The Week That Was

No, The New York Times Should Not Bring Back the Public Editor

As previously designed, the position was more likely to set up the person in it for failure than success. That may have even been the point.

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One of the first things I learned when I joined the Columbia Journalism Review’s Public Editor project to write about The New York Times was that some people take the Public Editor title very, very seriously. So much so that I regularly had to fend off people who thought the stunt — designed to highlight the fact that very few news organizations have public editors anymore — was a kind of fraud to trick people into thinking that I was the Public Editor of The New York Times. (In fact, my fellow columnists, who covered MSNBC, CNN, and The Washington Post, were simply freelance writers trying to publish once a month.) That reaction, I think, was an outgrowth of the meme which regularly appears on Twitter whenever The Times does something that upsets people it ought to “bring back the Public Editor.” Some wise observers have recently suggested that restoring a Public Editor ought to be the top priority for incoming executive editor Joe Kahn. I disagree: The New York Times shouldn’t bring back a Public Editor, and, as previously designed, the position was more likely to set up the person in it for failure than success. That may have even been the point.

The Public Editor role at The Times is not an ancient tradition. For most of its 170-year history, The Times never had any kind of ombudsman, even as they became standard across American journalism. During the 14 years while the position existed, from 2003 to 2017, just six people served in the post. When people on Twitter say “bring back the Public Editor,” I think they’re most likely thinking of Margaret Sullivan, the fifth person in the job who, at three years, was the longest-tenured and by far the most successful Public Editor. Sullivan’s success in the position came despite, not because, of the structural deficiencies of the post. Go ahead, name another one. (No Googling!)

Sometimes I think people imagine the Public Editor as a kind of branch of government, replete with regulations, procedures, and a staff of investigators. In reality, the only explicit power The New York Times ever gave its Public Editor was a full-time paycheck and the right to publish in its pages. That’s no small thing, but, crucially, The Times retained the right to ignore its Public Editor. And, I’d argue, they mostly did so.

To me, the Public Editor of The New York Times always sounded like one of the loneliest and least pleasant jobs in journalism. The picture in my mind is an outsider to The Times (none of the Public Editors had ever worked at The Times before) badging through the lobby each day to ride an elevator up to an office where they had no real colleagues, no actual authority, and a job remit to antagonize everyone else in the building. Imagining the Public Editor carrying a tray into the Times cafeteria evokes memories of middle school.

The Public Editor post was created as an institutional face-saving measure in the wake of one of The Times’s dourest moments in 2003 following the Jayson Blair fabulism scandal, which deeply wounded its credibility and laid bare the messy politics of its newsroom. Creating a Public Editor was the top recommendation of a massive (and highly bureaucratic) effort to reassess the newsroom known as the Siegal Committee Report, completed six weeks after then-executive editor Howell Raines resigned. (The committee’s second recommendation was that The Times create a Standards Editor, which it did several weeks after the report was issued, appointing assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal, who had chaired the committee.)

In an introduction to the Times masthead’s response to the report, Bill Keller, who succeeded Raines as executive editor shortly before it was issued, rightly predicted that “The measure likely to attract the most attention is the creation of an ombudsman — the committee preferred the term ‘public editor.’” As the committee report first described it, “First, we recommend that The Times appoint a Public Editor — a person of unquestioned stature in our business who will devote full time (with suitable clerical support) to receiving, investigating and answering outsiders’ concerns about our coverage. The Public Editor would not participate in the regular business of our daily journalism, would not be a member of the masthead and would thus have no defensive stake in published copy.”

The first person appointed, Dan Okrent, was given an 18-month term. Gone was the Siegal Committee Report’s talk of the Public Editor acting as an internal auditor issuing memos calling for procedural reform and other policy changes at the paper. Instead, “the newspaper will make available a copy editor to review his work for technical issues like grammar and style.” Okrent, who previously had had a long career in magazines and was known in sports circles as a creator of Rotisserie League Baseball, had a well-regarded tenure — he published his collected columns in a book titled Public Editor #1 in 2006, which Harold Evans, reviewing it in The Times, called “easy to read.” But in the news story announcing his appointment, Times reporter Daniel J. Wakin, now an editor in the obits department, foreshadowed the fate of the Public Editor experiment: “‘It would probably gnaw at me to have a story of mine dissected and its pieces strewn about the newspaper I work for,’ Mr. Wakin said. But he said that his most important feedback would continue to come directly from his readers, sources and colleagues and that he would not do his job any differently.”

There is, of course, a valid point to the persistent calls for the reinstatement of The Times’s Public Editor. The organization’s institutional instincts are to turn away outside criticism, and for all its extraordinary explanatory powers, it remains largely unable to explain itself. But instead of calling on it to reinstate a toothless internal affairs officer, its critics ought to be thinking of better ways to achieve change. A modest proposal: Instead of hiring a Public Editor directly, The Times could endow a full-time reporting position at a publication like the Columbia Journalism Review, who would scrutinize The Times from the outside but with the institutional support of a publication not in a kind of internal exile. It would be a whole lot better than the view from the lonely lunch tray of its previous Public Editors. —G.S.