Overworked editor backslides: In late May, we swung into action. As always, we got you results!
At the New York Times, public editor Margaret Sullivan was turning into a cheerleader. When we noted this obvious fact, she authored two consecutive columns about substantive topics.
Sullivan’s hard-copy column only appears twice a month. But on June 2 and June 16, she tackled actual topics.
This morning, Sullivan backslides. Exhausted by two weeks of work, she seems to be saying, “No mas!”
Last Sunday, Sullivan offered no column. This week, she says she’s on a seasonal break.
Here’s how her column begins:
SULLIVAN (6/30/13): Taking a summertime break from the weighty issues of leaks, false balance and anonymous sources—to which I’m sure to return—I am again hanging out the public editor’s shingle. I will do my best here to answer what I call Perfectly Reasonable Questions from those who read The Times closely and with a critical eye.Is Sullivan taking “a summertime break?” We can’t say her statement is wrong.
Here’s the first of the Perfectly Reasonable Questions the public editor tackles today. She addresses three questions in all:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): Ira Stoll of Newton, Mass., a journalist who is a frequent Times critic, was one of many who wrote concerning an article in the Home section about a Brooklyn house owned by the musician Mike D of the Beastie Boys. The article included this sentence: “Mr. Diamond, who prefers not to give his age, now has two boys of his own, Davis, 10, and Skyler, 8, with his wife Tamra Davis, a filmmaker, who also prefers not to give her age.” Mr. Stoll noted: “Plenty of other people The Times writes about would prefer not to give their ages, but The Times either figures them out using public records and puts them in anyway, or just leaves them out rather than making a big fuss about it.” He wondered if this was a deal cut in exchange for being allowed in the house.How old is the musician Mike D? And why did the New York Times let him dodge the question?
We’ll have to agree with Sullivan’s assessment—this isn’t a weighty issue. She wastes our time with two paragraphs on this lighter-than-air concern, then addresses another Perfectly Reasonable Question.
This question concerns the rules for talking to baseball players:
SULLIVAN: Steven Schechter of Brooklyn complained about an article on Ryan Braun, who plays for the Milwaukee Brewers. “I was dismayed to see that the reporter, Tyler Kepner, discloses that he agreed to an interview that would only address baseball issues. Given that much of the article focuses on Braun’s alleged use of performance enhancing drugs, and a prior disputed test, it would have been enlightening to see questions directed at Braun. Is it typical or appropriate to agree to interviews where the interviewee sets conditions? That may be the norm with celebrities, but seems out of place in a news article, even one in the Sports section.”In our view, Sullivan's answer, via sports editor Stallman, makes perfect sense. That said, did we mention the fact that Braun is a baseball player?
In her final Q-and-A, Sullivan tackles a rumor a reader heard about a restaurant review:
SULLIVAN: Tom Mehnert of Somers, N.Y., wrote to ask about the practices for Times restaurant reviews: “I had always assumed that the reviewer went in unannounced, quietly had several meals over a few nights and then did a review.” But recently, he said, he wondered about the review of a restaurant in Westchester after hearing discussion in the community that the staff might have known of the reviewer’s plan to come. “Is the process to give the restaurant advance notice, thus giving them the opportunity to ‘show their best,’ or was this an aberration?”This reader heard a troubling rumor—we’re sorry, “a discussion in the community”—about a restaurant review. Sullivan answers his question this way—or rather, she fails to respond:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): Amy Virshup, who edits the Metropolitan section in which the review appeared, responded: “Just as with the reviews in the Dining section, our reviewers take pains not to identify themselves when they are reviewing.” A writer might call a chef or a restaurant for a feature article—“but never for a review.” Restaurants do get called to set up the photo shoot for the reviews, she said, but that doesn’t happen until after the reviewer has visited and formed his or her opinion.How about it? Did the staff of the restaurant in Westchester know of the critic’s plan to come?
I also asked the restaurant critic Pete Wells about his practices. He responded: “In a perfect world, restaurant critics would never be recognized and we’d get the same treatment as any other customer. In this world, that’s not always the case, but by reserving under another name we can at least keep the element of surprise on our side.”
Mr. Wells told me that this practice becomes habit after a while. “I’m never going to review my corner pizzeria, but I’ve given them a fake name when I’ve ordered a pie for my kids.”
The public editor doesn’t quite say. But then, she framed the reader’s question to concern policy only.
It’s reassuring to see that some Times readers have little of consequence on their minds. It’s disappointing when summer breezes affect Sullivan the same way.
Special bonus submission: If Mike D really is 48, isn’t it time to adapt the old Carol Leifer “Beach Boys” joke?
At the Times, when will the Beastie Boys finally become the Beastie Men? Inquiring minds among Times readers have a right to know.