Fat Steve's Blatherings

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"Confusion Worse Confounded"


      A new feature at Fat Steve's Blatherings!  I'll be doing a series of four daily posts reviewing the performance of the new "Public Editor" of The New York Times.

  • So far, he doesn't seem to understand what his job should be.

  • He thinks the process of how a story was written is important, when what readers object to is the content.

  • He doesn't understand what the readers object to.

  • Despite what he says about being the "reader's representative," he functions as a public relations man, making excuses for the Times.

At Length:

      One of the things that gets me about the MSM is it's divorce from its readers.  It doesn't seem to occur to them that their point of view just might be wrong.  Frequently, it doesn't occur to them that they have a point of view.  They're reporting THE TRUTH, and we should shut up and learn.

      Consider Byron Calame, the "public editor" at The New York Times.  Calame took over the job on June 5th, and has published four and a half columns since starting.  I intend to do a series of four posts about those pieces.

      Calame started with a column explaining his view of the job.  Look at his goals:
      . . . I hope to raise the blinds at The Times in some new ways to allow readers to get a clearer view inside the newsroom process.  Greater transparency, I believe, can help you as readers better understand the news judgments that shape each day's paper -- and hold The Times's news staff more accountable.

      In the months ahead, there are three new approaches to transparency that I'm especially keen to try in this space: (1) publishing stimulating and thoughtful e-mail messages and letters from readers -- with responses from the editors and reporters involved; (2) presenting question-and-answer interviews with key editors and round-table discussions with editors and reporters; and (3) occasionally offering commentary on two or three different topics, rather than one.

      My first commentary, posted there two weeks ago, questioned the Washington bureau's slowness in pursuing the significance of the so-called Downing Street memo on planning for the Iraq war.  (My Web journal can be found at nytimes.com/byroncalame.)

      These new approaches all flow from what I see as my three essential obligations to you, the readers:

      Making sure the concerns of readers and the public about the paper are heard -- and heeded when they are valid.

      Monitoring The Times's journalistic integrity -- which, for me, means accuracy and fairness in both reality and perception.

      Publicly assessing the newsroom's performance in these areas to enhance readers' understanding of the journalistic process and to remind editors and reporters to do their best.

      Now me, I don't care very much how a bad judgement was made, I want them not to be made in the first place.  Does Calame intend to keep the Times from making mistakes, letting bias infect its reporting, or telling outright lies?  I haven't the foggiest.

      What does he mean, when he says we readers will "hold The Times's news staff more accountable"?  Not a clue.  All we can do is complain, and stop reading.  All he seems to be able to do is ask questions of the news staff, then publicize his evaluations.  To me, that seems to imply that he criticize the paper, sometimes harshly.  I'll look ahead a bit and say he isn't doing that.  Instead, Calame seems to be concerned with making sure the concerns, defenses, and excuses of the Times are heard by the readers.  He seems to be, perhaps unconsciously, looking at his job as being a buffer, something that absorbs blows harmlessly, something that those who wish to make an impact have to bypass.  Is that how he wishes to go down, when the history of the Times public editors is written?  'Byron Calame was just a glorified flack for the paper' is not a legacy I'd want.

      Calame outlines his qualifications as he sees them:
      Given these obligations, what do I bring to the job?  The basic newsgathering process is something I know from bottom to top.  By the time I retired from The Journal last December, I had held jobs ranging from the lowliest reporting assignment to deputy managing editor.  In my last 12 years at The Journal, I had been responsible for quality control and ethics issues as well as overseeing the handling of readers' complaints and concerns. Having made almost all of the mistakes a newspaper reporter and editor can make -- and helped colleagues sort out their missteps over the past decade or so -- I think my sense of the mushy spots in daily journalism is pretty well developed.

      Where am I coming from in terms of my attitudes and perspectives on life and journalism?  Simply put, I would say The Times has a public editor with an instinctive affinity for the underdog and an enduring faith in a free press.

      My early life left me sensitive to the problems of ordinary people and focused on journalism's role in looking out for the less powerful and those who have been wronged.  The son of a Methodist minister, I spent all but a few months of my youth in southwest Missouri towns with populations ranging from 93 to 839.  When a local weekly published a contribution of mine at 13, I decided that I wanted to become a journalist.  At the Missouri School of Journalism, I was captured by the idea that the craft is one of public service -- with a crucial watchdog role in our democracy.  Four years as a naval officer, including a 1962 patrol operation in South Vietnam, left me convinced that powerful institutions merit the news media's watchful eye.  (Links to my biography and information about my personal affairs can be found on the Public Editor's Web Journal.)

      A few readers have already questioned how open-minded I can be as public editor, given the well-known conservative views of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.  Two points: The Journal's newsroom and editorial page are separated by a thick wall, and all of my years at the paper were spent on the news side.

      *SIGH*  In the first place, a representative presents his client's views, even if they conflict with his own.  I see nothing there to indicate that he intends to do that.  His entire biography reeks of liberal condescension.  And he hastens to assure us, without actually saying it, that he's a good liberal, just like all the other reporters.  (Of course if asked, he'd almost certainly deny being a liberal.  As with almost the other liberals in the newsmedia, he'd say he's politically in the middle of the road.  Yeah, and at 6'2", I'm average height.  It's just that 99% of the population is below average stature.)  'Oh no, don't worry, I don't agree with those nasty conservative editors at the WSJ.'

      Calame might be much better qualified for his job if he'd never been in the news field and was a ravenous political partisan who disagreed with the Times's editorial page almost every day.  That would bring a fresh viewpoint to the job, something that newspapers badly need.  At the least, the Times ought to hire me, someone from Daily Kos, and a libertarian blogger as additional public editors.

      But since he does have all this journalistic experience, he could put it to work.  When there is criticism of a story, he might compile all the complaints he could find, then go investigating the story, its accuracy, how it was produced, why people are angry about it, and what people have said since.  This would be major meta-journalism.  Again, we'll see he doesn't do that either.

      I'll close today's post with one thought: the default assumption of a "Public Editor" ought to be that the paper done wrong, and needed to be publicly chastised.  Otherwise, the position of public editor wouldn't be needed in the first place.



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