The New YorkTimes' dreadful public editor.

Media criticism.
May 9 2006 7:45 PM

The Public Editor as Duffer

The dreadful Byron Calame.

Byron Calame
Byron Calame

The cop who holds the precinct record for writing the most jaywalking citations. The high school assistant principal in charge of detention hall. The fusty badminton line judge. New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame tips his hat to tireless pedants everywhere on alternate Sundays when he publishes his column.

Calame possesses a mandate that would allow him to boil the journalistic ocean if he so desired, but he usually elects to merely warm a teapot for his readers and pour out thimblefuls of weak chamomile. Consider his May 7 contribution, which asks, "Where do the ideas for stories in the New York Times originate?"  

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Answer,1,400 words later: Most of the time editors and reporters generate non-breaking news stories. Sometimes flacks. Adopting as his muse the GS-9 Department of Agriculture staffer who composes weekly updates on the national Asian longhorn beetle eradication campaign, Calame writes this stirring finish:

Over all, the Times seems to have a fairly robust, ground-level-up idea-generation process that can, and does, yield added value for readers.

Calame applies similar methodology to his Jan. 29 column, which asked, "How does the New York Times go about fitting 'All the News That's Fit to Print' into the paper?" Taking his questions directly to the newsroom, he revealed a fairly robust, ground-level-up process at the Times for allocating space that yields added value for readers. What happens if there is a lot of late-breaking news? Sometimes the paper increases its size. How does the paper fit a big series into the paper? By cutting space from sections and building a space "bank." How does the paper determine the space given to weddings? It budgets 12 columns a week to weddings.

What does the Times staff think of its readers (Oct. 9, 2005)? asks another Calame internal investigation. His provocative findings: Times reporters and editors think their readers are "curious," "engaged," "unusually intelligent," "unpredictable," "sophisticated," "skeptical," and "well educated." Calame notices the proliferation of Times blogs (April 9) and largely approves, noting their "added value." His Feb. 12 piece examines the Times' failure to publish roll-call votes on major legislation or to point to the roll-call coverage online, and disapproves. These are public editor columns? They're not strong enough to run on the Washington Post's "KidsPost" page.

Evidence of Calame's dreadful news sense can be found in his inquiry into the ethical implications of the 88 discounts offered to New York Times Co. employees on an internal Web page (Feb. 26). As I wrote in this space, Calame doesn't realize that few of the Times Co. "deals" are very good, and if they are, they're available to anybody who can operate a computer and type Google.com. By column's end, Calame's best argument is that some of the discounts may cause an "appearance of a conflict of interest" that could damage the paper's credibility. The larger injury to the paper's credibility would come if readers knew its reporters were stupid enough to accept the lame "discounts" for Hyundais and other products.

Perhaps Calame spends so much time swinging his club in the weeds because he can't hit the ball when it's on the fairway.After the Times published its NSA surveillance series in December 2005, one of the most courageous acts of journalism in memory, Calame could have come at the issue from a dozen interesting directions. He could have read the story closely and praised its strengths, or damned its weaknesses, or attacked the Times for publishing it.

Instead, he uses most of his Jan. 1 column to pout about Executive Editor Bill Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s refusal to answer the 28 questions he submitted to them about the "decision-making" that went into publishing the stories. Like the most priggish bureaucrat ever to tote a briefcase, Calame wants to know more about the process! It doesn't seem to matter to him that the incredibly difficult story has turned out to be bulletproof and rock solid. He wants to nitpick Keller and Sulzberger for their "stonewalling" and lack of "transparency." Calame wants to know—among other things—why the Times didn't publish the story a year previously, when Risen advanced it, and whether James Risen's soon-to-be-published book forced the paper's hand.

Keller responded to Calame, "There is really no way to have a full discussion of the back story without talking about when and how we knew what we knew, and we can't do that." What he should have added was this: I'll tell you everything you want to know if you keep it a secret and you join me, Sulzberger, Risen, Eric Lichtblau, and everybody else who touched the story when a federal judge sends us to jail for refusing to answer grand-jury questions.

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