The Public Editor as Duffer
The dreadful Byron Calame.
Even the worst golfer strokes a par from time to time, and Calame's scorecard includes a couple. Although he grades Times coverage of the Duke lacrosse story as "decent" in his April 23 column, his actual breakdown of the stories is much more critical. Instead of signaling his judgment to readers, Calame hides behind the blank headline "Covering the Duke Lacrosse Team Case." His procedural about how the New York Times Book Review assigns books for review (Dec. 18, 2005) is informative, even if it does fret excessively in classic Calame fashion about "perception of a conflict of interest." His fine meditation on the Times' failures in covering its parent company (Dec. 4, 2005) reflects his previous job as a top Wall Street Journal editor.
The prime beneficiary of Calame's incompetence has been his predecessor as public editor, Daniel Okrent, who brought to the job the needed athleticism, pugnacity, and intellectual curiosity. A collection of Okrent's columns, Public Editor #1, appended with his afterthoughts, goes on sale next week. Thumbing through its pages, I was reminded that the job of ombudsman or public editor is wasted on an experienced newspaper journalist, who sees the task as 1) explaining how newspapers do their thing or 2) how the paper would look if he were executive editor. As a magazine and book guy who hadn't worked for a newspaper since he was in college, Okrent identified first and foremost with his readers. He also wasn't afraid to ask stupid questions of the newsroom in reporting his columns, because that's what newspaper reporters do, right?
Calame, on the other hand, struggles to ask the right questions because after a lifetime of newspapering he already knows all the answers. (He came to the Times after serving as the "conscience" of the Wall Street Journal, as the Timesstated in a news story about Calame's appointment as public editor.) Okrent's best columns encouraged readers to think through the problems posed by Times coverage. He wrote in an engaging magazine style and approached the job with the soul of a critic, not an ethicist. And he came to the job with a cherry picker, harvesting for himself some of the most interesting and conflict-filled topics: Is the Times a liberal newspaper?; the problem posed by reporters who blab on TV; Times coverage of Israel and Palestine; the paper's disregard for other papers' scoops; the proliferation of anonymous sources. Okrent wasn't perfect. But as I wrote and his book dust-jacket flap quotes, he was "100 times better than I expected." Nobody but an idiot would have wanted to follow his act.
Calame's bloodless performance convinces some (Timothy Noah for one) that the Times public editor slot should be scrapped. A generation ago, the job of beating the press fell to two journalism reviews, a few alternative newspaper columnists, and several hundred pressure groups. Today, says Noah, nobody who navigates to Romenesko or tours the blogs thinks of the press and the New York Times as underexamined institutions. Today's posse includes not only press critics but the Shorensteins, the Annenbergs, the Pews, the Neimans, the Brookings, the Projects for Excellence, the journalism schools, not to mention the ideologically motivated watchdogs (Media Matters, Media Research Center, FAIR).
But I argue in the affirmative. The public editor has given Times staff and Times readers—the two groups most invested in the institution—an opportunity to think about the paper from inside its pages. His prominent placement in the paper—and before millions of Times readers—forces the editor and publisher to listen to critical din they might otherwise evade. Even good bosses shut out criticism. So do bad ones, of course. Had Howell Raines installed a public editor, perhaps he could have prevented Jayson Blair. Maybe Judith Miller wouldn't have spun out of control or maybe the Raines newsroom wouldn't have exploded, costing him his job.
Even a bad public editor can do a little good, though he might not get a book out of it. Even Byron Calame.
Next on the horizon, the New York Times private editor? He would enter the Times building on a fake ID, float from section to section working from unoccupied desks, and file secret dispatches to me. Send resume, salary expectations, and rap sheet via e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)