Unethical Quote Of The Week: New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. [UPDATED and CORRECTED]

“Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

—-New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, announcing that the Times was eliminating its “public editor” and its public editor position.

The decision was bad enough, the disingenuous excuse was almost worse. Yes, by all means, the Times doesn’t need an independent, internal expert on journalism ethics to blow the whistle when the Times ignores its duties of competence, independence and objectivity and breaches its own ethics code: the overwhelmingly left-wing readers the Times panders too daily will keep it on the straight and narrow! Besides. why does the Times need an ethics cop now? After all, the public’s trust in the news media, of which the Times is supposed to be the role model, has never been higher!

Well, no, actually, the public’s trust in journalism has never been lower, and the New York Time’s blatant bias during the 2016 campaign and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election is one of the main reasons. Tell me: if an organization finds its public trust diminishing drastically, which act shows a sincere interest in addressing that distrust and reversing it…

A. Hiring an independent journalism ombudsperson who investigates instances of dubious journalism ethics and reports to the public in the paper, no matter what the results, entering criticism and recommending changes as needed, or

B. Eliminating the above position entirely?

The New York Times chose B. What this indicates is that the Times doesn’t care about the public trust, just its readers’ trust. It knows most of its current readership wants an aggressive progressive advocacy rag, not bold, objective and independent journalism. When a new less-progressive-than-usual op ed writer dared to suggest that critics of climate change orthodoxy be listened to respectfully, Times readers tried to get him fired.

To be fair, the Times public editors were often far from exemplary performers in their jobs. Before the immediate ex- , Liz Spayd, Margaret Sullivan had established a new low, admitting in a column that the Times had a “liberal bias” and culture, and found that such a bias was perfectly ethical. In 2015, she allowed herself to be captured by that bias and outran it, using her position to chastise  reporters for daring to suggest that the “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” narrative  in the Ferguson fiasco might not be as credible as the rest of the news media was making it out to be,  since it  relied entirely on a criminal and a friend of Brown’s.

Sullivan called the effort by Times reporters to keep premature judgment at bay by pointing out discrepancies in the testimony “dubious equivalency.” An ombudswoman who was charged with demanding  ethical reporting habits, Sullivan criticized the  paper for using them.  When Obama’s Justice Department that we know was dying to try Darren Wilson for murder had to admit thatevidence of a crime didn’t exist and “Hands up!” was a fabrication,  Sullivan apologized. She should have resigned, but despite proving herself to be a ridiculous excuse for a watchdog, she kept her job. I wrote,

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).

Is it unethical for me to say I told you so?

A correction of an injustice is due here. In the original version of this post, I stated, based on a bad and biased source, that Liz Spayd had been a “submissive sham.” That does not appear to be the case. Bias makes you stupid, and in this case it made me careless. I had been so disgusted by Sullivan’s complacency that I stopped reading the public editor column. Now that I have gone back and read some of her past evaluations of the Times, it is clear that she had brought new vigor, independence and ethical sensitivity to her job, and that this may have even been a reason, or the reason, her position was eliminated.

I owe her a post, and I also owe her an apology. I held her guilty by association; in truth, she was doing the job the Times desperately needed, and needs, someone to do. I botched this, and I am very sorry.

Also behind the Times’ reasoning in jettisoning its ethics cop was that the paper is in a struggle with the Washington Post to see which paper can manufacture the most anti-Trump stories from anonymous sources, rumors and gossip, and get credit for bringing down a presidency that its readers  overwhelmingly voted against.

The Times’ rival relieved itself of the ombudsman position four years ago, also after hiring the most complacent and complicit internal watchdog in its history, the pathetic Patrick B. Pexton. Pexton saw his job as a defender of bias and hackery, not a critic of it, and the Post, despite having become the first major U.S. paper to use ombudsmen (in  1970), like the Times today, got rid of him and his position. It also  claimed that its readers would keep it honest.


Observed Poynter, the journalism ethics institute, upon learning about the Times’ move: “The New York Times killed the public editor job just when it’s needed most”:

“No, New York Times! Not the public editor! Why, with trust in news organizations at an all-time low, would you cut the one position dedicated to holding your journalists to account in public.”

I must say, the Poynter piece is laughably naive, still evoking the thoroughly debunked image of the Times as a trustworthy news source. “In the face of wide efforts to decertify the media for political or ideological reasons, The New York Times stood above the fray, because it funded this unique position,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote, costing me a keyboard when I spit my coffee all over it. “Above the fray”? Has McBride read the Times since November 8? She probably has, and like sufficient numbers of Times readers, the paper’s biases align with her own, so they don’t seem like biases at all. She also writes that Margaret Sullivan did the job well.

Never mind; I’m sorry I quoted Poynter. But it is one of the external watchdogs that the Times says will easily replace its in-house ethics critic.

The Times is betting that the public doesn’t care about ethics, and they are probably right. It’s left-biased readers want the Times to be biased like they are, and the Times calculates that the segment of the public that regards the Times as biased just wants it to be biased in a different direction. Despite the decline in public trust, the Times readership is booming, a direct result of the anti-Trump feeding frenzy. It didn’t need a real ombudsperson getting in the way of a good thing, and anyway, the incompetent one they had just called attention to the Times’ insincerity.

My professional experience is that few organizations, and certainly not the public, really care about ethics. Both the Ethics Alarms posts linked about the Times and the Post’s ombudsman follies received a paltry number of comments by usual blog standards. The elimination of  serious internal policing of ethics in the news media is generally met with a shrug….which is another reason why news media thinks it can get away with it.


20 thoughts on “Unethical Quote Of The Week: New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. [UPDATED and CORRECTED]

  1. “Our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

    The NYT is bowing to mob rules not ethics; what could possibly go wrong with this.

    Watch out folks, mob ruled vigilantism is right around the corner and coming to a neighborhood near you.

  2. Jack, you and I have debated this point previously. We will all be better off when the American public finally understands what most of the rest of the world does – at least, that part of it that isn’t manipulated by monolithic state-controlled media.

    The press has NEVER been objective. Never will be. The NYT has had ONE fairly clear-thinking “public editor” since the position was created: Daniel Okrent, its first, who, in his last column, used this as his lede: “Is the New York Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is.”

    Okrent went on to explain how a successful newspaper reflects the values of its readers if it wants to survive. Good thing it was his last column, because he was pilloried by Times readers (and no small number of reporters) who would not, or could not, admit the truth he was speaking.

    The idea of an objective media is a lovely fantasy, and a uniquely American one. But it IS a fantasy. Reporters are hired by editors, and editors have their biases. In turn, junior editors serve at the pleasure of senior editors and – at least at the senior-most levels – those are hired or approved by publishers, and publishers have their own biases. They are, after all, human.

    Pinch Sulzberger is a man for whom I have little respect. He has grown up in a well-born bubble, presumably infused by noblesse oblige, surrounded by like-minded people. Despite the Times’s up-until-recently declining circ, he is wealthy beyond most peoples’ imaginations and, I suspect, feels guilty about it. Ultimately, it is his decision – directly, or handed down – as to who shall serve as the so-called “public editor.”

    Why should we be surprised by the people he selects? It’s his family’s legacy – and his fortune – that he protects by doing so.

    We might all wish he had the ethical bearing to select a good one. For many years, American media entrusted itself with being sufficiently wise, just and well-trained to avoid these human failings. But the market knows better. The Times has been tanking for years, and is seeing a glimmer of financial hope by bashing Trump. REcall MSNBC only became a lefty loony-bin when Keith Olberman went on the air and started racking ratings.

    This isn’t about truth. It never was. It’s about sales. And the news media is a BUSINESS. Always has been, and it always WILL do whatever it can to get the most ears and eyeballs, so it can attract advertisers – or, in the case of NPR, underwiters.

    Much of the rest of the world figured this out a long time ago. Media isn’t objective, anywhere – never was, never will be, and we’ll all be better off when the consumers of news understand this.

    The best we can do is to recognize this, seek numerous different sources on the same story, and make up our own minds.

    My guess is that it’ll be a decade or more before most of the nation understands this, and it’ll be a rough ride ‘twixt now and then.

    We’ll all be better off then, however. If we haven’t ripped each others’ lungs out in the interim.

    • Umm.. oops.. por favor.. could you fix the HTML tag to stop the italics after OBLIGE and delete this request? Much obliged.

    • Okrent was, as you say, a model for the role, and it is telling that the Times did not try to make sure his successors were equally tough and objective. Now, ethics watchdogs, such as they are, emulate Brian Stelter at CNN, who sees his job as covering for the news media, and fighting Trump’s defenders.

      • Not rising to the bait, Chris. What do YOU think they meant by ‘we are biased because… Trump!’ and ‘It is our journalistic responsibility to violate our standards because Trump cannot become/remain President?’

        • Well, they didn’t say that either. I am at a loss as to how you think those fake quotes help support your fake public statement.

          • Chris, we agree to disagree on this topic.

            I cannot understand how you can take an intentional abandoning of journalistic principles and guidelines and NOT see that the only way to do so is to lie to the public, either by commission or omission. They have been caught many times doing both, and the statement last summer was an admission that this is okay to lie to their readership.

            However, your worldview varies from mine. That is perfectly okay, as you were raised and live in a different society than I. Sometimes we cannot agree on basic facts because of disagreement on source validity, which means further discussion is fruitless.

  3. Well they are very stupid. There grows a silent majority who sees all this. Sheep will always follow and never question. That’s why they can be led to the slaughterhouse.

    People like you and others who are real powerful humans continue to do their work and the non sheep listen and we are open to question ourselves as well. Seeking truth does that.

    Don’t lose heart, Jack. We need you more than ever.

  4. Seems to me that what would be smart of a news outlet in this day and age would be to hire two people for this position: a respected liberal and a respected conservative. Then they could actually make a case for their neutrality and ethical reporting that both sides would have trouble arguing. And, contrary to popular belief, I think there’s a market place for that for both for people who are sick of the partisan choices and as a centrist source for both sides trying to make their points.

  5. Yes Emily. And the two watchdogs should respect each other. And moving further into fantasy land the two should be required to swap places occasionally and write each other’s copy, to demonstrate that they have been listening sufficiently to understand the opposing point of view.

    In my view the crucial sign of deep understanding is to be able to explain why not everyone agrees with you. They may all be mentally deficient or corrupt but it is somewhat unlikely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.