Paying the price for speaking truth to power

NY Times eliminates its “Public Editor” position

By Dave Andrusko

Elizabeth Spayd, outgoing New York Times Public Editor

Elizabeth Spayd, outgoing New York Times Public Editor

I remember a fleeting thought that crossed my mind when I read Elizabeth Spayd’s May 20 column for the New York Times–that what the Times calls its “Public Editor” may have burnt her last bridge.

She had praised the newspaper’s coverage of a particular story about the Trump Administration. Spayd went on to put that coverage in context:

Should the media engage in open opposition to the White House and take sides in a political battle? Or should it report aggressively but dispassionately in hopes of retaining credibility with the broadest audience?

Judging by much of the journalism The Times has produced since Trump took office, it would seem there is at least a preference for strict independence.

So far, so good. But, alas for her and for all of us who believe that all powerful institutions, including the media, need to be held accountable, Spayd went on to add

But sometimes there is a slide toward coverage that can be misperceived as rooting for Trump’s demise. In abundant amounts, for example, it has chronicled every tweet, mood shift and food fight in the Oval Office. Some of this coverage is necessary and justifiable. But when it arrives by the barrel on the home page and A1 it can start to look like a campaign.

The question is which approach is more effective — when The Times looks as if it has joined the resistance, or when it excavates facts without prejudice? In the legal system, it’s the difference between an investigator and a prosecutor.

Outsiders can’t know when the Times made its decision–the typical stint for the Public Editor (Ombudsman everywhere else) is two years. But the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that not only will Spayd not be returning for a second year, the position is being eliminated! She’ll leave Friday.

The ironies are as many as they are obvious. The same two media powerhouses–the New York Times and the Washington Post–who unmercifully criticize the Trump Administration 24/7 for among other “sins” its alleged lack of transparency, have eliminated internal checks that at least potentially can “speak truth to power” and keep staff and management on their best behavior.

In the least candid statement imaginable, Arthur Sulzberger, the Times publisher, wrote a staff memo yesterday after the Huffington Post broke the news. Here’s the core of the rationalization.

“There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers. A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary. The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers.”

Of course, if everybody is “accountable,” then, in reality, no one is accountable. Mighty convenient for the Times.

What about the Washington Post and its Ombudsman post? As Calderone noted,

Post editor Marty Baron justified ending the role in 2013 by pointing out that the paper receives plenty of criticism from “all quarters, instantly, in this Internet age.”

I mentioned at the beginning Spayd having “burnt her last bridge.” I mean by that this was just the latest example of her utter fearlessness. Her second column (which we wrote about here) was titled, “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal.”

From the perspective of the endlessly self-congratulatory Times, it was bad enough that Spayd illustrated why that opinion was held and why it was so richly deserved. Worse was she cut through the sophomoric rationalizations for the Times’ liberal–and in our case, pro-abortion–posture.

We’ve reposted Tim Graham’s fine column. I’d like to end with a quote from it and a quick additional word. Graham wrote (referring to Marty Baron after he eliminated the Ombudsman position)

Ironically, he hired former Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to do something in a sense entirely the opposite: to come out in favor of “full-throated” liberal bias, no matter what the readers want. Truth? Accuracy? Why, inconvenient information about Democrats is somehow twisted and “truth-averse”!

And this is 100% accurate. Sullivan not only makes no pretense at being even marginally even-handed. She is proud that she isn’t.

Sullivan is the perfect embodiment of the Post’s new self-delusional motto: “Democracy dies in Darkness.” Only the darkness is self-imposed and it applies to media heavyweights like the Post and the Times, the latter of whom tells us (with no sense of irony) “The truth is more important now than ever.”

The truth, in this case, is that the Times and the Post have joined the “Resistance”–and couldn’t be prouder or more biased or less transparent.

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