In some professions, an apology isn’t enough.
One such profession is accounting. Arthur Andersen couldn’t fix its reputation by apologizing. Its knee-deep involvement and likely complicity in the Enron debacle rendered its claim to trustworthiness permanently and irredeemable damaged. Its conduct made the company useless as a certifier of transparency and truth. For an accountant or auditor, if there is any doubt that he or she might not be telling the truth, the jig is up. One cannot trust a truth-teller who only is accurate and reliable most of the time.
I think the same applies to newspaper ombudspersons, if that’s the proper term now, and this is what Margaret Sullivan’s job as New York Times “public editor is,” euphemisms aside. She is supposed to bolster public trust by serving as an objective critic of Times reporters, columnists and editors, and ensuring that they hew to the high standards of professionalism and journalism ethics readers should be able to expect from the nation’s most respected newspaper.
Like the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, Sullivan has published a mea culpa for her joining on the “Darren Lewis is a white cop and Mike Brown was an unarmed black kid, so obviously the white cop gunned down the black kid in cold blood because that’s what white cops do and whites want to do” lynch mob last summer as it was being led by Eric Holder, the media, Al Sharpton and others. But unlike Capehart, who is an opinion columnist and can be forgiven a bit for being led by his biases, Sullivan job is to protect her colleagues from their biases and ensure that the Times at least tries to be objective and fair.
Last August, however, Sullivan chastised her paper for daring to suggest that the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” narrative just might have had a few problems, like the fact that it was created by a criminal and a friend of Brown’s. She called the effort by Times reporters to keep premature judgment at bay by pointing out discrepancies in the testimony “dubious equivalency.” Her job is to reinforce good and ethical reporting habits, and instead she knocked her paper for using them. In doing so, she exposed her own bias as a knee-jerk, progressive-allied, racialist, precisely the kind of orientation her position demands that she restrain.
Now she admits, because if a race-obsessed Justice Department that was dying to try Darren Wilson had to admit that the evidence of a crime doesn’t exist, then it must be true, that she was swept up in the MSNBC/Congressional Black Caucus “OK, we couldn’t get Zimmerman but a white cop is even better” feeding frenzy. And she’s sorry.
Well, I’m sorry that the Times has an unqualified public editor too, but there’s no getting around it. This was signature significance. When her paper most needed objectivity, perspective and balance, the employee hired to ensure these qualities rejected them. I’ll accept the apology, as should the Times, but that doesn’t mean that she’s suddenly trustworthy again. This embarrassing episode would not have occurred if Sullivan had the ability to stay emotionally and politically detached from the stories her paper covers. This is a lifeguard apologizing letting a swimmer drown because the lifeguard doesn’t swim very well. This a surgeon apologizing for a patient who died in brain surgery because the surgeon gets uncontrollable spasms. Sullivan has signaled her incompetence before, but this should clinch it (though, it won’t because the Times wouldn’t have hired her if it was serious about ethics).
Her apology doesn’t change the unavoidable conclusion: if you can’t rely on a paper’s ethics watchdog to be ethical, how can you trust the paper?