Epilogue—Who is the new public editor: Margaret Sullivan may turn out to be a superb New York Times public editor.
That said, we were puzzled by Sullivan’s first real column, the column which appeared in yesterday's paper. So were a bunch of Times readers.
In comments, those readers offered accurate gripes, from both the right and the left.
To her credit, Sullivan chose a very good topic—the issue of so-called false equivalence (false balance). In Sullivan’s words, “false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side.”
That was stated a bit unclearly, but you probably get the idea. Long ago, Paul Krugman described the problem a bit more colorfully. Just last year, he restated his famous complaint:
Some of us have long complained about the cult of ''balance,'' the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ''Views Differ on Shape of Planet.''
Fourteen months after Krugman's column appeared, Sullivan chose a very good topic for her first public editor piece. And not only that! Along the way, she made several good points about the problems involved in avoiding false balance. In this passage, she makes a good point about the types of demands partisans sometimes make:
SULLIVAN (9/16/12): You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from Daniel Patrick Moynihan...As quoted, Leonhardt’s remarks are a bit fuzzy (that may be Sullivan's fault). But Sullivan’s highlighted points are quite valid.
The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth. Editors and reporters say that is not always such an easy call. And sometimes readers who demand “just the facts” are really demanding their version of the facts.
“There’s a temptation to say there are objective facts and there are opinions, and we should only use objective facts,” said David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief. “But there’s a big spectrum. We have to make analytical judgments about the veracity of all kinds of things.”
In many cases, it isn’t easy to say what “the facts” actually are. Equally important: It isn’t always easy to say which of the various established facts should be included in a news report. That’s may be part of what Leonhardt meant or said in the longer remarks Sullivan excerpted.
Beyond that, partisans often want to see their version of “the facts.” In the heat of battle, they may not realize that their own idea of the “facts” may be a bit skewed.
Sullivan chose a very good topic; she made a few decent points. But uh-oh! In this, her maiden outing, the public editor went off the rails when she discussed a recent news report about which Times readers have complained. Beyond that, her logic and language were often quite fuzzy. This extended right to the end of her piece, at which point she authored a major, deeply unfortunate groaner.
Sullivan may turn out to be a great public editor. But yesterday’s column had us asking that question again:
Who the heck are these guys?
Sullivan’s effort went off the rails when she discussed the recent report about which readers complained. According to Sullivan, readers said that a front-page report in last Monday’s Times displayed a bit of false balance:
SULLIVAN: Readers are quick to cite examples. Several who wrote to me thought there was an element of false balance in a recent front-page article in The Times on the legal battles over allegations of voter fraud and vote suppression—hot topics that may affect the presidential race.Sullivan praised Bronner for having “made every effort to provide balance.” Since readers had complained about Bronner’s alleged false balance, this sounded somewhat strange.
In his article, which led last Monday’s paper, the national reporter Ethan Bronner made every effort to provide balance. Some readers say the piece, in so doing, wrongly suggested that there was enough voter fraud to justify strict voter identification requirements—rules that some Democrats believe amount to vote suppression. Ben Somberg of the Center for Progressive Reform said The Times itself had established in multiple stories that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
“I hope it’s not The Times’s policy to move this matter back into the ‘he said she said’ realm,” he wrote.
At any rate, the Times had published a front-page report about the nationwide drive to establish “voter ID” laws. Somberg complained that Bronner ignored the Times’ own recent reporting. According to Somberg (no relation), the Times had established, in multiple reports, that there was little evidence of voter fraud.
In Somberg’s view, Bronner should have cited this fact in his front-page report about voter ID. He suggested the Times might be sliding back toward the cult of false balance.
That was the complaint. The wheels came flying off the cart when Sullivan offered these reactions:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): The national editor, Sam Sifton, rejected the argument. “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides,” he said. One side says there’s not significant voter fraud; the other side says there’s not significant voter suppression.Good God! Sifton sounded like a high priest in the cult of false balance. Of course the Times should report what “each side” has said. The claim is that the Times should also include relevant facts about the validity of those claims.
“It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper,” Mr. Sifton said. “We need to state what each side says.”
Mr. Bronner agreed. “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other,” he said. “The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides, to lay it out.” While he agreed that there was “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” and that could have been included in this story, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.”
As quoted, Sifton sounded thoroughly clueless. As quoted, Bronner made matters worse. Sullivan quoted him saying that there is “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud.” But even after making this statement, he only said that this information could have been included in his lengthy front-page report.
Somewhat vaguely, Bronner was quoted saying that the lack of evidence of (in-person) voter fraud isn’t “the core issue.” Whatever that means, it may even be true. But isn’t it a highly relevant fact, whether it’s the “core issue” or not?
Many citizens will be kept from voting by these new voter-ID laws. Given that serious downside, should readers be told that these laws address a problem which can’t be shown to exist?
Inevitably, that’s a matter of judgment. But Sifton sounded like an apostle of false balance—and Bronner was said to agree with what Sifton said. And uh-oh!
At no point did the public editor express her view of these Timesmen’s remarks. Did Sullivan agree with Sifton’s view? There was no way to tell.
To appearances, Sullivan thought that Sifton’s remarks made all the sense in the world. She didn’t show the slightest sign of getting the smell of false balance.
In comments, many readers complained about the part of Sullivan’s column which dealt with Bronner’s front-page report. Quite correctly, others complained about the gigantic, world-class groaner with which came at the end of her piece.
It probably isn't what Sullivan meant. But this highlighted statement is a world-class groaner:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): It ought to go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects.Good God! That highlighted statement probably isn’t what Sullivan really meant. She probably meant something like this: Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what the relevant facts are.
The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership—and the democracy—will be.
But Sullivan clumsily chose to say that the Times should “help readers know what to believe.” Good God! Conservatives have been accusing the Times of that strategy since the dawn of time!
Sullivan’s work was fuzzy throughout. At the end, she emitted a major-league groaner—a groaner which will be repeated for years. In comments, conservatives rightly complained about that clumsy statement. Liberals rightly complained about her hear-no-false-balance reaction to the remarks of Sifton and Bronner.
What a debut for this new public editor! Who are these people, we found ourselves asking, after reading this very weak effort.
We’ll offer the answer we’ve given for years. Strange as it seems in a very large nation, these people just aren’t very sharp.
As we've long told you, our mainstream press is a D-plus elite! If you doubt that counterintuitive claim, just read yesterday’s column!
Visit our incomparable archives: Sullivan became editor of the Buffalo News in September 1999. Three months later, the News published one of the most appalling editorials in the whole of the mainstream press corps’ twenty-month war against Gore.
The press had established a very low bar. Sullivan’s editorial board managed to slither beneath it.
Everyone with a hand in that sad editorial should have been canned the very next day. In truth, these people just aren’t very sharp. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/11/12.