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.

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.

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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 slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.