Eat The Press

barney calame nyt.jpg

from NYTimes.com (still)

Today comes the answer to the question that we've all been pondering: The Times will indeed continue to have a public editor once the sleep-inducing Barney Calame's term is up.

ETP editor Rachel Sklar* was very critical when there was talk that the public editor position might be eliminated. She made some compelling points, but I couldn't quite get behind the argument that the paper needed someone taking up prime, Sunday Times op-ed real estate prattling on about minutiae that are typically of very little interest to most readers.

Now Calame has, for the most part, been a bad public editor. There have been exceptions, but, as someone who's been in the newspaper business his whole life, he lacks the outsider's perspective that gave the writing of his predecessor, Daniel Okrent, some of its energy and curiosity. The thing is, though, that pretty much every ombudsman is both boring and ineffectual, and Calame is sort of the norm. Their colleagues view them suspiciously, and their readers are never quite able to view them as truly independent. (After all, the ombudsman's paycheck still comes from the publication he or she is criticizing, a fact that tends to be a rather simple way to explain why the criticism, when it occurs, tends not to be very aggressive.) Don't even get me started on Deborah Howell.

Usually the critics of ombudsmen pause here to argue that there have been a couple truly excellent ones -- Okrent and former Post ombudsman Michael Getler, in particular. In my opinion, Okrent was overrated, and his parting shot at Paul Krugman was both uninformed and unprofessional. His much-read piece on the (legitimate) question of whether the Times is "a liberal newspaper" seemed to boil down to the unexciting and thin claim that the news pages are too sympathetic to gay people. (Why he felt the need to drone on at such length about the op-ed page was beyond me. Everyone knows opinion pages are slanted.) I'll confess to having read little of Getler's work for the Post, but his pieces for PBS -- where he's working right now -- are painfully dull and verbose.

To the extent the Times needs to explain how its newspaper is run, it has its online "Talk to the Newsroom" feature, which is generally solid. A better model might be CBS's Public Eye, a blog devoted in large part to asking questions about the network's news stories, both on substance and process. If the Times generally wants criticism, well, it can find that sort of thing on any number of blogs.

But the best places to learn about newspapers and their operation tend to be, in fact, from other publications. Consider that the best investigative piece on the Times last year -- one that examined the path leading up to the paper's NSA surveillance story -- was published in New York magazine.** Michael Massing's work on the press, as well as the Times in particular, is the most incisive press criticism around, and he mixes it in with superb reporting.

We forget that there can -- and should -- be more of that sort of thing in newspapers themselves. There's a general tendency for media outlets, especially top newspapers, to pull their punches with respect to competitors (the exceptions here are tabloids, which tend to have great fun mocking their local competitors). Newspaper media coverage has generally become so business-oriented that papers seem to have lost sight of the fact that they can, you know, just report -- aggressively, in fact -- about what their competitors are doing and how well they're doing it.


*Rachel Sklar did not participate in the drafting or editing of this post. If ETP had an ombudsman, he'd probably be investigating this claim right about now.

**Post-publication update: A reader points out, rightly, that the New York piece by Joe Hagan owed a significant debt to the New York Observer and the work of Gabriel Sherman in breaking news about the NSA story week after week following its publication. I deeply regret the oversight in failing to credit Sherman's previous work, which was stellar, and am sure he'll do similarly great work once Portfolio is up and running. Here's hoping this doesn't delay the arrival of that hideous umbrella I'm supposed to get for subscribing.

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