Part 1—Public editor speaks: What kind of creatures are we?
In the United States, in 2013, we are remarkably dumb. Consider yesterday’s column by Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor.
In the hard-copy Times, Sullivan writes only two columns per month. In part for that reason, we were struck by the framework of yesterday’s column:
SULLIVAN (4/7/13): Although most of the mail that comes to the public editor’s office can be described as frustrated complaints (Misleading headline! Wrongheaded columnist! Enough about Brooklyn already!), there is a second category of correspondence. Let’s call it “perfectly reasonable questions.”We were very much struck by that framework.
Since the answers to those questions might interest readers other than those who wrote, I’ll use today’s column to give a few of them a wider audience.
As she started, Sullivan seemed to define two classes of inquiries to her office—“frustrated complaints” and “perfectly reasonable questions.” We were stuck by the types of inquiries she lumped into each group.
Sullivan seemed to deride those “frustrated complaints.” What sorts of inquiries did she have in mind? She described complaints about misleading headlines and about wrongheaded columnists.
Granted, a misleading headline can be in the eye of the beholder. It’s also true that readers will differ about which columnist may be “wrongheaded.”
And yet, with this opening framework, Sullivan seemed to bat away inquiries about the contents of her newspaper. And by the way:
In July 2008, Clark Hoyt wrote one of the most important public editor columns in the ten-year history of the position. In detailed prose, he savaged the wrongheadedness of the way Maureen Dowd had been belittling Hillary Clinton over a period of months during the Democratic primaries.
More specifically, he savaged Dowd for “assailing Clinton in gender-heavy terms in column after column.”
Had Dowd been trashing Candidate Clinton in gender-heavy terms? In June of that year, the Times had published a news report about the sexism aimed at Candidate Clinton by major journalists.
Hoyt now said that Columnist Dowd had been a large part of the problem:
“Dowd's columns about Clinton's campaign were so loaded with language painting her as a 50-foot woman with a suffocating embrace, a conniving film noir dame and a victim dependent on her husband that they could easily have been listed in that Times article on sexism, right along with the comments of Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Tucker Carlson or, for that matter, [William] Kristol,” Hoyt quite correctly judged.
Should readers of the New York Times complain about “wrongheaded columnists?” Sullivan seemed to deride such complaints. She didn’t even bother explaining what was wrong with such questions.
She then listed three examples of “perfectly reasonable questions.” Remarkably, this was the first:
SULLIVAN: Q. Fred Fejes of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who describes himself as a 40-year reader of The Times, writes: “I am trying to make sense of the digital editions, both on the Web and on my iPad. Having read the paper copy for so long, I am very used to the section and page arrangements. I also have a great deal of trust in the section and page editors, and headline writers (as well as the reporters), to give me the news that is important. I have a very good sense of how the paper edition is laid out, but what is the structure and logic of the digital layouts, and how do they correspond to the paper edition? Half seriously, is there a booklet on “How to Read the Digital Times”?Welcome to Moscow on the Hudson! Before posing his “perfectly reasonable question,” this reader praised the unmistakable greatness of the newspaper Sullivan is alleged to critique.
What counts as a “perfectly reasonable question?” In this case, the reader said that he has “a great deal of trust in” the editors of the New York Times, and in its reporters and its headline writere. He said he trusts them to give him the news that is important.
Having thus fawned to the newspaper’s greatness, the reader was permitted to voice his reasonable question. This reader says he is accustomed to the section and page arrangements of the hard-copy Times. But when he reads the Times on-line, he finds the lay-out confusing.
Can this possibly be the type of complaint Sullivan was hired to address? We’re glad this reader’s question got answered. But good God! Buried in Sullivan’s sprawling reply was this sad bit of copy:
SULLIVAN: For those who prefer the traditional presentation of the newspaper, the “Today’s Paper” tab at the top of the home page will be a useful guideIs that tab “a useful guide?” In fact, it’s an exact reproduction of the lay-out of the hard-copy paper! This reader said that he is comfortable with the hard-copy lay-out. He didn’t seem to know that this lay-out is reproduced every day for those who are reading on-line.
Can that possibly be the type of question Sullivan was hired to address? Her column appears only twice a month. Yesterday, she burned almost 40 percent of her copy on this fatuous point.
And sadly, the editor wasn’t done. In her second Q-and-A, a second remarkable problem arose:
SULLIVAN: Q. Mark Stokoe of Dayton, Ohio, asked about the way editorials now appear online, signed “By The Editorial Board.” “Does that mean that all the members of the board agreed with the editorial positions?” he asked. “Or just a majority? How does that work?”According to Rosenthal, research has shown that New York Times readers “don’t generally know what an editorial is.”
A. Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, says that using the byline, which began just last month, is an effort to help readers understand more about editorials.
“We did some research recently that showed us that people don’t generally know what an editorial is, or who writes them,” he said. (Editorials are opinion pieces that represent the view of the paper’s editorial board—Mr. Rosenthal and 17 other writers and editors—and The Times’s publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.)
“All editorials represent the views of the board as a group,” Mr. Rosenthal said, though some members of the board may disagree. “And I also take personal responsibility for them.” The digital byline functions as a link that takes readers to short profiles of the board members, which describe their areas of expertise.
Times readers “don’t know what an editorial is?” Sullivan made little attempt to explain that remarkable statement. Meanwhile, what else have Times readers been asking about? This was the third and final “reasonable question” this clownish column addressed:
SULLIVAN: Q. This one has come from many sources. Readers often ask whether their online comment, or their quote in an article, or even their wedding announcement, can be removed from the digital archive because it may be causing them embarrassment, difficulty in job hunting, or trouble of one sort or another.Sullivan went on to explain why readers can’t get their wedding announcements removed from the digital archive.
Let’s state the obvious: From reading this column, there is no way to evaluate the inquiries and complaints Times readers submit to Sullivan. It may be that she gets thousands of high-caliber complaints every week about serious matters of substance.
But yesterday’s column seemed to come from the far planet Fatuous. Perhaps unintentionally, Sullivan painted a portrait of dim-witted readers who seem to have very little on their minds. Meanwhile, her own taxonomy seemed to banish all complaints except the ones which are fatuous.
What kinds of creatures are we the people in this, the year 2013? All week long, we’ll address that seminal question as we head into our fourth semi-annual annual fund-raising drive.
Having said that, we will also say this:
Despite millenia of propaganda, we are simply not a bright people in this, the year 2013. That column in yesterday’s New York Times is an artifact from a distant land.
In that distant land, a group of highly unintelligent journalists ride herd on a large nation’s public discourse. That nation's discourse is failing quite badly.
In the land from which that column emerged, we the people are stunningly dumb.
Tomorrow: Regarding us the people