New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane's stupid ideas on how to cover the press.

Media criticism.
April 25 2011 3:30 PM

Speak No Evil

Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane's stupid ideas on how to cover the press.

Arthur Brisbane. Click to expand image.
Public Editor Arthur Brisbane

New York Times Public Editor Arthur S. Brisbane advanced the flummoxing idea in his column yesterday that the Times should not diss or needle other news organizations, nor should its writers grill the competition in interviews.

The hook for Brisbane's press-criticism primer was last week's awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service to the Los Angeles Times. Brisbane found the "time of the achievement … interesting given how the Los Angeles Times was portrayed in the New York Times' article on Jan. 23—as a newspaper in steep decline with its audience turning away, and indeed the city itself on the bum."

What Brisbane seems to be getting at in his piece is that the New York Times was mistaken in January to characterize the Los Angeles Times as a newspaper in steep decline, because a couple of months later it won two Pulitzers. (The other prize was for the feature photography of Barbara Davidson.)

Only a muttonhead would insist that a couple of major journalistic awards instantly translate into editorial excellence for an entire daily newspaper. Awards such as the Pulitzer honor the work on the page, not the entire publication. So it's entirely possible for the Los Angeles Times to win Pulitzers without damaging the New York Times'perceived thesis that the Los Angeles Times is a newspaper in steep decline—which it is, as any regular Los Angeles Times reader can tell you.

Besides, journalistic awards are not horse races won against an objective clock or a high jump won against a yardstick. They're subjective honors, so subjective that they're almost arbitrary (and in the case of the Pulitzers, they're generally determined by committees). The Los Angeles Times could have just as easily been washed out of this year's Pulitzers. In fact, if you can convince me that the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer-winning work this year is superior to that of other finalists (Bloomberg News and the New York Times in public service and Todd Heisler and Greg Kahn in feature photography), you can have my job.

The "dissing" the New York Times allegedly gave the Los Angeles Times is only one of the examples of insulting behavior Brisbane collects. "In recent months, the Times has slipped a shiv into others on several occasions," he writes. His example? David Carr on the bundle Gannett is paying its top executives, the Times on Murdoch's phone-hacking scandal, Carr on the "bankrupt culture" at Tribune Co., the high-sticking interview of Arianna Huffington in the New York Times Magazine, and Bill Keller's swipe at the Huffington Post in the Times Magazine. (Disclosure: Carr is a friend of mine.)

I found all of these pieces essential to furthering my understanding of the press, especially the two Carr pieces and the Murdoch story, which I think helped restart the moribund investigation into the sleazy ways of Murdoch's U.K. newspapers.

Brisbane's take? "It's unseemly and makes the Times, which is viewed as journalism's top dog, look like a bully," he writes of these "shiv"-slipping pieces.

What would Brisbane prefer? That the Times view the Murdoch papers' conduct, the Gannett pay packages, and the frat-boy shenanigans at Tribune from the perspective of a guidance counselor? That the Times pussyfoot while composing its stories? Give me the bully treatment any day—even though I don't think any of the pieces cited by Brisbane comes remotely close to bullying. Or would Brisbane prefer that the Times recuse itself from covering all critical stories about the press and publish only positive ones? He hints in that direction in his praise of a recent upbeat article by Carr. Brisbane writes:

(For my money, I'd like to see more pieces like the one that Mr. Carr wrote a week later, describing the success that Michael Klingensmith, publisher of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is having in arresting that newspaper's steep decline. These days in the news industry, stories of innovation and recovery are at least as interesting as accounts of decline.)

Nobody deserves the lash more than publishers, editors, reporters, press critics, and public editors. The press corps may squeal bloody murder when tapped, but journalists are a lot tougher about taking criticism and fielding barbed questions than Brisbane suggests. Why? Because the same thing he accuses the Times of doing is what reporters and editors do every day to mayors, police chiefs, the clergy, Wall Street, scientists, captains of industry, foreign dignitaries, judges, teachers, athletes, fashion designers, jailers, revolutionaries, air-traffic controllers, bankers, bakers, firefighters, gurus, poets, inventors, economists, janitors, federal regulators, and others.

Ours is mostly a negative business: We exist to put our finger between the anvil and the falling hammer and come back to tell our audiences how much life hurts. If the dissing and shivving is too much for Brisbane, he should join Up With People.

Final note: Only in Brisbane's dreams is the New York Times so exalted that it must conduct itself in a more gentle and diplomatic fashion than the competition.

******

What was it that Michael Lacey used to say? "A newspaper is not a Montessori school." Send your aphorisms via email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and point your smartphone app to my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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