by staff as a whole, I thought. … People would stop me in the hallway or see me in the ladies’ room and say, ‘Keep holding our feet to the fire,'” says Sullivan.
And there’s the thing: The sort of institution that had a public editor to begin with is the sort of institution that may well not need one. Over six years of writing this blog, we’ve rarely had any difficulty getting decision-makers from the New York Times on the phone — whether they be reporters, mid-level editors or the bosses. They also routinely attend conferences where they are asked about the newsroom and its oddities. Their spokespeople — Eileen Murphy and Danielle Rhoades Ha — are insanely responsive.
With or without the public editor, the New York Times is a self-explanatory institution.
Contrast that setup to the world of television news. The main broadcast and cable networks all have platoons of very intelligent and hardworking PR agents whose jobs are to promote new programs, coordinate interviews with talent when new programs emerge, send out congratulatory releases about ratings victories, attempt to give off-the-record explanations when their networks commit an unseemly mistake and blast out par-baked statements to all media reporters when something gets really embarrassing. Some are certainly better than others; CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, for example, frequently gets grilled by reporters and his own staffers in ways that help to explain the network’s sensibilities.
By and large, however, television news needs public editors. How about a Fox News public editor exploring whether programming executives at the network have any input whatsoever on the pronouncements of conspiracy theorist Sean Hannity? How about a CNN public editor interviewing top talent on the contributions of Trumpite Jeffrey Lord? How about an MSNBC public editor on the boundaries between its daytime news coverage and its prime-time progressive tilt?
How about an ABC News public editor explaining how the network covers foreign affairs? Such a column would be of particular interest to the Erik Wemple Blog. Back in March, we asked ABC News for an interview with a staffer who was managing coverage of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Asia without a pool reporter aboard his plane. ABC News said no, for no good reason.
We get that all the time.