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From AJR,   June/July 2009  issue

Stay the Course   

The New York Times shouldn't even think about dropping its public editor position. Online Exclusive posted 8/5/09 3:25p.m.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

This one should be a no-brainer.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller tells the Los Angeles Times' James Rainey, "Whether a public editor should be a permanent, or at least continuing, fixture at The Times is a question much debated within our walls. I've kicked it down the road until we near the end of [Public Editor Clark Hoyt's] term next year."

There's little doubt as to the answer to that "much debated" question. It's "yes."

When disaster strikes, the best thing for an institution or person to do is learn from it and take steps to prevent a recurrence. That's what the Times did in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco. First it published a massive and merciless deconstruction of how the train went so far off the tracks. Then it created the position of public editor, known in some circles as an ombudsman.

These were huge steps forward for the Times, which up until that point hadn't been what you would call a pacesetter in the transparency movement.

The paper had long resisted naming an ombudsman. On occasion it would run Editors' Notes explaining how things had gone wrong, but these tended to be tortured, grudging affairs.

I was always struck by the contrast between the approaches of longtime Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie, who was always willing to answer any and all questions from AJR no matter how uncomfortable the topic, and former Times Executive Editor Howell Raines. Getting a comment from Raines was like arranging an interview with the pope.

All of this suggested an institution so imperious, so arrogant, that it didn't have to account for its actions to anyone.

The Blair reconstruction and the naming of a public editor seemed to herald a welcome 180-degree turn. Keller's mea culpa over his handling of the Judy Miller mess was another instance of the new openness.

The value of the public editor has been crystal clear in the aftermath of the error-ridden train wreck that was Alessandra Stanley's appreciation of Walter Cronkite. Public Editor Hoyt, who has done an estimable job in a tricky and often thankless position, wrote a detailed tick-tock reconstructing how the nation's best news organization could publish an article containing eight, count 'em eight, errors (and it nearly had more!).

Hoyt's piece had just the right tone. It was snark-free. It was heavily reported. It was devastating.

This kind of self-criticism sends a loud message to the public. It says we're big enough to face up to our mistakes. And it says we realize we owe you an explanation. That's particularly important at a time of widespread skepticism, not to say antagonism, toward the traditional media.

Several years ago a friend of mine, a diplomat, was teaching a course on the media at the National War College in Washington, D.C. He would ask me to come in each semester to explain step-by-step how a story makes its way into the paper. The officers in the course generally weren't huge fans of the MSM. But each class was both surprised and impressed by the amount of thought and discussion that goes into many news decisions.

It didn't necessarily make them agree with the outcomes. But the very fact that news outlets often weigh sensitive decisions so seriously changed the way they viewed the institutions. They had assumed news organizations were simply powerful behemoths that threw their weight around, doing whatever they wanted without worrying about the consequences.

A very small percentage of American newspapers have ever created the position of ombudsman. And in the brutal economic climate of the last few years, the ombudsman has seemed an endangered species, often ending up on the cutback list. For the Times to turn back the clock and scrap the public editor would be truly disheartening.

Here's hoping that Bill Keller does the right thing and avoids that unforced error.