“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.