Public editor praises the work of the Times!

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, 2013

This just in from the best of all possible worlds: A newspaper isn’t required to have a public editor.

Press criticism is everywhere now. You might say there’s no particular need for a public editor/ombudsman at a big newspaper. Indeed, the Washington Post has just eliminated the position.

That said, the New York Times does have a public editor. Although at this time, she only publishes two columns a month.

This morning, we were struck again by the oddness of her column.

Two weeks ago, Margaret Sullivan wrote an utterly silly column, answering utterly pointless questions from three New York Times readers. (Click here for our previous post.) Today, she uses her column to tell the world how brilliantly the Times performed in its coverage of the marathon bombing.

The Times didn’t make any major mistakes! This may seem like a small achievement, but Sullivan is running with it as he begins her new column.

She’s also boasting about the hardware the Times carted off last week:
SULLIVAN (4/21/13): The Times, it is safe to say, had a very good week. On Monday, it won four Pulitzer Prizes—the third most in its history and twice as many as any other news organization this year.

On Wednesday, it stayed on the safe side of “the Rubicon of inaccuracy”—in the words of Jill Abramson, the executive editor. That regrettable river was crossed, in a bizarre chain of events that was painful for any journalist to watch, by CNN, by the normally cautious Associated Press, and by many others who cited unnamed law enforcement sources.

The Times wisely sat tight and did not report, as the others did, that an arrest had been made or that a suspect was in custody in the deadly explosions at the Boston Marathon. And when the police did pinpoint the suspects in the bombing at week’s end, The Times was on top of the story quickly.
Unlike CNN and the AP, the New York Times did not report that an arrest had been made! For Sullivan, this is a major part of the way the Times “had a very good week.”

The New York Times didn’t make a gigantic reprting mistake! This may seem like a minor achievement. But as she continues, Sullivan continues to pile on the praise concerning this failure to fail:
SULLIVAN (continuing directly): I’ve been critical of The Times in many ways over the past eight months. It can be self-satisfied, too willing to circle the wagons, too ready to cooperate with the government. It made some bad factual mistakes in the breaking coverage of the Newtown massacre, and it sometimes chooses to ignore or underplay important subjects. I could go on.

But right now, let’s give credit where it is due. The Times proved itself worthy of its reputation as journalism’s gold standard and served its readers well by staying away from unconfirmed reports. Its reporting from Boston all week was fast, deep and accurate.

By contrast, for more than an hour on Wednesday afternoon, other news organizations took the bait. They excitedly reported an arrest, then they backed off, saying reports were conflicting, and made retractions. A one-word Twitter message from The Columbia Journalism Review summed up the mess: “Sigh.”
According to Sullivan, the Times is sometimes “self-satisfied.” She then proceeds to prove this point, saying the Times justified its reputation as journalism’s gold standard when it didn’t make a gigantic error last week.

From there, Sullivan interviews Abramson, the executive editor. The pair explore the source of the brilliance which kept the Times from making that gigantic reporting mistake.

A newspaper isn’t required to have a public editor. At the Times, the position has been scaled back of late.

That said, when a public editor’s columns get this foolish, it may be time to let the position go altogether. Sullivan’s last column was utterly silly. This column is an advertisement for the greatness of the newspaper she is supposed to critique.

Ombudsmen used to challenge the work of their newspapers. At the self-satisfied New York Times, is it time for this job to go?

The confluence of two events: We’re not saying that what follows involves inappropriate conduct. But still:
SULLIVAN: Beyond the facts, readers had other concerns about the Boston coverage. I heard from some who reasonably objected that The Times was sending e-mail alerts and Twitter messages about its Pulitzer Prizes at almost the same time it was sending notices about the grim news from the marathon.

It should be noted that the confluence of the two events was extraordinary. In the Times newsroom, hundreds of employees had gathered for the Pulitzer celebration just as the news of the Boston explosions was becoming known. The lengthy speeches went on as planned, even as other reporters and editors scrambled—right in the midst of the same crowded room—to start posting on the excellent live blog known as The Lede, to write an initial news article, and to dispatch reporters. The surreal scene in the newsroom was dissonant, but it didn’t keep the job from getting done.
Should those “lengthy” speeches have stopped? Not necessarily, no, although a major external event had occurred.

That said, nothing isn’t wonderful as Sullivan surveys the scene at the Times. Even as the paper continued to praise itself in lengthy speeches and short tweets, work began on “the excellent live blog known as The Lede!”

Public editors used to challenge their newspapers. Two days before the Boston bombing, the Times had published a lengthy column which offered a remarkably misleading picture of the state of our public schools.

Sullivan didn't mention that gruesome performance. In Sullivan's columnn, a brilliant newspaper was doing everything right, even as it delivered speeches about its own manifest brilliance.

Is Sullivan starting to sound a bit like Dr. Pangloss? This column seems to come live and direct from the best of all possible worlds.


  1. One problem with ombudsmen is that they're selected by the newspaper. A newspaper generally won't choose too harsh a critic. Nevertheless, I think the Times has had some pretty good public editors. Unfortunatley, the current incumbant happens to be a dud.

    1. Former ombudsman Daniel OKrent used to give them hell now and again.

    2. Memories are short...

    3. Thanks for that walk down memory lane, Hardindr.

      Okrent was fearless.

    4. Fearless, as in "often wrong but never in doubt" ? Okrent was a fraud.

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